The Holistic Life Foundation is Changing Lives, One Yoga Breath at a Time

For more than 20 years, the co-founders have introduced local youth and adults to mindfulness practices that help them cope with stress, anger, and emotional traumas.
Holistic Life Foundation co-founders Ali Smith, left, Andrés González and Atman Smith. —Photography by Joanna Tillman

Brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their best friend Andrés “Andy” González used to sit on their stoop on North Smallwood Street in West Baltimore in the early 2000s and see kids from surrounding blocks sowing mayhem in the neighborhood.

They’d steal bikes, break windows, throw road salt everywhere, use parked cars as playground equipment—you name it. The kids were no more than 11 or 12 years old, but sometimes the trouble got more serious. Potentially violent “wars,” as the kids labeled them, would flare up against boys living on the other side of North Avenue.

Ali, Atman, and Andy—the “A Team,” as their friends would come to call them—didn’t react to the kids the way many adults did. All three had just graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, so they were still pretty young themselves. They didn’t think punishment or possibly calling the police was the answer. Instead, they proposed a radical solution for how to address what was ailing these young people: yoga.

“Everybody’s eyes lit up like, what the hell?” recalls Ra’Mon Brown, one of those neighborhood boys, now age 30. “‘Hell, no. We ain’t doing no yoga…That’s for girls, we’re not doing that, that’s weak!’”

But Brown and about 10 of his buddies were already starting to look up to the A Team as role models who seemed to understand them. Ali, Atman, and González piled some of them into Atman’s Toyota Corolla to take them to the Y in Druid Hill. After swimming and playing basketball, the boys found themselves invited into the dance studio of the Y, where their role models—large, athletic men, including a former Terps basketball player (Atman)—were floating the idea of…yoga?

“They were like, man, give it a try,” Brown says. The boys tentatively followed Atman in some breathing exercises, some poses, some meditating. Soon, “it’s blowing our mind,”

Brown says. He started noticing a change in himself almost immediately.

“I’m feeling my muscles getting stronger, I’m feeling my lungs getting better. Afterward I felt great…like it was nothing in the world that could make me angry or upset. I felt like I could leave out and go skip down the street and be happy.…And then a week later, I noticed when I was meditating, I came to a realization, like, yo, I need to start to think before I do things.”

As trendy as yoga may have become in recent years, it has deep roots in some Baltimore neighborhoods. In their early boyhoods on North Smallwood Street, Ali and Atman learned about meditating and yoga from their father, Meredith “Smitty” Smith, and their godfather, “Uncle” Will Joyner. Smitty and Joyner had both been Black Panthers. For them, spiritual practices like yoga were ways for the community to take care of itself against sometimes-hostile outside forces.

During college, Ali and Atman began spending more time with Joyner, and their interest deepened. González, their college friend, shared their growing fascination. They’d be over at Joyner’s house, watching a basketball game, “and then he would break out a [yoga] practice on us,” Ali recalls.

“In the middle of watching a basketball game and drinking beer, he would break out like the breath of fire [breathing technique] and talk about how it was good for getting rid of toxins in your body… We were like, what is wrong? Can’t we just chill and watch the basketball game?”

But the young men were intrigued. They asked Joyner to lead them on a deep dive into yoga. He told them that if they were serious, they should report back to his house at 4:30 a.m. to begin. He also warned, according to Atman, who repeats Joyner’s words and tone of voice: “I ain’t training no dee-vo-tees. I’m training teachers!” Meaning: Whatever the young men learned, they would have to share it with the community. “And that’s where our journey began,” Atman says.

After that first session at the Y, Ali, Atman, and González knew they were onto something that could make a difference in Baltimore and beyond. The mindfulness work with neighborhood children at the Y, as well as at a local elementary school, were early tests of the A Team’s theory that this ancient practice could have renewed relevance in neighborhoods not known for a proliferation of yoga studios.

They founded the Holistic Life Foundation in late 2001 to introduce children, especially, but also adults, to mindfulness practices that could help them cope with stress and anger and begin to heal emotional traumas in their lives.

The need was especially great, the trio surmised, in neighborhoods already struggling with poverty, gun violence, drug addiction, and systemic racism. They believed they could raise the level of inner peace—and therefore outer peace—in families, on blocks, in schools, in neighborhoods, maybe even in entire cities, one mindful child at a time.

“We saw the difference it was making in us, in our lives, and we wanted to really help people help themselves,” González says, sitting with Ali and Atman one February morning in a co-work space they use in a converted church in Baltimore City.

“It’s actually giving people tools and techniques to empower them to heal their trauma, whether it’s trauma that’s stored in the body…or they live in a traumatic situation where their outward environment is chaotic and they need to learn how to develop an inner peace,” Atman says.


Since those early days, the three founders estimate the Holistic Life Foundation has offered yoga and mindfulness training to about 100,000 youths and adults, mainly in Baltimore, but also in other parts of the U.S. and in other countries. Dozens of the foundation’s former students—including Brown—kept up their personal practices and later came to work for the foundation as yoga specialists themselves. (The foundation currently has a staff of 44.)

They were teaching about 10,000 children per week in the Baltimore City Public Schools before the pandemic disrupted programming, according to the foundation. Now the total is about 4,200 in the schools, including those accessing an online platform, with plans to try to serve more.

A few years ago, a chance encounter at a mindfulness conference in New York led to the foundation creating a satellite program for about 700 students in the Akwesasne territory of the Mohawk Nation in upstate New York and Canada. In addition, the Clinton Global Initiative of the Clinton Foundation named Holistic Life part of its “commitments to action” effort, which this year is helping Holistic Life establish programs for a total of 2,100 students in schools in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Denver.

