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Author: Melanie Klein
Welcome to the sixth interview in the Gaiam/Yoga and Body Image Coalition “Yoga for Men/Men in Yoga” series. It’s our pleasure to introduce readers to the ever inspiring Arjuna O’Neal. Arjuna is the founder of Share Necessities – a nonprofit organization committed to teach and inspire underprivileged and at-risk youth through mindfulness, yoga, wellness, and social-responsibility practices.
Arjuna, originally from Detroit, Michigan, is one that can attest to the dynamic healing power of yoga. Through the community in Venice, Arjuna was introduced to yoga asana at Exhale: The Center for Sacred Movement (which recently closed after 12+ years of operation). His first experience with yoga asana was, as it is for many new to the practice, a “game changer.”
“As a fatal gunshot survivor, who had been paralyzed for a year, I found peace and healing in asana more than a decade later. I’d experienced endless complications from my injuries, and the climate as well as the negative environment in Detroit only exacerbated those complications. My doctor recommended that I find a dry, warm, climate that would allow me to heal physically, which is why I decided to come to Venice, CA. Upon my relocation, I found myself homeless, but was kindly received by the Rose Temple in Venice who provided me shelter. Given my background growing up in the Hare Krishna faith, I was aware of yoga from a spiritual and mindfulness perspective, self-inquiry and knowing your higher self. But I had never experienced the physical practice prior to arriving to California and taking classes with Shiva Rea at Exhale. I had access to a part of my being that I had not experienced before and I was fascinated in exploring that.”
And that first physical practice led to a journey of experiencing the body in a brand new way, opening up new ways of seeing, feeling and being. For Arjuna, that led to a full integration of mind, body and spirit.
“It's amazing how we can get up every day and use our bodies yet not really be conscious of our entire potentiality. Most of us just focus on the physical components. But when I got on that mat and starting breathing in synchronicity with each movement, I started to access and feel different parts of my being. As an adolescent on the streets, I was raised to disconnect from my emotions as a survival mechanism. I was surrounded by crime and violence daily. It was the opposite of what I found through yoga which is the embodiment of love, self-love and loving others. I mean, I felt like I struck gold when I found yoga! Yoga gave me a deep thirst and hunger to continue on this journey. The other option was to continue living on autopilot and I could no longer accept that option. I enjoyed feeling good in my body. And when you feel good, you can help others feel good. And that’s what I wanted to do.”
Arjuna, from this newfound place of feeling and being conscious, aware and present, was compelled to share the practice and positive results with those that need it most.
“This new introspective mindset and awareness put me in the front seat of the vehicle that drives us back home to the Higher Self - that eternal love and internal bliss. This practice has allowed me to experience my complete self. That limitless happiness and joy, eventually, inspired me to share with others. When I go back home to visit the same areas where I faced life or death circumstances, I feel immense compassion. People sensed the changed perspective and energy – they were attracted to it, would comment on it and, many times, reached out for guidance.
I could see the pain and suffering on old friends' faces and people in my old neighborhood. They’d say, "June, I ain't seen you in a minute. You look good, and really different. What’s going on in Cali?" It was then that I realized I had something that I needed to share, something people saw and felt in me. With that revelation, I didn't question or avoid my purpose anymore. I surrendered to the calling, making a conscious decision to be of service to youth and the homeless. I knew sharing my heart, truth, and story would allow me to elevate people that could relate to having similar experiences of inner-city circumstances. That led me to create the organization, Share Necessities. My intention with Share Necessities is to inspire people and encourage them to go within, face their challenges and become resilient by restoring hope and instilling self-belief. I want them to know that they can overcome the auto-responses to the roller coaster of emotions and traumatic circumstances, and, one day, no longer be broken by them. In the end, the goal is for them to see themselves in a new light, develop a new mind-set, and recognize themselves as worthy of living a blessed life.”
Not only did Arjuna create Share Necessities, he has also opened a new community center in the heart of South Central, the Next Level CommUNITY Center.
“Next Level Community Center is located in a historical Blood gang territory. Neighborhoods in this area are broken up into various size grids and people live as prisoners in their neighborhoods. They don't venture out much for safety reasons. This particular territory, the Blood territory, didn't have many activities to promote well-being for the youth. On the opposite side of the main street, Crenshaw, I saw youth centers, yoga studios and other community resources. I thought, "Wow. These children will never have the opportunity to access those resources, because if they crossover enemy lines, they’re risking their lives.” So I took the challenge to open up the Next Level CommUNITY Center in the Blood territory of South Central. Our mission is to create a space of refuge - where the youth, as well as the local residents, and seniors can all step inside and experience a different energetic vibration, the exact opposite of their norm.
We blend color therapy, defuse essential oils, and use visual art to change and enhance the vibration in the space. When you step in from the distressed environment they experience day-to-day, it creates a whole other experience, according to the locals. The idea is to use Mindfulness practices and tools as a guide for participants to go deep within. I know that I was always a dreamer, but I just didn't have the space around me to support those dreams. By creating a place of mindfulness, support, care, and introducing yoga, we hope to gift many with such an opportunity.
The program curriculum was influenced by my journey to discover and heal myself. I utilized all the tools I used to push through and push forward (from being determined to walk again to completing my master’s degree in business) and starting these programs and organizations to share with others.”
In this way, Arjuna makes the practice accessible.
“I articulate yoga in a way that can be understood and well-received in distressed communities. I've discovered that yoga, the way it's often shared and commonly portrayed, doesn't connect (or, often, make sense) to those that live an unconscious path. It doesn't mean that these people aren't teachable or deserving. In fact, most of them crave a peace of mind and desire to live a better lifestyle. Unfortunately, yoga stereotypes often make people think yoga is about being a contortionist or hyper-flexible. They don't hear much, if anything, about the internal journey that yoga offers. At the center we’ve been working to introduce the community to the essence of yoga and how it can benefit their lives and daily experiences. And, in the process of sharing, my team and I have developed an even deeper connection to our own personal yoga and meditation practices. Because to truly share a practice that surpasses mere words, one must embody it.”
Bend with us! Share your photo with us using the hashtags #everybodybends and #whatayogilookslike and tag @gaiam and @ybicoalition for a chance to be featured on our social media channels!
By sharing stories with one another, we can inspire even more yogis to get started with their yoga practice, and empower one another to keep coming back to the mat. Regardless of who you are, how old you are, what size you are, what color your skin is, and how much experience you have, you are a yogi if you want to be!
AUTHOR BIO: Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker, and professor of sociology and women’s studies at Santa Monica College. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016) and co-editor of the new anthology, Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014.