“Everyone is a stranger until they’re not.”
As an instructor, I am very accustomed to having people in my classes that I have never met before. It’s kind of part of the gig, actually. In fact, I would say it’s so much a part of the gig that I wouldn’t necessarily consider these people “strangers,” but rather participants or clients whom I just haven’t ever taught before. They show up as strangers and within moments are no longer unknown people in my world. I would also argue that I am not alone in this sentiment; I’m pretty confident that most trainers/instructors/teachers think similarly. I’m also pretty confident that this is fairly common across many industries.
So why is it that when we are out in a different environment, say the street for example, we separate ourselves so much from the people with whom we share the sidewalk? We don’t tend to think of those people as friends we haven’t met or even clients we just haven’t worked with. We think of them as strangers. We think of them as other. We think of them as outside of our own story. And, maybe they are. But also, maybe they don’t need to be.
A few years ago, I was doing a photoshoot with my friend Serene Lewis in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge when we spotted some girls a few yards away trying to do the same pose I was doing. I couldn’t just leave them hanging, so I got one of the girls to do the pose with me. Somehow this turned into me actually teaching a mini class to all of the girls in the middle of the bridge sidewalk. Such a cool, memorable moment that I had with these “strangers.”
Some time later, on a different shoot with my friend Dana Underwood, a FedEx employee strolled through a shoot and after chatting it up, we almost got him to do some yoga, but instead we settled for a non-yoga pose photo.
I’ve had numerous kids jump in while I’m recording videos for Instagram, I’ve had a bootleg Elmo do some TRX with me in Times Square and many instances of people asking questions about what I’m doing which turns into me teaching them whatever move/exercise that I was doing.
Fast forward years later and it has become pretty commonplace that while on a shoot, inevitably some “stranger” will either make a comment, try to mimic the pose or engage in some way.
And they are all pretty awesome. They always end in high fives and hugs and smiles with these people from all walks of life that I didn’t know beforehand. To be honest, these are some of my favorite moments because they are so unexpected and such good reminders of how human it is to connect with others.
Thus far, these have all been random occurrences initiated mostly from the “strangers” themselves. But what would happen if we purposely went out and just tried to get people to do yoga (or movement) with me for no reason other than to just connect with them? What would happen if we stripped the stranger badge from people and just interacted with them as if it were normal to handstand in the middle of the sidewalk or do tree pose in the street? (but really, is it not?)
Well, on a recent trip to New York, together Glen and I started a little project to find out. We decided to call it #NamaStranger.
And I’ll tell you what happened: Magic. Mother f*cking magic happened. Every. Single. Time. And every single time, there was a story attached. Why? Because strangers are humans and humans have stories and when you stop to connect with other humans, your story is colliding with their story for that moment. Those collisions can be insignificant or they can be some really dope memories that you won’t ever forget.
Right off the bat, they were really dope collisions turned really amazing memories. Within the first minutes of shooting, we had one woman wanting to take a picture of me and ended up posing for a picture WITH me instead. We had another woman who asked if we could take a photo of her and her friend and again she ended up posing for a photo with me. We had a guy we called Blue Man who was doing some marketing for AT&T who hunted me down to do some handstands.
And perhaps the most memorable moment was with Johnny—a street vendor who was right next to where all of these other moments were occurring. Johnny commented about how he used to be able to do that (handstand) but no longer could. We tried to convince him to try it, but he explained how is back would no longer allow that. Somehow this chat went from a discussion of handstands to a real conversation about how he had lost his daughter when she was 35 years old. This struck a nerve for me beyond just sympathy. My best friend lost her daughter when she was 8 years old and I am aware of just how devastating that can be. Johnny told us about her heart condition. He started to tear up. He apologized (which of course there was no apology needed) and said, “I just miss her hugs so much.” My heart broke, I was holding back tears and I asked him if I could give him a hug. We hugged a real hug.
Not just an “I just met you, but I’m going to hug you anyways,” but a real hug. It was a moment I probably won’t ever forget. And Glen caught it on camera.
From there we knew we were on to something. We met up with one of Glen’s friends Kris Clark and within moments of “nice to meet you” we had him doing his first attempt at handstand in front of a crowd in the middle of Times Square.
This whole thing continued over the next few days in which we got someone attempting a pose on the Empire State Building, some aspiring rappers doing tree poses that turned into an entire group of guys that didn’t know each other doing poses together in Times Square, some women posing on the pier in Brooklyn, a comedy show promoter telling me how he manifested our interaction via the law of attraction (LOL), a dancer posing in the middle of his own video shoot, a professional basketball player and aspiring rapper dropping into headstand and learning how to crow, some young girls showing me up with their hamstring flexibility, an employee who dropped into a headstand after watching my photoshoot at the bar where he worked, and countless other conversations.
They were all strangers. They were all full of high fives and hugs and smiles. They were all beautiful, memorable collisions.
In an age where we are increasingly connected in a virtual world, but also increasingly disconnected in the real world, experiences like this are more unique than perhaps they should be. If anything, it demonstrates to me how much more I could engage with people in other random circumstances (ie without the handstands and the cameras). It’s a reminder that we are inherently community-oriented beings and that the virtual world is only useful if the real world has substance.
I am so grateful to all of these not-so-strangers for being willing to stop, drop and yoga with me in public and even more grateful for the bits of their lives they individually decided to share with us. I am also incredibly grateful to my partner-in-crime photographer who not only jumps at the chance to do things like this, but often comes up with the crazy ideas himself and then also encourages people to participate.
I’m not saying we should all just stop strangers in the street to do yoga (but we will probably continue to do so!) but I do think we can all make a more concerted effort to remember that we are all humans with stories just waiting to collide with other humans. Collide away, y’all.