Ali Smith, a co-founder of the nonprofit Holistic Life Foundation Inc., leads children during an after-school yoga and mindfulness session at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore. Photos by Gary Gately.
Put 50 kids in an elementary school gym, and you expect cacophony – shrieks, squeals of delight, laughter – and that’s what you get at Robert W. Coleman Elementary in West Baltimore.
That is, until the kids get the cue to sit on their mats and begin their deep-breathing exercises.
The gym quickly goes silent but for the steady sound of in-and-out, in-and-out breathing of the children in unison, and the occasional reminders and encouragement from a yoga instructor.
“Inhale. Think of everybody you love,” says Atman Smith, a yogi and one of the co-founders of the non-profit Holistic Life Foundation Inc., which runs a yoga and mindfulness program at the school.
“Exhale. Think of anybody stressing you out. Send them love. Shhh. Remember, focus on that thumb-sized light at your heart’s center. And now as we begin with every breath, that light is getting brighter and brighter. And you’re getting more and more absorbed in that light. Exhale. Y’all breathing sounding good, y’all. Keep it up.”
The kids – pre-kindergartners through fifth-graders – know the drill. They come to this school gym for the free, after-school yoga and mindfulness sessions four days per week.
Yoga may be often associated with sleek studios that cater to affluent moms in designer exercise duds. But this program stands in stark contrast: It serves low-income, predominantly African-American children from a tough neighborhood, where drug dealing and violence are part of daily life.
An urban ‘oasis’ for schoolchildren
Yoga and mindfulness help the kids find an inner peace that provides a respite from the stress in their lives, says Atman’s brother, Ali Smith, one of the non profit’s other two co-founders.
“I think the oasis we give them is inside themselves,” Ali said. “They’ve got to be hyper-vigilant all the time because they’re not sure if someone’s going to try to stick them up or rob them or kill them. There’s just so much for them to be stressed out about.
“The yoga and the mindfulness offer them a place to go that they always have access to. They can always go inward, they can always go to the breath. They know how to get there. And once they feel that inner peace, they know it’s there.”
Yoga has grown in popularity among children. About 1.5 million children under age 18 had participated in yoga in 2006 – the latest stats available, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health.
The Baltimore program traces its roots to 2001, when Ali, Atman and their friend Andy Gonzalez, all graduates of the University of Maryland, College Park, took up an offer from a mother at another West Baltimore school who asked them to start an after-school program.
Ali and Atman had grown up immersed in yoga and mindfulness: Both of their parents practiced yoga, meditation, veganism and herbalism. The family attended a non-denominational church, and the brothers attended a Quaker school in Baltimore that teaches non-violence and has a mindfulness practice.
“Our parents kind of surrounded us by mindfulness, yoga and giving back, so they planted the seed early,” Atman said.
Yoda? Yogurt? What’s yoga?
The two Smith brothers and Gonzalez still vividly recall their first after-school yoga program, at the other elementary school in West Baltimore.
“We put these mats down, and the kids come in and immediately they’re just like, ‘WrestleMania!’ and start hitting each other,” Gonzalez recalled.
Atman added: “They didn’t know what yoga was. They definitely didn’t know they were doing yoga.”
Some kids asked if it was Yoda, the character from “Star Wars,” while others thought the teachers said “yogurt.”
But the 20 kids from that first class eventually became young yogis. Today, seven former students from the first or second year of the after-school yoga program teach yoga and mindfulness for Holistic Life.
After its first school year, Holistic Life hosted its program at a YMCA for seven years before moving to Coleman four years ago..
Coleman Principal Carlillian Thompson said the program has improved students’ behavior.
“Students are able to redirect their energy in terms of not fighting and stopping and taking a deep breath, doing those breathing exercises and different moves that Atman and Ali and Andy have taught them,” Thompson said.
The after-school program also has improved kids’ self-esteem and self-confidence, and enabled some children to stay more focused in the classroom, Thompson said.
A Homecoming for nonprofit’s co-founders
For Ali and Atman Smith, the move to Coleman marked a homecoming: The school sits in the neighborhood where the brothers grew up and where Atman and Gonzalez now live.
“We’re affecting our neighborhood that we grew up in,” Atman said. “It feels great having a lot of people in our community knowing about yoga, knowing about empathy, knowing about love, karma, doing things without looking for rewards. So it really is changing the culture of our community just being at that elementary school.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, students did poses like the corpse, the breath of fire, the frog, the cobra, the tree and the downward dog with mastery that would make a veteran yogi proud, even though some of the children are in pre-kindergarten and just a few weeks into yoga instruction.
That’s a testament to the skills of the teachers with Holistic Life, which also offers retreats for companies and yoga and mindfulness programs at mental health facilities, drug-treatment centers and during the school day at other city schools.
Instead of fighting, deep breathing
Dezjuan Jones, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, said he used to fight a lot, but he’s learned a better way to respond to “dumb stuff” like people taking his toys, book bag and shoes.
Instead of clenching his fists for a fight, he now breathes deeply and applies the wisdom of his yoga instructors.
“They never want you to put your hands on nobody else,” Dezjuan said. “It helps me to take a deep breath. It reminds me who I am. It helps me remember I’m a smart boy, and I don’t like to hurt people.”
Akil Tshamba, an 8-year-old in the third grade, said: “When we’re in a corpse pose, all the bad thoughts that we’re having go out through the deep breathing.”
And Anaije Hamilton, a 10-year-old in fifth grade, said yoga helps take her mind off the guns and drugs in the neighborhood surrounding the school by transporting her to another place inside.
“When I breathe, the air comes into my body and it makes me – I don’t know – it makes me feel reawakened,” Anaije explained.
The three-hour after-school program extends beyond yoga and mindfulness: It includes time for homework and tutoring, playing in the gym and enrichment programs like environmental, fitness and art education, and training in sports fundamentals.
Holistic Life has branched out into the community, too, transforming a vacant lot in the neighborhood into a fruit and vegetable garden and hosting an annual cookout. The non-profit also takes students and their families to Hershey Park, the Pennsylvania amusement park, and students have taken field trips to local nature centers.
Study highlights Holistic Life’s work in schools
Holistic Life’s work in other inner-city Baltimore schools drew praise in a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Prevention Research Center at Penn State University.
The 2010 study looked at fourth- and fifth-grade students from elementary schools who attended 45-minute Holistic Life yoga and mindfulness programs during the school day four times per week for 12 weeks. The study compared these students’ responses to those of fourth- and fifth-grade students in two control schools who had no yoga and mindfulness sessions.
The study found students who attended the Holistic Life sessions better managed reactions to stress, including intense emotions, obsessive thoughts and impulsive actions.
The study’s lead researcher, Tamar Mendelson, an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins, noted that kids attending the schools the study focused on had been growing up in poverty, living in high-crime neighborhoods with a lot of gang activity and violence.
“All of that emotional upset makes it hard to pay attention, to listen, to focus in class,” Mendelson said. “Your mind is racing in a million directions. You’re feeling angry, upset, off-balance, so it’s much harder to focus on learning, and it’s also much easier to get into fights and to get kind of drawn into reacting impulsively rather than sitting with a feeling or thought and being a little more distant from it, making another decision.
“If we can give students tools to help them better manage thoughts and emotions,” Mendelson said, “they can use these tools off the yoga mat – in class, in school hallways and in their community. Instead of feeling flooded with emotions or distanced and distracted from their surroundings, students may be able to focus, concentrate and be present in the moment. All these skills contribute to learning and positive decision-making.”
Gary Gately is Youth Today’s Washington, D.C. correspondent.