How Three Friends Are Transforming Baltimore Public Schools, One Breath At A Time

Holistic Life co-founders Andres Gonzalez, Ali and Atman Smith

Holistic Life co-founders Andres Gonzalez, Ali and Atman Smith

 

words by Jenny Handke

photos provided by the Holistic Life Foundation

 

In 2001, Andres Gonzalez and brothers Ali and Atman Smith were three college friends living in Northwest Baltimore trying to find meaning in their lives, as so many newly graduates do. Their method of soul-searching was through a diligent practice of yoga and meditation. In the midst of their self-described “monk-mode,” the trio took a chance on an invitation to spearhead an after-school program where they’d teach yoga, meditation and mindfulness to 20 elementary school kids in a Baltimore YMCA gym. None of the three had ever led a yoga class before.

Today, nearly each kid who was in that first yoga program 15 years ago serves as an instructor in the Holistic Life Foundation, the brainchild of Andres, Ali and Atman’s first after school program. Today the foundation’s programs reach more than 15 schools in Baltimore city, over 4,500 kids all over the nation, and serves adults in corporate boardrooms, drug rehab centers and police precincts. 

In September, an article on Upworthy about the transformative effects of Holistic Life Foundation’s “Holistic Me” program at Robert W. Coleman elementary school in Baltimore went viral. To learn more about the story behind Holistic Life Foundation, Greenroom spoke with co-founder Andres about the origin and impact of their program, how they create “love zombies,” and the importance of mindfulness to aid a turbulent headspace. 

 

Greenroom: Tell me a little about your background, and the background of your co-founders Ali and Atman. How did the Holistic Life Foundation come together?

Andres Gonzalez: "My background as a Puerto Rican kid, no meditation practice, nothing like that. My mom was a Catholic lady, so [I did] first communion and all that type of stuff. [Ali and Atman] went to a different type of church, where they would read from all different texts. So they would read from the bible and then they read from the Qu’ran, then from the Gita, from the Book of the Dead and from indigenous Native American passages. They really focused on [the idea] that there’s ultimate truths that all these people are using and everyone has different ways of saying, scribing. I stopped going to church when I was really young. I didn’t like it and I was a pretty wild kid. 

I want to say when Ali was 5, Atman was 3, their father would make them meditate in the morning before they went to school. They remember watching cartoons and their dad would be next to them in a headstand. They also went to a quaker school, Friends School of Baltimore, where they did ‘meaningful worship’ at the beginning of the day, which is very similar to meditation. When their parents broke up, they got divorced, they said that their practice kinda fell by the wayside. 

Ali, Atman and I met in college and we were all pretty wild by then. We would like to say that we met at a meditation class but instead we met at the bars, and we partied. We were really doing a lot of soul searching and questioning. This was when we were 19-20 years old, wondering, you know, ‘what’s the meaning of life, what’s the purpose of me going to college, spending this money, what am I gonna do with myself? And why is the world suffering?’ As we continued to do that searching, our party group turned into a book club. I know that sounds weird, we don’t really know how that happened either, but it did. Instead of us going out to parties or to the bars, our friends would come over be like, ‘what are you guys doing? You coming out tonight?” And we’re like, ‘nah.’ It would be the three of us in a room just reading about everything from ancient histories to creation theories to astronomy, astrology, ancient history, anything and everything -just searching for answers. We didn’t even know what the question was. We just wanted to know more stuff. 

As we continued to search more and more, everything took us back to our yoga practice. One day we were at  Ali and Atman’s godfather’s house and there was a book on his altar about meditation. Atman picked it up and said, ‘Hey, we wanna learn this stuff,’ and the godfather was like, ‘are you for real?’ and we’re like, ‘yeah!’ He’s like, ‘Alright, we’ll see how serious you all are. Meet me at the park 4 in the morning.’ 4 o’clock rolls around, we’re all there. I think he was surprised that we showed up, and that’s kind of how everything started. We started there, taking ourselves to the park every day early in the morning and do a lot of postures, breathwork, meditation and started getting into more of the subtle aspects of yoga -mindfulness, meditation. Those next few years -this was in 2001- we basically lived like monks. All we did was just meditate, read books and do yoga and breathwork. When we got out of that 2-3 year span, I think the transformation we saw within ourselves was evident and people could see it. People would always ask ‘well why are you all so happy?’ And we would say, ‘well why aren’t y’all happy?’" 

GR: How did you start to share those practices with kids in school?

