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Lions Roar : March 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN MArcH 2011 77 year ended, they kept working with those original stu- dents through an afterschool program at the Druid Hill YMCA. The original fifteen students grew to twenty- five, and almost all have stayed in touch with the in- structors—for help with getting started in college or on a career path, or to work as assistant instructors. The three activists set up a nonprofit, the Holistic Life Foundation (www.hlfinc.org), which in addition to the in-school and afterschool yoga programs, offers mentoring, tutor- ing, homework assistance, gardening, environmental advocacy, hip-hop in the neighborhoods, and basketball in the parks. “We want to cultivate the feeling of being interconnected with other people and the environment,” Ali Smith said, “so we take the kids on field trips, camping, growing food. When they’re out in nature, they feel connected to the planet. When they grow food in the gar- den we started in the neighborhood, they see the fruits of their la- bors. Meditation is about coming out of isolation and getting con- nected to something big.” In 2007, the Smiths’ mother put them in touch with Mark Greenberg, director of the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University. (Prevention research focuses on preventing negative outcomes that can result, in part, from difficult school environments.) Greenberg, who has long advo- cated more active forms of mindfulness for children, checked WHen YoU GRoW UP in one of the hundreds of underprivi- leged neighborhoods in American cities, the odds are stacked against you. Ali and Atman Smith and Andy Gonzales know firsthand how easy it is for children to lose their way and succumb to fear and despair. So when they returned to west Baltimore after graduating from the University of Maryland, they began working with schoolchildren to help them lower stress and become more resilient. In 2002, the principal at Windsor Hills elementary, where Ali and Atman Smith’s mother worked, asked whether they would like to coach sports. “After we thought about it,” Ali told me, “we de- cided what we would really like to do with kids is yoga, because we saw the effect yoga was having on us. It makes you feel stronger and more limber, but, more than that, there is a medita- tive element. Stress rolls off of you so much more easily. Your demeanor is calmer. You have a peaceful spot you can go to inside. no matter where you are, what you’re doing, what turmoil you’re going through, you can find that peace.” Gonzales and the Smiths started teaching fifth graders yoga, which the brothers had learned from their parents. “When we started the program,” Atman Smith said, “the kids thought yoga was the little guy from Star Wars.” But soon, yoga poses, breathing techniques, and periods of mindfulness became the means for the children to find solitude and develop inner resources. Most of the participants were “what you would call problem students,” Ali Smith said, “and at first we broke up fights on a daily basis. We often had to collect students from detention.” Then teachers started sending notes urging the three to keep do- ing whatever they were doing because the teachers were noticing a change in those taking part. So were parents. “They weren’t perfect little angels,” Ali Smith said, “but they were better able to concentrate in their classes, and they weren’t going out and starting fights.” The program began with fifteen students, and when the school Inner-City Inner Peace Students participate in a Holistic Life afterschool program at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland. Above: One of the program founders, Atman Smith, leads the class. By Barry Boyce The Mindful Society PHoToSBYALISMITH