Teaching Kids How to Meditate — and Getting Schools on Board, Too

Dr. Michael Gervais speaks with Ali Smith, executive director of the non-profit Holistic Life Foundation, about bringing mindfulness training to public schools and diverse populations. [Podcast]

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Dr. Michael Gervais has a podcast series called Finding Mastery built around a central goal: unpacking and decoding how the greatest performers in the world use their minds to create amazing journeys while they pursue the boundaries of human potential.

He recently sat down with Ali Smith, executive director of the Holistic Life Foundation. Ali has helped develop and pilot yoga and mindfulness programs at public and private schools, drug treatment centers, juvenile detention centers, mental crisis facilities, and retreat centers, both nationally and internationally. In this episode, Michael and Ali discuss how he got schools to believe in his mission, and the ways in which the foundation has made a big impact in many kids’ lives.

Michael: Ali Smith, how are you?

Ali: Doing wonderful Mike, how are you doing?

Michael: Fantastic. Fantastic. Ok, so where are you? We’re in different parts of the world right now, where are you?

Ali: I’m in Charm City—Baltimore, Maryland right now.

Michael: Ok. You called it Charm City?

Ali: Charm City, that’s what Baltimore is known as, Charm City.

Michael: I didn’t know that, where did that name come from?

Ali: I don’t know, I think it’s from all the charming and handsome people that live here, actually

Michael: Ok. So you’re going to drop this in the conversation, aren’t you? How wonderful and sexy you are.

Ali: I mean if it comes up, I’m not going to push the situation. But if it comes up I’ll definitely throw it out there.

Michael: Alright Ali, It’s been great to see your work, to feel your vibe over the years. And to celebrate around what you’ve been able to do in this city for young people, and you’re the co-founder of the Holistic Life Foundation, you kicked that off back in 2001. And can you give us a quick insight on what it is that you’re doing right now in the foundation, and then also add in some of the buzz that you’ve been receiving from a media standpoint as well.

Ali: OK. So the Holistic Life Foundation’s whole mission, when Andy and I first started, it was to bring yoga, mindfulness, and environmental education advocacy to under-served communities. But it’s gotten a lot bigger than that since 2001. Now we’re just bringing it to everyone. Our focus is Baltimore, but we do programs nationally and internationally as well. Yoga and mindfulness have become the crux of what we do. Most of the programs that we do offer school-age children in K through 12. In Baltimore City alone, we were working in this past school year, 17 or 18 schools, working with about 7,500 kids a week and that’s just in Baltimore City public schools alone. And a lot of what we do is around reciprocal teaching, so we’re not just teaching kids to use the skills and tools, but we also teach them to be teachers, because they’re more likely to take the skills home and teach the parents, to teach people in their community, and that’s how we’ve seen the biggest change we made.

Michael: So there is a thought that’s been important in my life, which is meet them where they sweat and it’s a way to think about having such a regard for the person that you’re willing to go to where they go, you’re willing to meet them in the condition that they’re in. So you’re doing the exact same thing for people, for kids, in schools. You’re going to the place that they’re naturally there, and you’re teaching mindfulness and teaching yoga as strategies. Why are you doing this?

Ali: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Andy and I really got into these practices when we graduated college. Andy and I had some introduction to them as little kids, like little, little kids. But when we finished up in college we really delved deeper into the practice, and it was pretty much what most of our time was, experimenting on ourselves with yoga, mindfulness meditation, Pranayama, any contemplative practice we could get our hands on we were practicing, and we felt amazing. So we’re like well, we have to share this with as many people as possible. And the first outlet that just happened to pop up was a bunch of fifth graders at an elementary school. You know, the universe puts you on a path and if you can silence your mind enough to see where you’re being led it will lead you to these awesome places if you put in the work. I think we just put in the work, and the universe led us to things, kept expanding and expanding, that’s working with more kids, but then it expanded into us working with the teachers at the school, the principals and drug treatment centers, in mental illness facilities and homeless shelters and private schools, in retreat centers here and overseas, so it’s just like we really believe in what we’re doing and we really love the practice, so I think it’s just, we want to teach as many people in as many different walks of life as possible.

Michael: And what do you want to teach them?

