Nikhil Ramburn, B.A. and Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.
Children and teenagers today face mounting pressure to perform academically along with numerous stressors in their social and family lives. The consequence has been an alarming increase in the prevalence of physical, mental health, and behavioral problems. Despite the long-held role of schools to provide an academic education leading to success in the job market, parents, educators, and students are increasingly demanding more than academic success from schools. As a result, numerous programs to promote health and prevent problem behavior in the school system have sprung up. Unfortunately, many programs are fragmented and not well-integrated into school structures. To address this problem, the education system is in need of programs that support mental and physical health and that can be easily integrated into the school curriculum.
Studies on the therapeutic effects of yoga for youth indicate that it is efficacious in improving both physical and mental health, making yoga a prime contender to meet the school system’s need for an effective and holistic health and wellness program that can promote social and emotional learning (SEL) goals such as self-awareness and stress regulation.
Research into school-based yoga programs is a nascent and growing field. The first study of this kind, published in the journal Academic Therapy in 1976, reported that elementary school children exhibited calmer behavior and improvement in psychomotor skills following a yoga program. The authors also suggested that yoga may be more beneficial than other gross-motor physical activities because of its calming aspect. A follow-up study in the same journal in 1979 by the same researchers surveyed 34 children in Delaware who exhibited educational problems. The children were six to eleven years old and given fifteen minutes of yoga instruction before being assessed for their concentration levels. The study showed that students worked with greater efficacy following periods of yoga. However, like many studies in a new field of investigation, sample sizes were small, there was no control group and there was actually no statistically significant differences in improvements between changes in a yoga period as opposed to a general psychomotor program. However, statistically significant results were found in a 1989 randomized control trial of 80 students attending a private, religiously affiliated middle school in northern New Jersey. This study published as a doctoral dissertation at Seton Hall University showed that yoga meditation showed efficacy as a self-regulation strategy, thereby demonstrating the value of yoga to meet SEL goals.
Over the past ten to fifteen years, evaluations of school-based yoga and meditation approaches targeting children have increased significantly in both quantity and quality of studies. The recent surge in the popularity of mindfulness practices by the general public and has also been reflected in educational settings. In a small, randomized control trial of urban youth in 2014, application of the well-known Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was associated with qualitative outcomes of increased calm, conflict avoidance, self-awareness, and self-regulation. These are all essential characteristics that make a productive learning environment and healthy school community. Mindfulness practices were also associated with a significant reduction in depression and stress in a nonrandomized parallel group study in 2012 showing the benefit of mindfulness programs in addressing the mental health epidemic facing today’s youth. More recently, a larger randomized control trial with fourth and fifth-grade students showed that students receiving a school-based mindfulness program showed greater decreases in depression, aggression and were rated by peers as more trustworthy, kind and helpful. Those same students had a more normalized diurnal profile of the stress hormone cortisol as determined by salivary assays.
With respect to yoga studies in school settings, a recent review paper published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy identified twelve peer-reviewed studies of school-based yoga programs. Seven of the studies reviewed were conducted in the United States in public elementary schools both within the curriculum and in after-school programs. In India, studies were conducted on yoga programs in both residential schools and special education schools and studies of English and German public school yoga programs were also identified. Research designs involved in this research included pilot studies, single group trials, quasi-experimental and randomized clinical trials. Although most of the students were normally healthy youth, some of the yoga studies included students with autism, and with intellectual and learning disabilities.
In terms of characteristics that were observed to improve, students receiving the yoga intervention reported fewer negative behaviors, showed less body dissatisfaction and lower levels of stress. In addition, students were able to plan and execute tasks more quickly, were more self-confident, and communicated better with their teachers and peers. A study of Indian students, showed that students made fewer errors in depth perception after a yoga intervention. In a German public school, there was a decrease in group aggression and increase in stress-coping ability. Finally, significant improvements on IQ and social adaptation were noted in a special education school in India. Although the effects of participating in school-based yoga programs appeared generally beneficial, methodological limitations including the lack of randomization, small samples, limited details regarding the intervention and statistical ambiguities have limited the drawing of definitive conclusions at this point.
Despite these weaknesses, these findings do suggest that yoga provides a skillset to facilitate SEL such as stress management and self-regulation, thereby providing a cost-effective, evidence-based program to schools. As a holistic system of mind-body practices, yoga has been found to be an effective complementary therapy to promote health and reduce many factors related to physiological diseases in the adult research literature. Given that strong evidence exists between the promotion of SEL and beneficial student outcomes, more rigorous trials and funding are needed to support the research into school-based yoga programs. Further high quality research will be useful towards justifying the inclusion of yoga into the school curriculum, which may then become a universal practice and spread across the globe, completely reshaping education in the Aquarian Age.