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The trio agreed to facilitate, but pointed out that teaching the kids, who already had issues with aggression, how to smash into each other might not be the most productive means of calming them down.
Instead, the trio of young teachers took what they had learned from studying Eastern traditions and yoga, set aside the pads and helmets, and showed the kids how to practice mindfulness and downward dogs on repurposed wrestling mats. The results were transformational.
“The worst behaved kids became leaders among their peers,” Gonzalez says. “The ones who had been fighting became the ones breaking up fights.”
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The now 37-year-old Gonzalez says many kids, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, are constantly surrounded by overwhelming stimuli that can make them high-strung, anxious, and defensive: some don’t get to eat before they come to school, or don’t get to sleep because there’s violence in the house; some don’t have parents at home because they’re dead or incarcerated.
“These kids are facing PTSD,” Gonzalez explains, “and they need solutions and coping mechanisms. For example, if Johnny has a fight in class, most schools will send him to the office. The moment he gets to the office he gets more upset, because now he knows his parents are going to be mad too. Then he gets suspended, and he gets even more upset. He didn’t get any tools or techniques to prevent future occurrences. But if you bring Johnny to a mindfulness room instead, he gets to talk with someone, and to learn breathing exercises and meditation tools that can help with balance and self-control. He also gets someone to look up to.”
HLF now has programs in twenty schools, serving 4,500 students. They run daily morning guided meditations, and provide staffing for dedicated Mindful Moment rooms in two schools.
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If anything shows the success of the programs, it’s the fact that many of HLF’s present-day staff has been pulled from that initial group of twenty kids they taught yoga and meditation on old wrestling mats.
Gonzalez says, “I tell the kids: If I was your age and someone taught me what I was teaching you, I think I would be Superman right now. I think I would be flying around. And they will laugh at me and say, 'You’re crazy! But then, I see those kids not only staying out of fights and trouble, but going out and teaching mindfulness classes to their peers, and having the same conversations I was having with them with the younger kids. They’ve seen what this practice has done for them, and more than anything, they want to give back."