Empowering Communities Through Yoga, Mindfulness, and Self-Care

What happens when three friends, fresh out of college, are sitting around contemplating the meaning of life? When those three friends are Andres “Andy” Gonzalez, and brothers Ali Smith, and Atman Smith the result is the Holistic Life Foundation.

Andy, Ali, and Atman met while attending the University of Maryland in College Park. They began sharing books on ancient history, spirituality, astronomy, astrology, and physics. They also began studying and practicing yoga. During this journey of self-discovery, “We found peace and wanted to share” Andy Gonzalez stated. They especially wanted to help kids from the same run-down Baltimore neighborhoods where they grew up.

In 2001 the non-profit Holistic Life Foundation (HLF) was formed. The mission of the foundation is to empower communities through yoga, Mindfulness, and self-care practices. They started with an after-school program for 20 fifth-grade boys called Holistic Me. Remarkably, in an area with an approximately 50% drop-out rate, 19 of those first 20 boys graduated high school, and one received his GED. The Holistic Me program currently serves over 160 boys and girls each school day. The program involves yoga, Mindfulness, urban gardening, and team work. The program helps keep kids in school and teaches them skills to cope with the stressors in their environment.

After the initial success of the Holistic Me after-school program Andy, Ali and Atman took their program to the Baltimore schools. The goal of the Holistic Life Foundation is to provide kids from low-income, high-crime-rate neighborhoods with tools to better cope with stress and anger, so moving their program into schools was the next logical step. Students in Baltimore and many inner cities experience increased levels of stress and trauma. Research has shown that exposure to violence and trauma has a detrimental effect on children’s developing brains. These children are more likely to experience increased mental and behavioral health issues and left untreated, turn to violence themselves. Prolonged exposure to stress and anxiety results in issues with attention, memory and behavior control. These children are also more likely to develop serious health concerns including diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.

The Holistic Life Foundation works with over 20 schools in Baltimore using their Mindful Moment program which combines yoga and Mindfulness. When asked how they made the transition from teaching yoga to combining yoga and Mindfulness in their programs, Andy replied, “We really did not know anything about Mindfulness. People just started saying that what we were doing sounded like Mindfulness. It just happened naturally. We don’t call it yoga and Mindfulness. We just call what we do ‘silent reflection.’”

The work the Holistic Life Foundation has done with the Robert W. Coleman Elementary school in West Baltimore is a shining example of the positive impact of yoga and Mindfulness on at-risk children. The success has been chronicled in Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, and on CNN and CBS This Morning. Coleman Elementary partnered with the Holistic Life Foundation to use their program to teach the children how to become aware of their emotions, focus on the present, and use yoga and meditative breathing to reduce stress. The goal was to impact student discipline and more broadly, affect the school’s culture.

The school’s principal, Carlillian Thompson believes the practices have helped the more than 300 students at Coleman leave the stresses of their daily lives behind, including unstable homes, exposure to violence in their neighborhoods, and trauma, as they enter the school to begin their day. The school has become a safe place where children are taught how to take responsibility for their behaviors and coping skills. The day starts with morning announcements which include Mindfulness breathing and ends with yoga incorporated into the after-school program.

Another key feature is the movement away from detention and punishment for behaviors to sending children to the Mindful Moment Room. The Mindful Moment Room is a safe space, decorated in soothing colors, with cushions and bean bags to relax on. Students may decide on their own that they need to visit the Room or teachers may send disruptive or distressed students for individual assistance and emotional self-regulation. The Mindful Moment Room is staffed by members of the Holistic Life Foundation, many of whom are graduates of the Holistic Me program. The students must sign-in and work with an assigned Mindfulness instructor. Students engage in 5 minutes of targeted discussion followed by 15 minutes of Mindfulness practice. They are given space to relax, calm down, and think about their feelings. Staff will help them talk through what they are experiencing and develop a plan to use Mindfulness techniques to handle similar situations in the future. These visits tend to last approximately 20 minutes but may go longer if needed by the student.

Since the Mindful Moment Room has been used at Coleman, there have been no suspensions. The children have been given the skills to use words to solve their problems instead of fighting or lashing out. The effect has been positive, not only for the students, but also for the teachers, and the entire school community and culture.

Research on the benefits of yoga and Mindfulness in school-based settings is still in its infancy, but the results to date have been positive and more schools are adopting Mindfulness programs. The Holistic Life Foundation partnered with the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to perform a randomized control trial research study on the effects of yoga and Mindfulness in a school-based setting. The study was published in 2010 in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology and found that the interventions were attractive to students, teachers, and school administrators and had a positive impact on responses to stress, rumination, intrusive thoughts, and emotional control.

Research is ongoing, and the number of school-based programs keeps expanding. Increasing numbers of teachers, parents, and children are benefiting from learning and practicing Mindfulness, which is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” The Holistic Life Foundation has expanded to more schools in Baltimore and around the country. Andy Gonzalez said they are working on developing a Mindfulness app to supplement and support their teaching and are about to launch a new program which combines initial face-to-face training with a series of videos. The goal is to be able to reach more students in areas around the country and the world.

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About the Author

Melissa V. Sirola

How Mindfulness Impacts Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children
Melissa V. Sirola is a registered nurse with over 20 years of experience in the healthcare field. Melissa has worked as a staff nurse, a nurse administrator, and an educator, teaching nursing leadership at several local universities. Melissa is currently pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice in Leadership and Health Care Innovations at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing. For her internship with the Children’s Mental Health Network, Melissa is researching the effects of Mindfulness on behavioral and mental health issues with children in rural primary school settings. Melissa is excited for the opportunity to work with the Children’s Mental Health Network to research, explore, and report on innovative Mindfulness programs that exist in various parts of the country and around the world.

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