AG: "We got an opportunity with a group of kids in elementary school when we moved back into Ali and Atman’s neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore right after 9/11. Ali and Atman’s mother was working at the [elementary] school when we picked her up one day and the principal asked her what we were up to. That was when we were in our monk mode. Ali and Atman’s mother told him we had they just graduated, that we wanted to help people but they don’t know exactly what we wanted to do.’ The principal was like, ‘Well would they be willing to do an after school program?’  He basically said he didn’t care what we did as long as it was free after-care for these 20 kids. So we said yeah and that’s where it started. The kids started transforming, the parents, the teachers and the principal started seeing it, and then we just stuck with that group of kids. That after school program was our baby. It’s how it all got started in 2001. 

Fast-forward now, 15 years later, instead of it being 20 kids we’re up to like over 160 kids. We’re doing five days a week, four hours a day Monday through Friday. We started expanding and doing other programs in and out of schools, whether it’s during school time, after school time, speaking engagements. We also started getting into adult stuff like drug rehab centers, homeless shelters, corporate settings." 

 

GR: When you lead these groups of kids, how quickly do you tend to see the results? 

AG: "It really does vary from child to child. So, if they take it serious, usually just after 10 deep breaths - and then a few deep breaths on their own to do an internal analysis to see how their mind and body feels - when they open their eyes they have never felt that peace, or it’s been a long time since they felt that way. They’re calm and they’ve slowed their body down. Usually when people open their eyes they look at you like, ‘oh my god what just happened? Like, wait. You’re telling me I’ve been breathing wrong my whole life and I can make myself feel this way whenever I want to? This is awesome, I want to learn more.’ 

So just in that I think it’s almost an immediate change. But then that depends on if they’re really gonna buy in. You know, you have youth and adults who are just gonna look at it and they’re gonna be like, ‘I don’t wanna do this. This isn’t real, this doesn't work, I don’t do yoga.’ Because they have this conception of yoga being putting yourself in pretzel poses and your foot behind your head. And they’re like, ‘no.’ So that might take a little while for them to get it. But I think even the majority of the people who initially don’t buy into it -maybe they need some more data and information and all this research- they usually, after they see the impact of others, that it’s happening to others, that’s when they start getting intrigued."

 

GR: The foundation focuses a lot on mindfulness to remedy what kids and adults are going through outside of school and outside of their work environment. Can you talk a little bit more about how mindfulness can help with what people are going through in their neighborhood or at home or even what they see in the media? 

AG: "I mean the goal with mindfulness and these techniques are to be able to be aware of yourself and your surrounding. So to know what’s going on and to be mindful of yourself. To acknowledge that and see what’s going on with your body in those scenarios. To be aware of stuff in their neighborhood and know that, while something may be going on, they don’t have to be blind to it, that this is reality. To be able to regulate themselves through certain techniques through going inward, using their breath or doing meditation. So it helps the kids focus more, it helps them regulate themselves and not be impulsive or reactionary. It helps them deal with conflicts peacefully because, as they go inward, I think they become more compassionate and loving toward themselves. They start loving who they are and I think that reflects out into their communities and their neighborhoods and they start becoming more compassionate and loving toward others. 

You know, it takes time still. Kids mess up just like adults. Everyone does. Everyone stumbles sometimes, but overall I think as they learn and they have people around them who are doing the same thing. No matter how old they are, they know that they’re angry with their fists clenched and stuff like that, screaming and cursing, that isn’t who they are. And I think they start realizing who their real self is and what it’s really about. 

This will help them throughout their life, whether it’s at home, whether it’s in school, whether it’s in their neighborhoods and in the future. That’s one of the things that most of the kids, when they come back, say to us, ‘Hey I might not use the meditation all that much, I might not do all the physical stuff, but man, I use my breath all the time and I can’t believe how much I use the stuff you all taught me, and I wish I took it a little more serious when I was hanging out with y’all.’" 

 

GR: Did you get any kind of pushback when you first started, or even now implementing programs in other schools? It doesn’t sound like there was anything like that at the time. 

AG: "There really wasn’t that many [similar types of programs], and I think that’s why we didn’t get a pushback. Yoga wasn’t really big then and people were just happy that we were willing to help. Occasionally we have pushback and it’s usually in regards to people being afraid that it’s religious-based. They hear “yoga,” for example, and think it’s Buddhist or Hindu. When we first did our study with Johns Hopkins and Penn State eight years ago the doctor at Penn State told us, ‘Look, you’re curriculum is great. It’s fantastic. Only thing is you have to take all the yoga terms out of it.’ He was like, ‘Just trust me, I’m just protecting y’all. People may push back against that.’ We didn’t really understand why but we trusted the guy and said sure. No sanskrit words were allowed. There were times we didn’t even say “meditation,” [in the study] and we would say “silent reflection.” With meditation some people may think, ‘oh this is yoga’ and when people think of yoga they think of Hinduism and Buddhism, so then they think we’re going into schools to teach religion and you can’t do that. 

