Co-Founders of the Holistic Life Foundation Ali Smith, Atman Smith, and Andres Gonzales engaged in a conversation about racial injustice in our society. They discussed the racism that is capturing the attention of the world and how contemplative practices can inform our response to it.
The session began with a “stress breath” practice, designed to help one hit the reset button, alleviate stress, and be more present. Following the practices, brothers Ali and Atman shared how their upbringing in west Baltimore helped lay the foundation for the work they do now.
“We learned yoga and meditation as kids,” Ali recalled. “Learning yoga and meditation from Black Panthers and activists shapes your worldview and the way you teach… we always wanted to empower people with the practice and teach them to be teachers.” Their dad knew the powerful connection between contemplation and action. He often talked with Ali and Atman about the failure of revolutions and how they often ended up violent, instilling in them that:
“An involution is what was necessary, you need to change yourself within to change the world outside.”
Ali and Atman’s dad also always implored them to start their own businesses. Having lived through segregation and experienced life-long discrimination, their dad knew that Ali and Atman wouldn’t get a fair shake in the corporate world. Atman recalled how their dad always said “We need to build a Noah’s ark!” In a sea of racial injustice, “He wanted us to build a Noah’s ark for ourselves, for our family, and for other people in our community who don’t get opportunities.” This is one of the many seeds that was planted during Ali and Atman’s childhood that has inspired their work at the Holistic Life Foundation.
Atman said, “With the Holistic Life Foundation, we’re able to analyze a lot of things that are wrong with the system and address it from the inside.” Atman sees their work as spreading the light and creating opportunities for others. This includes hosting contemplative after-school programs, helping people break the cycle of recidivism and become financially independent, workforce development, and more.
With workforce development, Ali noted the importance of preparing students for what to expect in the world, the discrimination they may face, and the assumptions people may make about who they are—some of the very challenges Ali, Atman, and Andres regularly face. As Ali shared:
“We’re experts at what we do, we’ve grown our business from in the red to a multi-million-dollar organization with an international reach. But still, to a lot of people, we’re just two black dudes and a brown dude and that’s it.”
They were honest about the microaggressions they have experienced in the mindfulness field, like people critiquing the way they lead and facilitate. “I don’t think, if we were white, that would have happened,” Ali reflected. “We’ve put in the time, we’ve done the work, we’ve taught a lot of people, and the fact that you feel comfortable enough chastising us about the way we teach because it’s not the way you teach or it’s not the way you want us to teach… that’s a serious microaggression.”
Andres shared that if it wasn’t for his personal practice, it would be hard to put up with these assaults. “It’s like it becomes our responsibility to just eat it and be the bigger person… and that becomes very overwhelming.” Through the Holistic Life Foundation, they hope to provide individuals with the resources and techniques to grow and spread love and compassion, even amidst the realities of racism.
Ali, Atman, and Andres agreed that this moment is a time for naming things that have long been unacknowledged, emphasizing that we all have a responsibility to speak up, educate ourselves and others, and work for change. Andres said:
“Now is the time to speak up. When you see it, and you know it’s wrong, say it’s wrong. There is no time to hold your tongue anymore, there is no time to be walking on eggshells.”
Andres also acknowledged the power of resisting assimilation and embracing one’s identity as a Black, Indigenous, Person of Color (BIPOC), sharing:
“Society made [my father] believe that being a white man was more powerful than being a Puerto Rican. He never spoke Spanish to me. He was so brainwashed into thinking he should hide his roots.”
Atman stressed the role of accountability in fighting for racial justice. “Hold people accountable. If you see something wrong, do something about it. Be wise when you’re doing something about it. Don’t react, respond.” He also underscored the need for a mindfulness practice or another outlet that helps you cultivate love.
“Hate cannot erase hate, only love can do that. I’m not saying to be subservient… but by sending love to those situations and people who upset you, you can evict them from renting space in your mind. Mindfulness practice, accountability, and love are really needed in this moment of time.”
Ali also encouraged white people to be aware of their privilege and to use it to create a more equal playing field rather.
Before transitioning to a time of Q&A, Atman led us in a lovingkindness practice focused on cultivating love and compassion for oneself, others, those affected by Covid-19, communities impacted by police brutality and racial violence, and the Earth as a whole.
In response to a question about best practices for BIPOC business owners, Ali, Atman, and Andres offered the following advice:
When asked about the inspiring aspects of their work, they shared how beautiful it is to see their students wanting to teach meditation to others after experiencing its transformative power themselves. As Atman said, “The practice impacted them so much they wanted to share it with other people.” They also cited the inspiring results of their Bridging Academics and the Mind program, which facilitates yoga, mindfulness meditation, and self-care practices in elementary schools. It is now being used throughout the country and they hope for it to eventually be in every school in every city in the world.
Another attendee asked them about “colorblind” understandings of race. Ali responded that colorblindness is spiritual bypassing and a privilege that BIPOC simply don’t have. While we may all be the same at a spiritual level, race still functions powerfully in the world.
“The only people who are colorblind are the people who aren’t colored.”
A final question inquired how educators can integrate mindfulness into existing classroom activities. Ali, Atman, and Andres suggested:
Visit the Holistic Life Foundation website to learn more.
Ali Smith is a Co-Founder of The Involution Group and the Holistic Life Foundation, where he currently serves as the Executive Director, and is a co-host of the podcast Look Again. For nearly 20 years, he has taught contemplative practices to diverse audiences. He is an author and a pioneer in the fields of yoga and mindfulness in education, as well as trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness, developing best practices that are used around the world. He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from the University of Maryland.
Andres Gonzalez, MBA is a Co-Founder of the Holistic Life Foundation. For eighteen years, Andres has taught yoga in diverse environments throughout the U.S. and the world, including in Baltimore City Public Schools, drug treatment centers, mental crisis facilities, homeless shelters, wellness centers, and colleges. He is a certified Health Coach through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and holds a B.S. in Marketing and an MBA from the University of Maryland.
Atman Smith is a Co-Founder of the Holistic Life Foundation, where he currently serves as the Director of Development. For 19 years, he has taught yoga and mindfulness to diverse populations, including underserved and high-risk youth in Baltimore City Public Schools, drug treatment centers, wellness centers, and colleges. He holds a BA in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland.
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