Ten-year-old Rinaya Buick led me down a narrow dirt path, through the tomato and pepper plants, beyond the parsley and Swiss chard, past the cauliflower and onions, until we arrived, finally, at the piece de resistance. The strawberries.
"You want to take the red ones," she said, popping a tiny berry, no larger than a dime, off its stem and placing it in my hand.
"That's OK," she said when I dropped it. "God made dirt. Dirt don't hurt."
We were inside Yoga Gardens, a city lot in Lawndale that was, less than a decade ago, abandoned and desolate. Now it teems with the energy of a perfect little ecosystem.
Dozens of garden beds and giant pots overflow with organic vegetables. Birds and bugs flit from leaf to leaf. A campfire beckons from the corner, surrounded by a ring of tree stump benches.
And a giant, wooden yoga deck sits in the middle of it all, pulsing with life, like a beating heart.
Rinaya was there to do yoga. "Handstanding," she told me, is her favorite part.
Yoga Gardens is the handiwork of Indigo Monae, a Chicago contractor and yoga instructor who lived, until she was 11, in the city's Robert Taylor Homes public housing project.
"This is my karma project, my yogi gift," Monae, 31, told me. "It's my way of sharing something I know will help the community."
Monae co-founded the nonprofit organization in 2012 with Morr Solomon and Frediliza David. They worked with the city to gain access to the lot in the 2700 block of West Lexington Avenue, just east of California Avenue.
"The city said, 'Please. If you can do something with it, please,' " Monae said.
Through fundraising and volunteer sweat equity, they were able to whip the lot into shape enough to grow some vegetables and teach some yoga by 2013.
At the end of June, Monae propped open the gardens' wooden gate, covered in bright swirls of sidewalk chalk, for its sixth season.
"You have to become a part of the community for people to trust you," she said. "These kids have people come in and out of their lives all the time. You have to earn their trust before you can develop a bond."
Antone'shia Palmer, 18, found Yoga Gardens when she was 13 and new to the neighborhood.
"You come in here, and it's like a whole different universe," she said. "I learned self-control. Tricks for how to calm myself. To count to 10. I guess I would call them self-re-evaluations."
Recently, she started bringing her mom.
"This is my third day of yoga," Loretta Young, Palmer's mom, told me. "My first day was Saturday. I came back for more Sunday morning. Here I am today. I'm addicted. I tell everyone to come. I just walked past a mother, and I told her, 'Come check it out.'"
Young paused to take a call.
"Where are you?" she asked the caller. "Why aren't you in these gardens?"
A few seconds passed.
"I don't know where other people need to be," she said when the call ended. "I need to be here. For my body. For my mind. For my spirit."
On Sunday mornings, Monae teaches yoga on Montrose Beach. She asks participants for a $10 donation, which she turns around and invests in Yoga Gardens. Seven mornings and four evenings a week, instructors teach Montrose Beach yoga classes that directly benefit Yoga Gardens. (You can find a schedule at www.beachyogachicago.com/classes.)
"I meet people on the North Side who want to help, but they don't know how to help," Monae said. "They don't necessarily want to go to the West Side. I'm trying to bridge that gap."
When Monae was 11, her parents moved her and her siblings to Madison, Wis.
"It was ... whoa," Monae said. "Like going from reading 'Sam I Am' to 'The Giver.' To be 11 years old and feel the trauma all around you and then go to Wisconsin and feel free and feel safe and not live in a war zone. I want to give these kids that same feeling. I want them to know how that feels. I want them to be able to blossom into who they're supposed to be."
When she was a teenager, Monae's family moved to the northern suburbs. She attended Niles West High School, where her track coach introduced her to yoga.
"I had some stuff happening at home," Monae said. "I had lost some family members. One of my track coaches could see there was something there, a little bit of anger."
They practiced yoga. They practiced meditating. Monae never stopped. In 2016 she won a scholarship to study Ashtanga yoga at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India.
"In India, I sat with all of it," she said. "What it took for my mom to move us. How I can give back. Wondering why the violence doesn't stop. In Chicago, yoga and gardening are both very big. I haven't invented the wheel. But it helps you to be equanimous, to look at your fears and desires as just that – fears and desires – and to not give in to them."
Her Yoga Gardens students know fear. One of her students was shot and killed right outside the gardens three years ago. Several students have lost siblings and parents to gun violence. Sadaria Davis, a 15-year-old girl who went missing in April, was found dead in a vacant building not far from Yoga Gardens.
"I was determined not to let my daughter come outside when we first moved around here," Young told me. "I was like, 'Outside? Outside where? If we go outside, we're leaving the community. We're going to 39th or 31st."
But Antone'shia, her daughter, had fallen under the spell of Monae's tranquil spot.
"I saw it was a good thing," Young said. "It's teaching these kids a green thumb. It's peaceful."
Even when its surroundings are not.
"I could talk for a very long time about what yoga and meditation do for lowering reactivity and building patience and building self-esteem," said Charlie Renison, a volunteer who helps with gardening and yoga on the site.
Renison is getting her master's degree in social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She wants to be a school social worker. She moved to Chicago from Portland a few years ago and learned about Yoga Gardens when she was searching for an urban farming project to join.
Perhaps more powerful, though, is a moment Renison remembers from last summer, when Maya, the girl who lives next door to the gardens, wandered in for a nap.
"She came in the gardens and just slept on the yoga deck," Renison said. "Curled up and took a nap because it feels like such a safe, comfortable place. That's exactly what we're here for. You get to be outside, and you can still be safe."
Yoga Gardens only operates during the summer months, and Monae would like to have a year-round space. She dreams of building an eco-village near the site of her childhood home, the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes.
On the Yoga Gardens website, there's a rendering: three geodesic domes and 11 yurts, surrounded by native vegetation, vegetable gardens and fruit trees. There's a button to donate money. When she raises $150,000, Monae said, she'll take her plans to the city.
Meanwhile, she has big plans for the summer: three classes per week at Yoga Gardens, and she's adding an occasional Thursday evening movie night. She bought a projector and a sheet. The kids can roast marshmallows on the campfire and watch a movie under the stars.
"I am them," she said of her Yoga Gardens pupils. "I want them to see themselves in me. Some of them have never left their neighborhood. Some of them want to travel to India now.
"That's what I want to give to them," she said. "An awakening."
(Contact Heidi Stevens at email@example.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)