The program first started as a response to troubled communities. Andres Gonzalez, Atman Smith, and Ali Smith are three locals who decided they wanted to make a difference.
“What these kids experience, it’s like a war zone out there. The environment, in general, with crime and drugs and just violence, it’s like all these kids are experiencing PTSD. This is the war zone…they’re in the midst of it. They’re living it,” Andres explains in a Ted Talk from 2014. These adverse environments in struggling communities can contribute to children’s ability to excel in school.
“One thing we always say is that they call inner cities hoods and not neighborhoods because all the neighbors have moved out,” Atman says. “Honestly, that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to start doing the work that we did… to bring that love, that village, that family vibe back to our community.”
They approached Carlillian Thompson, the principal of nearby Robert W. Cole Elementary School, eager to implement an after school program. She welcomed them with open arms.
“’Give us a list of all the kids that you think are the problem kids,'” Andres says they told her. “[S]o we took all those under our wing.,”
“After about the first three months, I started noticing a difference in the behavior. I said ‘Well, there must really be something to this,’” Thompson recalls.
She says the program started with 30 children suffering from anger management and low self-esteem issues. Since it was initiated, it has grown to 90 students and also includes gardening, cleaning up local parks, and visiting farms. Additionally, the school has replaced detention with the “Mindful Moment Room,” where unruly students go to meditate or practice breathing exercises before returning to class. This project is also being implemented in other schools.
“The children love Holistic,” Thompson says, noting students who have moved on to middle school often return to participate and help out.
Ms. Thompson, a teacher at the elementary school, also enthusiastically praises the program. “The after school program is benefiting the school in tremendous ways. I know for a fact that the services they’re providing to the students help them calm down,” she says.
“I’ve had a girl in previous years that was rambunctious — [she] didn’t know how to control her anger.” She recalls the girl was in third grade when she joined the program. “[S]o by the time I got her in fourth, she was making healthy decisions about dealing with conflict and calming herself down.” Thomas says the girl participated in the program each year, and by fifth grade, “she was becoming a leader.”
In addition to teaching meditation and breathing techniques, mentors with the after school program also help students use movement to become more in touch with their bodies. “Yoga helps me because I get to relax my legs and my neck every day, and every day I get to relax new parts of my body and it helps my body,” says one young girl who participates in the program, which also allows students to help guide the classes.
“It’s wonderful. First of all, to see the kids guiding the various yoga poses and keeping the cadence, keeping the rhythm, keeping the attention of all the kids is really remarkable,” he says. He believes the program is empowering children, both internally and externally:
“I think just for a young student to have that opportunity to get up in front of the class and regulate the whole class and invite them to engage in this really extraordinary practice that involves having the kids experience their own interior life, in terms of the body and in terms of their breath and in terms of the thoughts and emotions that move through the mind.”
Evidence continues to emerge suggesting yoga and meditation are effective tools to combat stress and anxiety. One recent study found a consistent meditation practice is as effective at combating depression as some anti-depressants. Another concluded students who practice yoga experience reduced stress and improved academic performance. Meditation may also help improve students’ performance.
Considering the power of yoga and meditation, it’s no surprise they are increasingly being used in schools (and inprisons and with veterans). Holistic Life Foundation, alone, serves 14 schools and 4,500 students in Baltimore, according to the organization’s website. They also employ 30 Baltimore youth, some of whom went through the program themselves when they were in elementary school. In addition to their after school program, Holistic Life runs programsfor other age groups.
Perhaps the core of Holistic Life’s effectiveness rests on one particular aspect of yoga and meditation. As Ali explained:
“Kids get empowered by learning yoga mantras. They see they’re in control of themselves and that no one else has to give them medication or yell at them and scream at them. When they feel — and they’re aware of — anger rising or sadness rising, they can address it…You give them tools to deal with it and they feel happy about it because they’re in control.”
Rather than using force and discipline, which is often the first course of action in educational institutions, Holistic Life’s mission is different.
Instead of punishing students, they are uplifting and empowering them, and the results speak for themselves. Robert W. Coleman issued zero suspensions last year. As one fifth grade student in Baltimore said of what she learned:
“Sometimes when I get mad I just breathe deep… I just, like I picture me being in a certain place I like, and I just [think] I [can] overcome everybody and then I just stop being mad…I think of being a bigger person and doing something maybe a wise man would do… I think of something that a stronger, a mentally stronger person would do.”