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Introducing our new mental health column, Getting Your Shit Together

In a community known for murder, gangs and drug abuse, yoga and mindfulness is becoming cool. For her first Spinoff column, Auckland mindfulness educator Kristina Cavit explains what we can learn from the experience of kids in inner-city Baltimore.

If you’ve watched The Wire, you’ll know that Baltimore is one of the most dangerous cities in the US. In 2015, shortly after binge watching all five seasons, I took the bus there. I arrived at a primary school gym just blocks from where the riots had begun when 25-year-old Freddie Gray died from neck injuries while in police custody.

Inside, 50 five-year-olds sat meditating. One sassy kid came to the front of the class and directed everyone to align their backs, necks and heads and “inhale in deep, exhale and out”. I’d never seen so many young people meditating and teaching each other how to breathe through troubling times. These kids created calm in the chaos around them.

In a city with the second highest murder rate in America, people talk about how these kids are growing up in an environment akin to a warzone. After a lifetime witnessing violence and trauma, many are showing signs and effects of PTSD. I’d come to Baltimore because I’d heard about some locals who were trying to change that reality.

When brothers Ali and Atman Smith returned home from college in 2001 with their friend Andres Gonzales, they saw that crack had hit hard, taking down a lot of Baltimore families and was turning their streets and homes into open-air drug markets.

All three had spent years studying yoga with a family friend who made the boys promise to teach others. And so they formed Holistic Life Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping inner-city youth manage emotional challenges through yoga and meditation. Although yoga is more often associated with expensive studios, matching lycra and Instagram celebs doing unattainable poses, the trio knew that it can also be used as a survival tool and a life saver.

Haiven Spence, age 6, during morning meditation with other first graders at a school in Baltimore. The school replaced detention and instead is using mindfulness and meditation as an alternative to discipline, in a partnership with the Holistic Life Foundation. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“A lot of the guys that should be out there selling drugs and in gangs, they’re working for us now and inspiring their friends. There are ways to heal that trauma, once you get these skills of yoga and mindfulness it’s basically being able to maintain your peace amongst the chaos,” said Atman Smith in an interview with mindfulness queen Sharon Salzberg.

So how are these guys making change in their community? In Baltimore, where the high school dropout rate is often higher than 50%, 19 of the 20 boys in their original yoga and mindfulness programme graduated from high school. Some of those kids have grown up to be teachers of the Holistic Life Foundation’s mindfulness and yoga programmes themselves. HLF’s programs now reach 3,500 students weekly across 15 schools. The crew is also working in drug rehab centers, old-folks’ homes, mental health facilities and delivering trainings around the country. They’ve even had preliminary studies on their work undertaken by Penn State and John Hopkins universities.

Those Baltimore boys inspired the shit out of me and after eight years working with communities dealing with stress and trauma, I trained with them and other amazing organisations to learn how to pass on mindfulness to others. I trialled my own stress management, yoga and mindfulness program at a NPH home for orphaned and abandoned children in the Dominican Republic, where I had lived for two years. Almost every morning I had a crew of kids banging on my door asking when we’re doing the exercise and relaxation thingy.

Back home in Aotearoa, I started The Kindness Institute in 2016 to support vulnerable communities with stress management, yoga and meditation. I work with women in prison, kids who’ve been kicked out of school and individuals who want to deal with the everyday stress of just living in the 21st century.

Throughout these communities, I tend to see the same thing: an inability to cope with what life’s thrown at us.

Most of us learnt all sorts of crazy shit in school but we weren’t taught how to love ourselves and build strong mental health. We place so much value on perfectionism and success, even at a very young age, but very little effort goes into managing our minds. When we’re stressed or busy, our self-care tends to go out the window and we push our own wellbeing to the bottom of our priorities. I get it – my own school education didn’t really prepare me to handle anything when the shit hit the fan.

But after learning from the Baltimore boys, I know that there are tools to help me chill the hell out and manage stress on even the busiest of days. With mindfulness (a fancy word for being present), yoga and support from damn good friends, I am more easily able to catch myself before an epic freak out, calm my monkey mind and respond to situations with more clarity.

Kristina Cavit. Photo: Amanda Billing

Mindfulness and meditation have been practiced for thousands of years and have become crazy popular in the West, following an increase in scientific research and the discovery that it can literally change your brain. Studies show that mindfulness practice can lead to decreased anxiety and stress, increased focus, positive relationships, self-awareness and conflict resolution skills – pretty much everything you need to nail life.

I’ve seen kids who can’t sit still in their Auckland classrooms come to be really engaged, compassionate individuals who use their deep belly breathing rather than fighting to get their emotions under control. I have kids who’ve previously showed antisocial and criminal behaviours tell me that it’s helped them learn to respect their bodies, to say NO when they mean it and to send love to the greatest assholes in their lives.

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And that’s why I teamed up with The Spinoff to launch a new series, sponsored by the rad people at the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, looking at the ups and downs of trying to get our shit together.

To normalise the narrative on how to look after our own mental health, we have to start conversations where the toxic toughen-up culture isn’t glorified anymore. This begins with talking about it, and with allowing our young people to see that kindness is cool.

And with breathing. Breathing in and out.

In the months to come, I’ll share some tools and talk with amazing humans about how we can better support ourselves. The objective isn’t to make your life perfect, but to recognise that we all experience stress to some degree, and we can develop the ability to notice and regulate our mind – no matter if we’re a kid escaping gangs in Baltimore or an Aucklander on the hustle trying to make ends meet.


This column is brought to you by the Mental Health Foundation. The MHF is working to create an Aotearoa where we all feel good most of the time, whether or not you have experience of mental illness. It promotes the Five Ways to Wellbeing – give, be active, take notice, keep learning and connect – because these five amazingly simple strategies really will make a difference to how you live and feel every day.