“Have you ever been taken into custody?” asked Juquille Johnston, 22, a teacher based out of Brooklyn Yoga Club. Sporting a razor-sharp goatee, he made direct eye contact with me at
the center’s cozy kitchen table, topped with lesson plans and a pitcher of lemonade.
“No,” I answered, my hair tingling. As a white woman, I had a mostly positive attitude toward the NYPD. But I had never been tested like my new young friend who was 6 when his father was shot to death.
A resident of South-Side Jamaica, Queens, Johnston is a member of the first graduating class of Urban Yogis, a core group of five who grew up in or near the Baisley Park Houses. The area could be described as “one of the most most notorious drug-infested areas of New York,” according to local activist Erica Ford, who founded a job readiness program called LIFE Camp. Guided by Ford, Eddie Stern, and Deepak Chopra, Urban Yogis use Ashtanga to promote forgiveness and peace.
“We address violence as a contagious disease,” Ford said. “Like with any health issue, we aim to cure ourselves. As opposed to being locked up, we listen to other people and change cultural norms with love and compassion.”
Urban Yogis now consists of 40 yoga and meditation practitioners. Often, they come from trauma backgrounds and patterns of abuse. Law enforcement usually fails to break the cycles.
Johnston and his four colleagues -- ages 22 through 29 -- each have stories of police intimidation and “under-the-table laws” in the 113th Precinct. “We’ve all been in custody, no misdemeanors or anything serious, but small things, like jaywalking or loitering in our own building,” Johnston said. His fellow Urban Yogis -- Tyrell Carter, Jaytaun McMillan, Makeesha Hill, and Raheem Lewis, nodded in unison.
“There are no relationships between us and the cops,” said Lewis, 22. Lewis had coached me through the half primary series, part of Brooklyn Yoga Club’s regular schedule. “The cops
will drive by and say, ‘Hey, Mr. Raheem. How was court?’ They use their middle fingers at us.”
“If I wanted to go see Juquille, I could get arrested for trespassing because I don’t have an ID for his building, even though I live in the same complex,” McMillan said.
With surveillance cameras, confusing curfews, and restrictions on recreation, they compared Baisley to prison. “It is the projects,” explained Hill, a jazz-voiced dancer who wore billowy
pants and a ballerina’s bun.
I wondered why such polished and charismatic yogis would want to stay in such an unwelcoming environment. Here’s where I missed the point. “We’re like family,” Carter explained. “Our parents’ parents are friends.”
Johnston said they are proud of their home. He envisions revitalization. “I want to take my neighborhood back,” he said. “I want to see people working in their own businesses: juice bars, gyms, yoga studios, dance studios, sports teams. These are the things we’re missing. And no more police brutality.”
I asked to see their current project: curriculum for an eight-week series for public schools and community settings. In addition to the Ashtanga half primary series, class plans included exercises for emotional health and a S.T.O.P. exercise developed by Chopra. Instead of punching someone in a moment of fury, the S.T.O.P. technique asks participants to “S”top what they’re doing, “T”ake a few breaths, “O”bserve your body, and “P”roceed with kindness and compassion.
Urban Yogis love Chopra, describing him as intellectual and funny with a knowledge of hip hop. “Deepak has a good eye for fashion,” said Lewis, dressed in sleek black sports gear. “Eddie Stern is another fly guy,” added McMillan, who rocked a flattop haircut. As devotees of music and athletics, they said appearance means a lot. When kids in Queens see well-dressed men and women, they witness successful adults who don’t deal drugs or succumb to abuse.
Johnston was the first Urban Yogi. As a participant in LIFE Camp, he followed Ford’s instructions to Broome Street Temple, Stern’s former studio. To his surprise, Johnston found himself doing yoga with Stern himself -- and liking it. After great experiences, Johnson thought, “Why not bring my friends?”
Now full-fledged teachers versed in asana, philosophy and Sanskrit, they admitted that yoga is perceived as rich, white, and feminine. “People have told me, ‘You do yoga? That’s gay,’” Johnston said. “But I know of someone in prison who does yoga and meditation. So how gay can it be?”
“I guess we’re changing the idea of it who yoga’s for,” said McMillan, who wants to establish Urban Yogi programs all over the globe. “From South-Side Jamaica, Queens to South Africa,” Carter chimed in. “We’re talking worldwide!” Johnston exclaimed.
The Urban Yogis in this story take turns teaching the half primary series each Monday and Friday from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Brooklyn Yoga Club.