Ali: I’d say, how to be inwardly happy, I think is what we really want to teach. You feel like a lot of the suffering that’s going on is created in like, the mind and all the things that are going on around us. But I mean, life is going to be stressful, life is going to be hectic. But if you can find that place of inner peace within you that you can always tap into, you can deal with life and the struggles inwardly and outwardly, because I mean, that life on the outside is going to beat you up. I feel like most people get beat up or in their own minds, more  than they do on the outside, so like worry gets in, gets in anger gets in, jealousy gets in, sadness gets in, and that’s where your mind stays. But if you have some options to catch those thoughts and switch them into something more positive, put them in perspective through the practice, you can gain that inner peace, that inner happiness. I think that’s what we really want to bring to people.

Life is going to be stressful, life is going to be hectic. But if you can find that place of inner peace within you that you can always tap into, you can deal with life and the struggles inwardly and outwardly.

Michael: And what does your practice look like. What does your training look like?

Ali: My personal training was a learning meditation from my dad. When I was around four or so, maybe five, I learned meditation from my dad and then we grew up in like a self-realization Fellowship Church, which was based on yoga, so there was a practice there. We got out of the practice as adults, but my dad’s best-friend, me and my brother’s godfather, he had gotten into yoga in like, the 60s so then we went to him and said we want to learn some yoga. So he taught us a lot of different forms. It started off more physical like hatha, and then it moved into like pranayama and a lot of the off the matt practices, meditation—and I’m still learning to this day.

Michael: And then how do you take the things that you’ve learned, and structure it in a way that little kids can learn?

Ali: I think that the way you put it was perfect, like meet them where they sweat, like we meet them where they are with the practices. We make the practices applicable to the struggles that they’re going through in their lives. We figure out ways to make them fun. I mean, because you don’t want to go back to something you see as drab or boring, but if we can make it fun and make it engaging, and also empower them with the practice so that they know how to use it when to use it in their own lives, and they can take control of their their reactions or get shifted into responses to what people are doing to them, the thoughts they’re going through in their mind. They feel more powerful and they can walk into their life with more confidence and be able to handle the situation that the world’s throwing at them.

Michael: And then what would be a specific practice that you ask people to train?

Ali: The first place we always start is with a deep breath. Most people don’t know how to take a deep breath, a full deep breath like down to their lower lungs, or a lot of people call it a belly breath and then incorporating their entire lung capacity. Most people know that there’s a lot of physiological and neurological benefits to just taking a deep breath and it’s very relaxing. Like I mean it’s amazing, we might walk into a school and teachers are stressed out, we show them how to take a deep breath, and they open their eyes and they’re like, I have not felt this calm in a really long time. And it’s just from being able to slow things down and take a deep breath. And that’s always where we start. Your life starts with the first breath and ends with your last breath, so it must be really, really important.

We might walk into a school and teachers are stressed out, we show them how to take a deep breath, and they open their eyes and they’re like, I have not felt this calm in a really long time.

Michael: I think there’s some recent research, or at least I think it’s recent, that at 18 deep breaths is when the parasympathetic nervous system begins to get triggered. And that’s the fancy phrase for the response to relaxation, or that the system that kicks in to find a more relaxed state in the body. So, can you walk us through like how do you train somebody to take a deep breath?

Ali: Most people are used to taking a deep breath, they do the stomach and chest out thing, and but you’re not using your lower lungs where most of your lung capacity is. So it’s usually just getting someone to sit up straight, as long as your spine is straight and taking a hand to put it on your belly. All the breaths are going to be in and out of your nose, because your nose is the filter so you get a lot of benefits just by breathing it out through your nose. You’re just going to inhale and expand your belly as much as you can, you feel like you’re filling your belly up with air, it’s actually your lower lungs expanding with the help of your diaphragm. Then you get to hold onto that breath for a second and you leave your hand where it is, and you exhale and pull your belly away from your hand, creating space between your belly and a hand on that exhale measure, pulling your belly button to your spine. And most people think the inhale is really important, which it is, but the exhale is just as important because it’s pushing all that stale CO2 out of your body and it’s also get rid of all those ruminating thoughts, just like a link between your breath and your thoughts. Those stale thoughts are usually like stale air in your body and you can push the stale air out, you can push the stale thoughts out, y