“Traditionally when people think about mindfulness or yoga, it is largely thought of as this white privileged activity that young gentrifiers do,” says City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who sponsored the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act in 2020 to bring trauma-informed
training to city agencies. “But what Ali and Atman and Andy have proven is that mindfulness is for everyone and that there is a way of using it to address and to heal trauma that is actually beautiful.”

Holistic Life has been providing mindfulness lessons to thousands of city librarians and Recreation and Parks employees under the Healing City program, Cohen says, and the foundation will work with other agencies as well is a hard thing to measure, but results have been promising.

After Monique Debi, former principal of Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School in East Baltimore, introduced Holistic Life’s mindfulness program at the school in 2017, the number of suspensions dropped from 180 the previous year to 17 by 2020, even though the number of students doubled to nearly 1,000 in the same period, according to Debi.

“We were faced with a huge mountain that my staff and I would not have been able to ascend without [Holistic Life’s] support,” Debi says. “We knew what we wanted to do, but we didn’t know how to do it. They really came in with the how.”

How Holistic Life does it is through what the founders call the Mindful Moment. The school day may begin with a guided meditation over the public address system that takes many forms. A meditation on love might invite the students and staff first to think about those they love and mentally send love to them. Then they should think about someone they don’t love and mentally send them love anyway. Finally they should remember to send themselves love, because self-love and self-care are essential as well.

A Mindful Moment room in a school will be set aside as a retreat space, staffed by a mindfulness specialist and equipped with yoga mats, comfortable chairs, soft lights, and perhaps an oil diffuser to produce soothing aromas.

“It’s an oasis in the school,” Atman says. “We talk to them about their stresses, how the stress plays out in their body, whether they clench their fist, clench their jaw, fold their arms.”

Students learn breathing techniques and stretches to practice the next time they feel stressed out, along with a self-awareness about the impact and sources of stress. Ali adds: “It’s really empowering for young people and for anybody, just the knowledge of what’s going on, and then the ability to not just impulsively fly off the handle, but to just be, oh, okay, that’s what that is, and now I even have a tool to use for it.”

The yoga specialists are on call to visit classrooms, perhaps to lead breathing exercises to help students relax and focus before a test.

“I can tell you that the whole atmosphere, the whole vibe, everything changes because it gives the kids a different way to handle their emotions,” says Leonie Duhaney, a fifth-grade math and science teacher at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School. “It helps them to deescalate, and it helps the kids to focus better in class.”

Vance Benton, former principal of Patterson High School, instituted the Mindful Moment program in 2012 after he took a survey and found that the vast majority of his students had experienced at least two deaths of people close to them. They were suffering from what Benton called “present traumatic stress disorder.”


Soon after the program began, he saw a student meditating and practicing breaths outside the Mindful Moment room in a crowded hallway during the transition between classes. The students streaming by took no notice of the young meditating man, which told Benton that mindfulness practices were becoming normalized in the school’s culture.

“I knew the program was working because of the students themselves—students’ behaviors, students’ understanding…You started to see a change. You started to see teachers take their class to the Mindful Moment room. You started to hear students ask me, did I do my mindfulness today?” says Benton, who recently left Patterson to become chief operating officer of Holistic Life.

Jamar Peete was in the fourth grade at Windsor Hills Elementary/Middle School when he learned yoga from the A Team.

“It wasn’t until I did yoga and mindfulness that I had absolute silence, or just quiet, or just actually sat still,” says Peete, now 33, who sells medical devices for wound care in Virginia Beach.

The focus he developed made him a better student and a better baseball pitcher in elementary school, he says, and he taught yoga and meditation to his teammates on the lacrosse team at Limestone University in South Carolina. “It’s still one of my most powerful tools to this day,” he says.

On a recent afternoon in late February at Edgewood Elementary School, a couple dozen students on yoga mats are stretching and breathing deeply and audibly in the manner of budding yogis. Brown, their instructor, quizzes them on the purpose and potential of each move.

“Somebody give me the benefit of the belly breath,” Brown says. “It helps you stay calm and focused!” a boy in the fourth grade sings out.

The session is part of an after-school program that Holistic Life runs at Edgewood called Holistic Me, where about 80 students receive both academic enrichment and yoga four days a week. Most of the students stay engaged for the full 45 minutes of yoga. Brown and another instructor reward mindful behavior by generously dispensing colorful paper—aka “Mindful Bucks” that can be exchanged later for prizes or treats.

“With every inhale I just want you to see yourself pulling in peace, positivity, and love,” Brown says during a final exercise. “With every exhale I want you to see yourself letting go of any anger, any stress, anything that’s holding you back from being great.”

After the session, Brown thinks back to when he was the age of these elementary-schoolers. Without the practice he learned from Ali, Atman and González, “I would have been dead or in jail, I promise you,” he says. “It transformed my life.” Now he’s married, with children of his own.

Another instructor, Anaije Hamilton, 21, first encountered yoga as a student at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School. “My attitude was very bad, my mouth was very bad, I was just short-tempered,” she says. The yoga program “helped me to really calm down and center myself and think about things before I say them.…I even taught my grandmother and my uncles things that I learned.”

To the A Team, stories like Brown’s and Hamilton’s show the potential for the confidence and calm—and even the bliss—that can be achieved in a makeshift yoga studio to be spread to the community.

“They bring these practices back to their home, to their friends in their neighborhood,” Atman says. “Not only does the school change, but the neighborhood environments change as well because when they see somebody who’s suffering, they’ll give them the practice to help them out.”

Just like Ali, Atman, and González, the students can become informal trainers themselves, not just “dee-vo-tees.”

“These are skills that, once you get them, no one can take them from you,” Atman says. “This is about taking these practices off the mat and into the rest of your life.”