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Finding an oasis with the Holistic Life Foundation

Words by Abi Scaife

“Our neighbourhood in Baltimore was a shadow of [what] it used to be. It used to be a place that was full of love and connection and family. After crack came, it was none of those things.”

Whether you’re a qualified yogi, or you’ve never so much as tripped and fallen into a child pose, research has shown the benefits of the practice on your wellbeing. For Ali, Atman and Andrés, yoga has become a huge, transformative part of their lives - and they are bringing its benefits to their community.

“Our godfather was one of those people that got into yoga in the early '60s, and never ever got out of it,” explains Ali Smith. “It made sense to us the way that he taught, [it] spoke to our souls and lit that thirst of hunger and knowledge in us around yoga. We went all in.”

The founding trio, brothers Ali and Atman Smith, and college friend Andrés Gonzáles, set up Holistic Life Foundation 20 years ago to bring yoga and mindfulness to a diverse population, including underserved and high-risk youth in Baltimore.

This incredible charity is dedicated to transforming the lives of people in the Baltimore community, helping them harness and realise their potential by looking inwards.

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“We saw how it strengthened us mentally, physically and emotionally,” says Atman, of the yoga and mindfulness work they now teach to others. “We honestly knew that we would be doing the universe a disservice by just us benefiting from these practices.”

The trio were taught primarily by Ali and Atman’s godfather, Will Joyner, who first began practising yoga and mindfulness in the ‘60s. He taught Ali, Atman and Andrés on one condition - that they continue the cycle, and teach others in return.

“When you're in the midst of struggles and seeing people going through it, and you’re ‘blissing’ … it's like ‘man, I just want everyone to feel the way I'm feeling right now!’” says Andrés. “So we knew that we had to do something, to share these practices and help put a smile on everybody else's faces because he was smiling all the time.”

Since creating the Holistic Life Foundation in 2001, more than 100,000 youth and adults have been served through yoga, mindfulness, and other wellness and healing-based practices. 

It is a radical act of care for the self, and the community, that the charity has embarked on, and with each student that they teach there is an incredible payoff.

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The aim for all three men is to break down barriers, change mindsets, and create a brand new outlook for the people living in their Baltimore community. Through introspection, they are popularising a new way of living, one that values kindness, love, and equality.

“A lot of the students that we work with were taught to resolve conflicts with their hands,” says Atman. “Now, not only do they know how to peacefully resolve conflicts themselves, they teach their kids how to peacefully resolve conflicts.”

“Our students are breaking generational curses.”

It shows just how impactful the lessons are, when so many of Ali, Atman and Andrés’ former students have ‘graduated’, only to return as teachers themselves.

“[It’s] a lot of hard work and a lot of fun and a lot of love,” says Ali. “We love the students that we work with, Our former students come back to work for us and give back because that love is there. That’s always going to be a part of the Holistic Life Foundation.”

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“A lot of people ask kids, why don't care about the neighbourhood and why they're disrespectful to their teacher … why?” adds Atman. “Really, it’s because they don't care about themselves.”

The Holistic Life Foundation isn’t just changing lives, but equipping their students with what they need to take ownership of their lives, their choices, and their futures.

“It’s about giving people the tools to change their own life and that's how we make the community smile, and make us smile,” says Atman.

Charity check-in

At Smiley Movement, we like to elevate the work of charities across the world. Here are three charities whose causes align with the themes in this article. 

Family Action. Family Action is an award-winning national charity working from the heart of local communities across England and Wales. Learn more here.

Lives Not Knives. This youth-led charity works to prevent knife crime, serious youth violence and school exclusions by empowering young people. Support them.

Papyrus. This is the leading suicide prevention charity for young people, working with under 35s. Find out more.

This article aligns with the UN SDGs Good Health and Wellbeing, Quality Education and Partnerships for the Goals.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs