As a Black kid growing up in the ‘80s in West Baltimore, Ali Smith remembers not telling his classmates that his mornings began meditating with his father.
“We didn’t really tell too many people. Back then people weren’t really into it. We tried to keep it as quiet as possible,” said Smith, 46, who was introduced to meditation by his late father, Meredith Smith, and to yoga by his late godfather, Will Joyner.
Fast-forward four decades and Smith has taught meditation and yoga techniques all over the world; he runs a successful school, Holistic Life Foundation, that employs 40 people, and he co-wrote a book, “Let Your Life Shine,” with two business partners that they will discuss Tuesday on ABC’S “Good Morning America.”
The 338-page-book published by Penguin Random House explores the journey with “contemplative practices,” according to Smith.
“It’s our way to change ourselves and change the world,” the Homeland resident said. “There are things in the world you can’t change. But you can control your inner life and self.”
Making sure that others — particularly people of color — adopt contemplative practices is of the utmost importance to Smith and his co-authors, younger brother Altman Smith and Andres Gonzalez.
“The practices work for everybody, but sometimes people need to see people who look like them. A lot of people do not connect because they think it is very white because of who they see teaching it,” said Ali Smith. “People seeing them makes that connection — it resonates sometimes. They say, ‘When I grow up, this is what I want to do.’ ”
Gonzalez, 44, who is also Ali Smith’s business partner, said the book addresses a lot of the problems that plague underserved communities.
“We saw a lot of suffering and we wanted to help,” said the Fells Point resident. “We’re providing techniques and practices for the readers to help themselves and to help others. A lot of times in these communities, they don’t get provided with the same resources that everyone else does. When you start using these techniques and practices, it empowers them. They get a greater sense of self-worth. They see everyone as reflections of themselves. It allows community to be built. You are a little more understanding what they are going through. You are more empathetic towards them.”
Atman Smith, who is also a business partner and works at the yoga and meditation school, said it was difficult for the group to find time to complete writing the book, which took about a year.
“We’re so busy doing administrative work and traveling, doing teaching and speaking engagements,” the Remington resident said. “We just carved out time. We knew it was important to tell our story and inspire other people of color who wanted to help empower communities that are usually powerless in this American society. We knew that it was important to show them how important education was.”
The trio’s work has already been featured on CBS News, CNN, “NBC Nightly News” and PBS, as well as in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine and Forbes.
“We’re really excited about this book,” Ali Smith said. “We’re hoping the book inspires people to do what we do — inspire themselves and inspire the world. We want them to get the book and read it and share it with other people.”
He added, “I think it one of the most important things we can do. A lot of the time self-care and mental health are overlooked. The practice gives you the chance to respond, instead of react.”
Smith and Atman, 44, were drawn back to yoga and meditation while in college at the University of Maryland, College Park. There they befriended Gonzalez, and the three became inseparable.
“Me and Atman bonded first. I’m a light-skinned guy. No one was talking to me. It was very nice for someone to come up and talk to me,” Gonzalez recalled.
The two officially bonded when playing the fighting video game Tekken. Eventually, all three grew closer on a mostly empty campus taking summer classes. “One night they brought a 30-pack and Monopoly. Me and Ali formed a bond.”
Exposing the practices of yoga and meditation to Gonzalez was transformative to him.
“We were party animals in college. It taught us how to be more present, centered and calm,” he said.
From there, all three moved to Baltimore to work on their “world-changing” business together.
At the urging of the Smiths’ father, they started The Holistic Life Foundation. The program, which focuses on teaching youth meditation, breathing techniques and yoga, launched in 2002 in various Baltimore City schools as well as after-school programs at the YMCA. Since then, it has grown to efforts to teach youth throughout the country and internationally. In addition, they have a school in upstate New York teaching members of the Mohawk tribe.
“My dad took me and my brother and sat us down in the basement and said, ‘Don’t take jobs.’ He said, ‘You’ll deal with racism in the workplace, you’ll be working for someone else.’ The Holistic Life Foundation is what came from that,” recalled Smith, who graduated from Friends School and majored in environmental science and policy at College Park.
Gonzalez also got a similar talk from the Smiths’ father, which changed his career trajectory.
“I figured I was going to be in an office being a marketing guy,” he said, adding that even though some times were tough — he recalls having to work odd jobs at the Baltimore Zoo and Sheppard Pratt Hospital to make ends meet — the results are worth it. “I look at the kids who have been with our program since fifth grade. When you see them compared to their peers, you know this technique works.”
Now, the trio rarely teach locally. They mostly take care of administrative details for their Hampden-based office. Instead, they offer teaching opportunities to former students such as Ramon Brown, 29, a West Baltimore resident.
Brown has known the three for the past two decades. When he met them, he was a self-described “knucklehead in the neighborhood.”
“I was just running around terrorizing everybody,” he added. “I had my father taken away from me at [age] 6. He was killed.”
Despite initially being resistant to their teachings at an after-school program, it took a little less than a month to get him hooked on the benefits of meditation and yoga.
“I was like, ‘This if for women. I’m not doing it. No way.’ Then I felt the benefits of it calming my anger down and calming me down,” he recalled.
By the time he was running track at Digital Harbor High School, he was teaching his teammates and classmates meditation and yoga techniques. By 2014, he became a teacher within the foundation.
“It made me feel like I was able to change the world. I was able to change the kids I was growing up. It’s what I always wanted to do,” he said.
Brown cannot overstate the benefits of having Black male role models as a young man.
“A male figure is always positive. It makes a young man not so angry and scared. They are teaching the things a woman can’t teach,” Brown said.
He can’t imagine what his life would be like without the three men.
“I would probably be dead or in jail. That’s the honest truth,” Brown said, adding that teaching yoga and meditation has resulted in him traveling the country. “The practice is for everybody, and we should all take the time out for self-love and self-care. Because that is everything.”
Atman Smith said an important piece of the company’s business model is its willingness to teach and employ people — those without college degrees or those with criminal records — who traditionally have been shunned by other professions. Ten percent of the company is made up of people with a criminal record. Almost half don’t have a college degree.
“We help people gain financial independence,” he said, adding that gainful employment is a way to prevent recidivism. Maryland’s recidivism rate is 34%, according to a 2021 report by Open Society Institute-Baltimore. “It is hard being out here in Baltimore without earning a living wage.”
Atman Smith said he is inspired each time the group introduces young people to pursue medication and yoga.
“It’s a combination of us looking like them and us making it practical and making it fun. We’re not lame dudes. A lot of the people are robotic in the way that they teach. We bring a lot of our personality into how we teach,” he said, estimating that the group has taught more than 50,000 students since launching in 2001. “It honestly gives me hope.”