Stories to Inspire

From the Imprint–Inside a renovated locker room-turned yoga studio, Harlem elementary school children view pastel-colored walls with butterflies and a ceiling full of twinkling stars. The smell of peppermint infuses the room, and they can hear a softly splashing waterfall. A poster of former President Barack Obama reads, “Our destiny is not written for us, but by us,” and another reminds the school kids: “I am beautiful.”

Guiding the fourth graders through a weekly, 50-minute yoga and meditation class is Demetrius Napolitano, who draws on his experience gleaned from a childhood in foster care.

“How is your mind, body and heart feeling?” Napolitano asked the students who live in this majority Latino and Black Manhattan community, one of New York City’s most under-resourced.

Some shrugged off the question posed to them this early December day. One said “calm,” another: “I’m tired.”

“My heart is happy that I’m here,” one student replied.

For the past three years, Napolitano, 28, has taught mindfulness and meditation in schools across New York City, including PSMS 108 School of Authors in east Harlem, where he once attended. Students in the first through eighth grade who take his course, Fostering Meditation, refer to Napolitano as “Mr. Meditation.”

A 12-year-old seventh grader who Napolitano has taught over the past three years often pops into class to speak to one of his favorite teachers.

“When you come in here you get to express yourself,” he said. “It’s not a judging place.”

Mindfulness heals traumatic pasts

Practitioners in the child welfare field have long acknowledged the importance of healing arts for children in foster care and those who’ve experienced complex trauma.

In a study published in 2017, physicians at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that “high-quality, structured mindfulness instruction” improves mental, behavioral and physical outcomes in children. Intervention can also mitigate the negative effects of stress and trauma related to adverse childhood experiences in the short-term, and potentially through adulthood.

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