So we’ve had a little bit of pushback about that. But not as much after there was a case in Encinitas where a bunch of parents were clamoring about yoga being a religion. They took it to court and it was proved that yoga is not a religion. So, it can be tough." 

GR: Oh really? What was that about?

AG: "People were just trying to clamor and say, ‘oh this is ninja buddhism, they’re trying to sneak buddhism into the schools by calling it mindfulness,’ and that didn’t go through. We have had people question us and get worried. We had one teacher who would like drop to her knees and start praying when one of my instructors was leading an exercise. He said, ‘alright everyone breathe in deep and see and feel the healing energy coming into your body. Breathe out- let out all that negative energy, any stress, worries.’ But when he said “energy,” it freaked her out and she thought he was summoning the devil or something and try to bring it into her body. So, you know, there’s been instances. We’re very weary of things like that." 

 

GR: With all the groups of people with diverse backgrounds, from school kids to people in drug rehab centers, to business conferences, how do you tailor teaching sessions to different groups? 

AG: "It really varies. When we were learning about teaching to different people, [Ali and Atman’s godfather] was really adamant about us being able to speak to people in their terms -in layman's terms. He would tell us, ‘I am teaching teachers. You have to promise to go out there and teach.’ 

We’re using the same techniques and methods to all levels of ages, so whether you’re in kindergarten or 99 years old, we’re teaching mainly the same basic techniques. Breathing and meditation and concepts of love and compassion and empathy and stuff like that. The postures may vary in terms of level of difficulty, but it’s still very similar. 

One day we were leading a class with Baltimore City Public School Police. One of the gentlemen asked us a kind of spiritual question, something that I would consider esoteric. He asked, ‘So are we going to learn about the chakras today?’ And we all looked at each other like, ‘I mean we weren’t planning on it but if you want to talk about it we can,’ because that’s something we don’t talk about when we go into schools or to people in general, a lot of people think that that’s mystical-magical-mumbo-jumbo stuff. But he brought it up in the beginning of the session. So as we talked, that session that we had, we spoke a little more to him in that language, whereas with the next group of police officers, that wasn’t even brought up. 

We’re good at feeling out our classes. Most of our staff has been doing this for over 10 years now, because a lot of them were in that original group of young gentlemen in 2001. Now 15 years later they’re our teachers. We’re very careful with people, but it really is just a matter of us carrying out the class and us speaking to the group that’s in front of us and making it so they get most out of every session." 

 

GR: I think it’s really interesting that you lead sessions for police forces, that’s really cool. I definitely wish that was something that was happening here in Minneapolis. How group sessions start to expand beyond schools?

AG: "We were teaching the kids but at the same time, we didn’t really know much about the nonprofit world. There was a program around here called the After School Institute. They were a networking means for all the people running after school programs. So we would go to their networking meetings. It really was just word-of-mouth and I think something that really helped us when we did that first study was that we had empirical evidence that some of these techniques do have positive benefits. and now when any study on mindfulness and urban youth, they always refer to our study. 

I think it helps that me, Ali and Atman stick out, you know. When we would go to conferences, the majority of people there weren’t minorities. The majority of them weren’t men. So they have three 3 minority men in a conference teaching yoga and mindfulness and they’d look at us with our super hero and Star Wars t-shirts on and all this hair and stuff- they’d look at us and be like, ‘who the hell are these guys?’ People would approach us more and then they’d be like, ‘Can you come do this at our school? Can you come do this outside of Baltimore?’ And stuff just kept growing and growing and growing. We were like, ‘Hey, we can do this for everyone of all ages.’ We still stress that today. A lot of times we tell people we’ve been highlighted for all the youth stuff, but we’ve been doing all these adult programs forever. It’s just that people like seeing kids do yoga. The pictures look cuter. And then you go to a drug rehab center with a lady beating her body up with heroin, people don’t get that excited about that. Those are my favorite classes. So I mean it really just snowballed. Just word of mouth, then the study, then the publicity we started getting and now recently with the videos going viral." 

GR: Did you get involved with the study the same way? Through word of mouth or did you pursue that? 

AG: "Ali and Atman’s mother, again -she’s amazing- she was working in this program called the PATS program (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) and when we were beginning our nonprofit, one of the jobs that we had initially was [working for] that PATS program. So we were working in schools leading this, it’s a social-emotional learning program. And the creator of that program heard about the work we were doing through Ali and Atman’s mother. When the Dalai Lama comes into town, he’s one of the doctors that asks the Dalai Lama questions about studies and so on and so forth. One day he said to us - we thought he was lying for sure- he said he was talking to the Dalai Lama and he tells them about these three guys in Baltimore that are trying to promote yoga to inner-city kids. And the Dalai Lama said to him, ‘You have to help those guys.’ So, of course when the Dalai Lama tells you you have you help somebody, he’s like ‘wow I have to get in contact.’ 

