A room full of yogis roll out their mats. They do a series of asanas before practicing some deep breathing and meditation.
No, this isn’t a crunchy yoga studio—it’s a city school’s gym.
This is a typical scene at classes taught by the Holistic Life Foundation (HLF), a nonprofit that provides after-school programs centered around yoga instruction. HLF was founded 10 years ago by brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their friend Andy Gonzalez and has seen major progress in the last decade.
“When we first started teaching, kids were asking, ‘Yogurt? Yoda?’ Yoga wasn’t something in their communities,” says Ali. “But we like to break down those stereotypes. Yoga isn’t just about bending. It’s dealing with your thoughts.”
HLF currently has in-school yoga studies in six city schools and an after-school program four days a week at Robert W. Coleman Elementary. The foundation also teaches kids how to garden and even offers a hip-hop class as a special treat to reward good behavior. But the main focus is the yoga and how it affects students’ lives.
“It’s a gradual process, of course,” says Ali. “Someone who is disruptive in class is calm now, that kind of thing. But ultimately we’re trying to help manage stress, which comes from racing thoughts. Yoga teaches you to be present and calm.”
The Smiths grew up in a vegan, yoga-centric household in West Baltimore, where their dad took them to ashrams and had them meditate before school. They’ve seen firsthand the long-term effects of yoga on themselves and their students—many of whom have gone on to college or volunteer for the foundation.
“There was one girl who used to get into a lot of fights,” says Atman. “After about a year in our program, another girl came up to her and said something rude. She looked at us and said, ‘If this was last year, I would have knocked her out. But I’m just going to go over there and do some breathing exercises.'”
Beyond that, the founders have seen students go home and teach their parents yoga to deal with stress, and many continue to practice, even 10 years later.
“They’ll always go back to breathing and meditation,” Atman says. “Once you figure out where to go to find that inner peace, you never want to leave.”