Softening Up a Tough Neighborhood
When I call Erica Ford she has almost has no time to talk. She and her team of volunteer peacekeepers in South Jamaica, Queens, were hustling to stop a retaliation killing after a 14-year-old girl was shot over the weekend while riding the Q6 city bus.
“I’ve got some kids who were sitting next to this girl on the bus and now her brain and guts are on them,” says Ford. Senseless killings, incarceration and untimely deaths have been rampant here since the 80s crack epidemic.
The 14-year-old is just the latest victim in the long trauma of South Jamaica. The gunman fired up to 10 shots at the bus, debilitating it, and hitting Daja Robinson in the head. His motive was unclear, although some suspect gang violence.
Ford, founder of Life Camp, Peace is a Lifestyle, and now Hip Hop Yoga, has made it her life’s mission to offer alternatives to violence and retaliation. Now 48, she began losing friends and family in this part of Queens as a young woman.
These are the kind of urban communities, she says, that her projects serve: violent and saturated with fear, anger, and grief. Residents have lived with trauma for so long that it can seem like the norm. Ford’s lifelong mission has been to change that.
Life Camp, established in 2002, is Ford’s effort to keep neighborhood youth out of trouble, offering them alternatives such as peacekeeping and anger-management to the skills they otherwise learn on the dangerous streets.
In 2011, Deepak Chopra, following Ford on Twitter, began to support Life Camp. This included going out to South Jamaica once a month to lead meditation workshops with participants. Then, he brought on Astanga-yoga instructor, Eddie Stern, to the project.
Ford herself was open to yoga, having learned about it through her friend and South Jamaica native, Russell Simmons (also a Life Camp supporter). With Stern in the picture, some Life Camp participants began making the hour-plus trek from South Jamaica to Soho twice a week to learn yoga practices at Stern’s studio.
“It was different because it switched my atmosphere,” said Juquille “GQ” Johnstone, 19, of South Jamaica. “It took me out of my norm.”
“When I find myself going into a point of sadness or anger,” says Nayanda Fuller in the Urban Yogis video, “I meditate and think of the good times I had with them. It brings me to a place of happiness instead of to that place where I shut the world out.” Fuller lost her brother and her mother a few months apart.As well as learning asanas, students read short texts by such luminaries as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King on peaceful leadership.
“The important thing is that the young men and women who have been taking part in these classes are benefitting. They are finding something of value in the practice, and are bringing it into their communities. We want to teach the tools of yoga to people who might not otherwise have access to it -- tools by which people can find value in their lives and see their potential,” says Stern.
Stern’s classes had such a positive impact that there was talk of developing something that could be taken to schools, housing developments, or other community places in Queens. And so, Hip-Hop Yoga came into being. Stern goes out to Queens once a week, and Juquille, Tyrell and later other talented young musicians from South Jamaica write the hip-hop music for the practice. Ford would make the arrangements. Eventually, residents might take on teaching, too.
“These young men are popular. They also went through their own stuff and can be example for other young people in their transformation,” says Ford. Johnstone’s father died trying to stop a revenge killing in 1999 when Juquille was 6 years old.
Ford, who came up with the 80s rap music scene that included Simmons, as well as Tupac, and Salt-n-Peppa, knew that whatever is hot at the moment will draw young people—so yoga had to be that, too. “They don’t want to be a part of anything if it’s not cool and sexy.”
“We call it hip hop yoga because we are teaching it to a community that is deeply enmeshed in hip hop culture,” says Stern. “It's not for branding purposes, its because these young men are hip hop. Hip hop is a cultural movement -- it is music, art, poetry, politics, fashion and style -- not just playing rap music to yoga poses.”
Juquille and Tyrell’s music is relevant to local youth. It’s a way to draw a larger number of them in the yoga and meditation practices. “The music is definitely about the emotion first,” says Johnstone. “Then I connect it to the natural movement of the yoga. Afterwards, I add lyrics. But I just got into yoga so I’m still just learning.” Songs like Juquille’s “Sweet Meditation” contains lyrics such as the Gandhi-inspired, “be the change you want to see in the world.”
Hip-Hop Yoga in general is still in its early days, but all involved are hopeful about its impact.“Right now at stage of working the songs. We’re working on the whole public relations campaign so that young people want to be part of it,” says Ford “We’re at the seed stage. Currently Eddie Stern is the only yoga teacher. But it’s a beginning.
“Teaching young people in South Jamaica, Queens, was very gratifying because the change I saw in the youth was immediate and dramatic,” says Chopra. “I learned that no matter how dismal someone’s life is they respond when you are authentically interested in them, their story, and have a desire to be helpful.”