We got him to come to our after school program. This was when we were still running the program out of the YMCA so all the kids would meet at our front porch in Northwest Baltimore. When he arrived there were like 15 kids on our porch just acting crazy, screaming and yelling. One kid in particular was cursing, fighting everyone and was just out of control. You can tell his head was just not in the right place. When the doctor got into program and he sat down, the same kid that was going crazy sits next to the doctor. We didn’t tell him to. The kid started telling him, ‘no you’re not doing this right,’ and corrected all his postures while we’re doing yoga. He was teaching him.

We do a reciprocal teaching model, so the kids are always leading the exercises because it helps us be able to walk around and manage the classroom while one of the kids is leading. It’s good because they can go in there and learn to teach as well. The doctor couldn’t believe that this kid, who he just saw cursing and fighting, was teaching him all these yoga poses. After that he said he just knew that he had to help us. That’s when the study started. So, again, it was kind of the universe helping us, guiding us along." 

 

GR: Is there anything that we didn’t touch on that you’d like people to know?

AG: "One thing that we always stress is the love thing. You know, we really pride ourselves on being professional and being genuine and authentic and that we all practice these techniques before we go out and teach them. But I think one thing that we push with our staff is letting them understand that with these people that we’re treating and teaching that you know, you have to be there. There’s a commitment. There has to be an accountability because one of the factors that a lot of these youth in particular face is people coming and going in their lives. You know, we are more than just the yoga teachers. We’re more than just people you see at school. We’re your friends, we’re your family and we love you. We’re really here for you so that you can be the best that you can be. You can be whatever you choose to be and not only do we say that to them, we embody it, we show them with being there and always being supportive and showing up to their football games. We go above and beyond. 

Me, Ali and Atman had kids live with us for numerous years. My house right now has four kids living in it. They’re not quite kids, they’re all over 18, but they’re from our program. They never had a place to stay but they know each of us has got them. Always. And that’s something that we really stress to our staff. Parents know that I don’t have any kids but I get slews of text messages on Father’s Day saying happy Father’s Day from the parents. That’s a big part. We always stress the love part. I make people comfortable. We joke about it sometimes. On the first day of a program, when I’ve never met these people, when they leave they’re like, ‘have a great day, I love you!’ These people’s parents are looking at me like, ‘who the hell is that guy?’ But after a few weeks, they’re all saying I love you back, and they know that I really do love them. 

We always joke and say that we’re creating Love Zombies. We’re trying to spread love that way - just infect people with love and that’s a big part that comes, it’s a byproduct of these techniques. We’re doing this work not looking for results. We’re just doing it because it’s the right thing to do. We are there for them and show them how much we care because that impacts them so much, and that sometimes is what it takes to get them to start being intrigued and take that first step on the journey, start walking the path themselves. For them to start going out and spreading the love themselves. I think that’s just the main thing. I’m a big love bug and I always make sure that people know that we really believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe and that we just wanna keep spreading the love and reminding people that you’re in control of yourself and you have tools and techniques that we can share with you that you can use to deal with all the external stimuli, all the media, all the stuff that’s going on especially now with the state that the U.S. is in. 

With this election… I mean I’m Latino and Ali and Atman, the other founders, are Black guys. So when we would walk to next day after the election, people were looking at us like, ‘what’s wrong with you guys?’ And we were like, ‘what do you mean?’ and they were like, ‘why aren’t y’all like messed up? Why are y’all still happy?’ And we’re like, ‘man, you think it’s gonna change stuff?’  We always made a joke like, look, we loved our old president, he was the man hands down, but you do remember that police were killing lots of people, right? Like there’s gonna be problems no matter who’s in charge. We’re just always centered, you know. Because we have our practice.

So again, we embody what we’re teaching and I think that resonates with people when we’re going to these meetings those few days after [the election] and everyone’s like, ‘oh the world’s gonna end, this is so horrible!’ And we’re just like, 'Man we just gotta keep moving on.' The only way we’re gonna get better is by spreading love. And if you don’t agree with what’s going on in the government and you think a lot of hate is in it, let’s get ‘em with love. Let’s keep spreading the word. I think it really helps people get through their days more and as they get these techniques it kind of helps them build up their shell a little and they’ll realize that, hey, you know, it really is just about loving everyone and this is the time for the world to unite. Let’s all be one together and let’s spread this love."