Baltimore school turns to meditation as threat of violence looms over students

For students that feel that every day could be their last, a Mindful Moment room offers solace and discipline problems have become less common

Inhale all the love the universe has to offer, Lloyd Jones told a group of high school students at the beginning of second period. Exhale anything that doesnt benefit you.

A student wearing an ROTC shirt sat, legs crossed, eyes shut, breathing, his thumbs touching in a Buddhist mudra, or hand gesture. He was surrounded by 10 other students, all black and Latino, in a room given over to the Mindful Moment program.

All the other students at Patterson high school in Baltimore were doing something similar. Every morning, the school broadcasts 15 minutes of breathing exercisings and meditation instruction.

Even though you may not engage in the practice actively, you still hear it every day, said the schools principal, Vance Benton, of sound recordings, which also play at the end of the day.

The program is intended to help students cope with the prevalence of death, violence, and commotion in their lives, Benton told.

When you look at our children and you compare their situations every day, they feel like it could be their last day. Every day they feel like they may have to take someone elses life if it came to it. Every day theyre dealing with a close friend or comrade or family member that was killed senselessly.

Patterson high school serves students living in tough neighborhoods, in a city that is set to reach 300 assassinations and 1,000 nonfatal shootings by the end of the year. Some of the students are also immigrants whose households escaped violence in Central America. Benton compared what his students go through on a daily basis to the experiences of soldiers serving in a war.

After the program came to Patterson high school, the number of most disciplinary issues were approximately cut in half, according to Benton.

Whenever there is a child who is acting up or not focused, get into a fight, the educator can refer this child to the Mindful Moment room. They sit down with our staff, we have about 15 minutes with them, they do some active listening to figure out what it is the kids are complaining about, whatever is going on. Theyll resulted them through some breathing exercising, meditation, give them some tea, send them back to the class, told Andres Gonzalez, one of the founders of Holistic Life.

Holistic Life Foundation co-founders Atman Smith, left, and Ali Smith, centre, with Andres Gonzalez. Photo: Colby Ware, politenes of Open Society Institute-Baltimore

It was a risky proposition, bringing yoga and meditation into an inner-city school and taking up instruction time in core topics, such as reading, in which many of his students struggled. But Benton felt he did not have a selection: they couldnt focus on read if they couldnt deal with their trauma.

When this opportunity was brought to me, I knew we had to do something that was not ordinary because we have a situation and we have issues that are not ordinary, Benton said.

The founders of the Holistic Life Foundation, which results programs in nearly 20 other schools, fit the bill. Like the students, the founders and staff are mostly African American or Latino.

If you look at the founders and our staff, we dont look like your ordinary everyday yoga teachers, said Gonzalez. There are four or five of us on our staff with some dreads; most of us are wearing a superhero T-shirt or a comic book T-shirt or a Starring Wars T-shirt.

Brothers Atman and Ali Smith founded Holistic Life with Gonzalez in 2001 after they met on the University of Maryland party scene. We were pretty wild guys, but it got to where the end of the night, a few drinkings in you and youre talking about life and philosophizing about the meaning of life and whats the phase of us being here and why are we here, Gonzalez told.

Ali and Atman, who were raised as what Gonzalez calls hood hippies, grew up with a meditation practise but they had moved away from it until one of them spotted a volume on the subject at their godfathers house. We were all into superheroes and comics a lot so when he opened up, it is amazing stuff you get from meditation, like superpower-type stuff, and we were all like: We wanna learn this shit right here.

In 2002, they started their first school program and have since been able to hire some of the original students to work as instructors in the program. Some of these students end up spending a lot of time in the Mindful Moment room with their teachers, who are available throughout the day to assist students who are dealing with emotional issues, distractions or trauma.

Despite the drop in behavioral issues, Benton says much of the progress isnt measurable. He tells the story of a student who was having some issues, but when he went to the Mindful Moment room, the staff was not available. So he sat down in the main hallway by the door and engaged in his meditation. This is when I knew something was going on, when I knew he felt comfy enough to sit down outside in this main hallway on the first floor with his eyes closed engaging in his meditation, Benton told.

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