Andy founded the Holistic Life Foundation with two co-founders he met at college. They decided that their mission in life was to try to save the world and work out how to get everyone to stop suffering. One of the group’s godfathers agreed to teach them all facets of yoga practice – at 4am each morning – with the proviso that they became teachers themselves. Eventually, they had the opportunity to work with a group of ‘problem kids’ and that’s where the foundation started.
“We try to make compassion cool.”
What is the foundation all about?
One of the main aims of the foundation is to give adults and kids the tools they need to regulate themselves. Andy points out that the children learn to love themselves through the programmes – they get a sense of self-worth. When humans love themselves first, it’s amazing how much easier it is for them to start loving others. This is when the neighbourhood, the climate and the culture in a school starts changing.
Originally the principal of the local school had asked Andy and his friends to become sports coaches for the ‘problem kids’ but they suggested teaching them yoga and meditation instead. The principal didn’t really mind what they did with them as long as they were prepared to care for them. There were only about 10 children but very soon after starting the programme, the numbers of the kids in detention per week reduced. Parents were delighted even though Andy is convinced they had no idea they were being taught mindfulness and mediation – they just saw the dramatic improvement in their children.
That small group of children were about to go to middle school but Andy and his colleagues decided that they weren’t going to abandon them. They picked each of them up from their middle schools across the city every day and took them to a central location for their classes. They also started to take the children to other after-school programmes.
When adults saw how positive the impact was becoming on the community, with the children starting to teach their parents the techniques, word spread and the foundation began to attract many more children. The programme now runs five days a week and works with 160 children.
“If you come to the programme you’d see a little three or four-year-old leading everyone through breathing techniques.”
What are your thoughts on detention – how was it working in the Baltimore area where you set up the foundation?
Detention wasn’t working for these kids. It was pouring fuel on the fire of their already heightened state. There was no attempt to help the children 0 to give them tools to help them to help themselves. The child is shouted at in the classroom, sent to the office, sent home and then returns the next day. If the same situation occurs, he reacts in the same way. He has no way of improving because he hasn’t been shown or taught how to handle his state of mind.
So instead of being sent to the office to be shouted at, the foundation arranged a room which was set up as an oasis in the school with yoga mats, meditation cushions, Himalayan salt crystals, bowl diffusers and posters with positive affirmations. The child would come in, the staff would actively listen to them and then lead them through some breathing exercises and meditation, modified to be appropriate to the specific scenario the child was facing. They only have 15mins with the child after which he is sent back to the classroom. When faced with that scenario again they have been taught a tool to use instead of reacting as they did.
After 3 years working in the same school, there are now no suspensions at all. They haven’t replaced detention with meditation – it’s just that the kids don’t need them anymore. They have learned to regulate themselves.
“They are finding that sense of self-worth and they are more compassionate towards themselves and others.”
Andy believes that this could change the dynamic in every school across the world.
How did the teachers and adults in the schools react when you first suggested the approaches?
The reaction is always mixed. Some teachers have experience of meditation themselves so are positive but others are highly sceptical. The way to convince the sceptical often is to explain the science behind the approaches. Members of both the groups worry about how their teaching will be disrupted but Andy points out that the programme is intended to fit complement their teaching. If they are spending 15 minutes of each lesson getting the children settled, this can be reduced by the children learning the tools to regulate themselves. Overall, most teachers are convinced very quickly when the see the results – the transformation. The foundation always teach the staff first. The staff need to be practising themselves first before they can model and reinforce the approaches to the children, which is essential.
What is happening in a child’s brain and body when they meditate?
Andy explains the concepts of ‘flee or fight’ and the automatic nature of our reactions to stress or danger. Listen to the episode to hear his detailed description. He says the problem is that most of us don’t know how to bring ourselves back to a calmer, controlled, relaxed state. This is where practising mindfulness and meditation comes in.
What skills would you pass on to teachers who don’t have access to these sorts of services?
Andy says he teaches simple ‘belly breathing’ or ‘diaphragmic breathing’ to everyone wherever he goes:
- Breathe in and out through your nose
- Breathe in with your belly
- Exhale fully
- Slow your breathing down
Also, Andy recommends a basic meditation concept:
- Whenever you get a moment in your day, just stop for a second
- Take a few deep breaths, just block everything out and just be
There are a lot of extra detail and examples in the episode so do listen right to the end.