By Lydia Wolfe || Contributing Writer
This week’s Common Hour, entitled “Breathing Love into Communities: The Work of the Holistic Life Foundation,” was presented by Ali Smith, Atman Smith, and Andres Gonzales, the founders of the Holistic Life Foundation. This nonprofit organization was founded in 2001 and is based in Baltimore. It focuses on nurturing the wellness of children and adults in underserved communities. This event was proposed by Susan Minasian, College Chaplain, and Kathy Babb, Senior Student Advisor of OSPGD.
The Holistic Life Foundation was created with the intent on providing a comprehensive approach to mindfulness for underserved children living in inner-city neighborhoods. The speakers described how many of these children feel like they are living in war zones with no escape. They aim to create a space where these kids can feel comfortable and have someone to offer support, as well as to give them the tools to be aware of their emotions, which enables them to be in control over themselves.
The speakers began their talk by engaging the audience in a meditative breathing exercise that encouraged audience members to think of filling themselves with love and exhaling the negativity in their lives. Atman Smith explained how “human nature is to love and serve others before yourself,” and the intent of this exercise was to focus on self-love.
Ali Smith described the founding of their organization. He and his brother, Atman, grew up in a supportive mentoring community in Baltimore, where they attended a private school that focused on fostering mindfulness. The two grew up doing yoga and meditating before school. While attending the University of Maryland, College Park, the brothers met Andres Gonzales. The three realized that they saw the world similarly and began to talk and read together.
The Smiths’ godfather agreed to teach the men yoga under one condition – that they would have to share the practice with as many people as possible. Ali Smith explained that the three assumed that, “the government [would] give us grants and we’d save the world.” They soon realized that making their dream a reality would not be that easy. Upon moving back to the Smiths’ childhood neighborhood, and seeing how it had transformed from the supportive community they had grown up in, to a place controlled by gangs and violence, the group felt that their spirits were crushed. They knew that they “wanted to do something about it, but didn’t know what.”
They began volunteering at a local elementary school and teaching yoga to students after school. They started this work as broke college students and worked as volunteers for 8 years, 60 hours a week. Eventually they came to the realization that they could not just give and give, and in order for their work to grow, they needed to step back and make a change in their operation. They turned their focus to starting a nonprofit in order to receive grants to further their work. This made a significant difference, as the group was able to go from serving 6o kids to now serving 5,000 kids a week in the Baltimore public schools alone. The organization is focused on helping kids who are in situations where they feel helpless and hopeless. The kids learn to deal with these situations emotionally, and have an outlet to have fun and relax. The exercises are practical, relatable, and most importantly, fun for the kids.
Gonzales explained that the first skill each participant learns is how to breathe. He explained the proper way to take a breath, which involves breathing through the nose and having the breath come from the stomach. This breathing technique not only poses health benefits, such as preventing sickness, but it also allows the person to “be in that present moment with whatever you’re doing, allowing you to achieve higher,” directing focus away from distracting, negative thoughts. He described how most people are in a constant stressed state and that by performing these exercises, you can realize that “you are in charge and you can regulate yourself.”
As Atman Smith said, “This is what we were passionate about. We loved what we did and weren’t going to let anything stop us.” He explained how the work goes beyond the kids in the schools, as every child in the program is taught to be a reciprocal teacher and is able to educate their parents, peers, and community members on the stress-relieving skills they are taught.
The founders ended their talk by expressing how they aim to be a resource for everyone. They concluded with the sentiment that, “love is the most powerful force in the universe.”
First-year Lydia Wolfe is a contributing writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.