GAMECHANGERS: A trio grows a yoga foundation for inner-city youths.
This is the fourth in a yearlong series of interviews conducted by guest editor Seane Corn, founder of the yoga service organization Off the Mat, Into the World, each featuring a different leader in yoga service and social-justice work. Everyone profiled here will join Corn in teaching a workshop on yoga for social change at Yoga Journal LIVE! in Estes Park, Colorado, September 27-30. This month, Corn interviews Andres Gonzalez and the brothers Ali Shah Rasool Smith and Atman Ananda Smith, who co-founded the Holistic Life Foundation in 2001 to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to Baltimore children and adults.
Seane Corn: What brought you together to form the Holistic Life Foundation [HLF]?
Andres Gonzalez: We always like to say our party group turned into a book club. After drinks at the bar, the three of us would sit in a circle reading and sharing information on history, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, religions, you name it—just trying to search for eternal truths. We asked each other: Why are we here? What is going on with the world? Who am I really? We saw a lot of wrong in the world. We saw a lot of suffering. We wanted to make this world a better place. We wanted to make a difference, and a lot of our research circled back to yoga.
To learn more, in 2ooo we sat down with Ali and Atman’s family friend Baqavillah, who is a yogi. One of us pulled a book off his altar and asked if he could teach us. He said, “Show up tomorrow at 4 in the morning, and we’ll see if you’re serious.” The next morning we were there, and I think he was shocked that we showed up. He said to come again, and we kept coming. He taught us many forms of yoga—hatha, kriya, Kundalini, Tantra, raja, bhakti, karma, and jnana. We were fresh out of college, so we took notes. He never called us students. He said he would only teach teachers. We had to promise that we’d teach more people.
SC: When you first started the nonprofit, what was your intention?
Ali Shah Rasool Smith: In 2oo1, we were deep in our practice. My mom worked at an elementary school [in Baltimore], and the principal approached us about working with some of the fifth-grade boys who were having trouble. [The principal] wanted us to coach football, but we went home and meditated on it. We proposed doing an afterschool yoga program. A lot of those kids were getting ignored, and they didn’t have any support at home or in the community. We figured we could help lots of kids find happiness within themselves, deal with their stress, and give them tools to use for their entire lives that no one can take from them. That is where the HLF started.
SC: How has the organization evolved since then?
Atman Ananda Smith: So far, we’ve taught about 1o,ooo youths and 3,ooo adults. The first HLF students are now men, and they’re becoming our workforce. About 5o percent of our workforce is former students. The program meant so much to them that they want to give back, and they’re earning a living doing so. It’s a beautiful evolution.
It’s also a strategic one. When we first started, we were trying to do everything on our own. Then, we had to take a step back. We looked at hiring staff, doing fundraising, creating a strategic plan, and doing all the things that build a successful nonprofit. Right now, the three of us don’t get to teach much in Baltimore. We travel to teach and do trainings, but in Baltimore, we spend most of our time in our office. I think that’s one of the biggest shifts. We are working to build an infrastructure so that we can get back to teaching in Baltimore.
SC: How do yoga and mindfulness help the children you work with?
AG: Baltimore is somewhere near the top of the list for murder statistics and any other negative thing you can think of. We work with problematic students to give them tools to regulate themselves and manage their anger. They get in touch with who they really are and connect to themselves so they can connect to everyone around them and build empathy and compassion.
When I break apart two fighting kids, I tell them to put their hands on their own chests. Their hearts are beating, and I say, “Do the breathing.” The children recognize that they can control themselves, that they are in charge of themselves because they can feel their hearts slowing down.
AAS: Also, on the physical level, yoga expands your lung capacity, builds muscles. Some of our kids do yoga five days a week for four years and then have their own practice from there. They have become star athletes. One of them won the national lacrosse championship last year. He said, “It’s because I know how to control my breathing. My lung capacity is a lot deeper than everyone else’s, so I can just go a lot more.”
SC: Where do you see the HLF growing?
ASRS: Baltimore is our base, our home, where our heart is, but we always wanted to help people all around the world, because people are suffering all over and can use yoga and mindfulness skills. We work all over the United States and have traveled to other countries, but we know our reach could be a lot farther. We are working on an app that will allow teens to look up topics like stress, depression, relationships, anger, or lack of sleep or focus, and be led through yoga, mindfulness, and breathwork practices. Using technology like this will help us reach more people.