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Photo: Sofia Drobinskaya

Empowering Communities: The Holistic Life Foundation Visits Naropa

By Samuel ‘Jasper’ Cliff, BA Creative Writing & Literature ‘18

people on stagePhoto: Sofia Drobinskaya

Last semester, three self-proclaimed “love zombies” who are on a mission to spread love through yoga and mindfulness visited Naropa University. Brothers Ali and Atman Smith and Andres ‘Andy’ Gonzalez are the founders of The Holistic Life Foundation (HLF), a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore, Maryland.

HLF helps students and adults in Baltimore’s most underserved communities develop mindfulness and coping strategies through yoga, meditation, and other self-care techniques. According to their website, the foundation is committed to nurturing communities, encouraging stewardship of the environment, and developing “high-quality evidence-based programs” and curriculums to improve community well-being.

The Smith brothers met Gonzalez at the University of Maryland, College Park. During their last semester, the trio read books on spirituality, philosophy, religion, history, politics, and astronomy in pursuit of answers to the bigger questions. During this time of expansion, they were also baffled by all the suffering in the world and in their own communities, leading Gonzalez to ask, “So what are we going to do about it?”

At first, the trio didn’t know exactly how they would contribute. They began deepening their knowledge of yoga and developing their practice under the guidance of Ali and Atman’s godfather. As young children, Ali and Atman grew up with yoga in their home, and their father had them meditate every morning before school. As Atman says, “Our parents were big hippies. They were into yoga, vegetarianism, and all that kind of stuff.”

In December of 2001, in the house that Ali and Atman grew up in, they formed The Holistic Life Foundation along with Gonzalez. The nonprofit initially existed as an after-school program serving twenty fifth-grade boys. It introduced them to yoga, mindfulness, urban gardening, and teamwork in an effort to revive the community through its youngest members. The leaders of the new nonprofit assured their neighbors—who were wary of a group of young men gathering on a daily basis—that they weren’t starting a gang but were “creating gangsters of good,” and that is exactly what they did. In a city where the dropout rate for high school students hovers around 50 percent, nineteen of that first group of twenty graduated, and many of them now work for HLF.

little girl digging in gardenPhoto: Larry Jackson

They soon expanded their program to the elementary school down the street and started bringing yoga and mindfulness directly into the classroom. Seventeen years since their founding, HLF now proudly serves roughly 7500 students per week in more than forty-two Baltimore area schools, and employs thirty Baltimore youth. They offer trainings, a residency program, yoga and mindfulness classes, and other workshops focusing on stress reduction and healthy living.

Schools across America are facing some immense issues including underfunding, staff shortages, and teacher strikes—not to mention another wave of tragic shootings. For some school districts, like those in Baltimore, these concerns are layered on top of already existing issues like high dropout rates and fractured communities. It seems clear that now, more than ever, schools could benefit from having both their staff and student body equipped with the tools of mindfulness.

“Our children are suffering emotionally, physically, and spiritually. If we don’t have something in place to help children deal with [aggravation], it’s highly unlikely that they are going to perform at the necessary levels,” said Vance M. Benton, a principal of one of the Baltimore schools that HLF currently serves.

Naropa University’s new BA in Elementary Education and Teacher Licensure Program share many of the same values as those in HLF’s mission statement. The teachers of tomorrow will benefit greatly from being equipped with the tools to help their students face themselves as well as the myriad of day to day challenges. But it isn’t just about braving the storm of societal ills that makes mindfulness in the classroom important. It also encourages the development of a more complete human being who’s ready to contribute to the world and fully assimilate information. Naropa’s founder believed mindfulness was an integral part of the learning process. According to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, it is the third level of the Buddhist approach to education:

“Having collected information and having identified with the knowledge, then next, you have to use what you have learned as a way to develop precision … You’re precise on the spot, and your intelligence is sharpened so much, that you [can] actually be on the dot all the time. So you begin to experience some sense of freshness, which is the meditative state.” (Education for an Enlightened Society, 1978)

This seems to be part and parcel of what HLF is providing to the schools it supports, a new level of alertness and a fresh approach to what it means to educate children and to learn. “It’s about what we are doing for children, what we’re doing for our staff that goes beyond evaluating them, that goes beyond looking at their data,” said Benton. purple naropa seal to end article

This article originally appeared as a post on Naropa’s Pilot Light Blog:
“Holistic Life Foundation to Visit Naropa”

Naropa University‘s new BA in Elementary  Education program is a first-in-the-nation, fully accredited, contemplative teacher licensure program based on mindfulness practices and rigorous academics. The program provides graduates with the credentials required to teach Kindergarten through sixth grade in any public or private school in the state of Colorado, and potentially in all fifty states, and includes an endorsement in Cultural and Linguistic Diversity.