Have you been teaching yoga in schools or wanting to pitch a yoga program to your local school? We hope Dr. Sat Bir’s article this month provides you some general insight and direction for how to approach teaching yoga in a school near you!
By Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.
Children and adolescents living the United States today are faced with many stressors, including problems with family and peers, the pressure to perform well and succeed academically, and the many physical and emotional changes that come with puberty. If unmanaged, chronic stress can lead to significant mood disturbance and is well-known as a risk factor for psychiatric conditions. In fact, a comprehensive research survey has revealed that the cumulative prevalence of psychiatric problems by age 21 exceeds 80% in the United States suggesting that these conditions are nearly universal in our youth. Furthermore, another survey study indicates that the majority of psychiatric conditions in adults have child-adolescent onsets. Therefore, there is a great need to address this high mental health burden in children and adolescents and to also prevent the occurrence of psychiatric disorders in adulthood. A growing number of educators, parents and students believe that schools need to provide more than academic instruction in order to ensure that children are not only successful in school, but also in life. However, the modern education system is faced with the pressure to enhance the academic performance of students, resulting in a lack of time and resources for developing students’ life-coping skills.
An important recent construct relevant for the behavioral competence of youth is so-called social and emotional learning (SEL), which refers to the processes through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) strives to advance SEL science, evidence-based practice, and policy, and provides a published guide to existing programs that are believed to be effective for SEL. In an ideal world, CASEL would see every school in the nation providing evidence-based SEL programming to all students in preschool through high school.
The practice of yoga is effectively a form of SEL, with potentially additional advantages. With yoga practice, students start developing the ability to regulate their stress and emotions, to develop full awareness of their mind and body, and improve their physical health and functioning through the physical movements and postures, breathing exercises, meditation practices, and relaxation techniques. These are skills which lead to improved functioning and coping overall, thereby preventing the risk factors for impaired mood, behavior and health. Encouragingly, the Kripalu Yoga in Schools program has just recently been included in the CASEL guide, and it is likely that other contemplative practice-based curricula will be added in future. Traditional SEL programs are often challenging to integrate into the standard academic curriculum, mostly due to limited time and resources. School-based yoga programs, on the other hand, have the advantage of possibly being integrated relatively seamlessly into existing standard physical education class settings.
There is a growing number yoga programs being implemented in public schools across North America. Research on these programs indicates that offering yoga programs within the school curriculum is an effective way to help students develop self-regulation, mind-body awareness, and physical fitness, resulting in the promotion of SEL skills and positive student outcomes. School-based yoga research is in its infancy, however it is important to note that it is a growing field. Most existing studies are preliminary and have focused on elementary school students with limited studies on the long-term effects of yoga in schools. School-based yoga programs have been shown to improve behavior, mental state, health and performance, while at the same time preventing much of the stress experienced by students. Specifically, studies have revealed that yoga interventions produce positive effects on several factors such as emotional balance, the ability to concentrate, cognitive efficiency, anxiety, negative thought patterns, emotional and physical impairments, emotional and stress reactivity, and negative behaviors. Several studies have also found the beneficial effects of school-based yoga programs on teacher-perceived factors such as classroom behavior and SEL skills, concentration, mood, ability to function under pressure, hyperactivity, attention, adaptive skills, behavioral symptoms, and internalizing symptoms.
Additionally, a small number of studies have examined the effects of school-based yoga physiological outcomes and found that yoga participation was associated with decreased cortisol concentrations, more stable breathing patterns, and improvements in heart rate variability. A credible hypothesis regarding the meditative/mindfulness component of yoga practice, is that they increase mind-body awareness, which in turn leads to positive behaviors; specifically, an increased awareness of the rewarding feelings and experiences that occur when one engages in positive behavior, encourage more of that behavior. For example, after yoga training, students may find that they are no longer attracted to junk food, because they become acutely aware of the negative bodily response and sensations after consuming it. Recent neurobiological hypotheses suggest that yoga may exert its beneficial psychological effects through physiological mechanisms that calm the nervous system, possibly through the stimulation of the vagus nerve, as a result improving stress management and self-regulation. Other recent studies suggest that yoga may enhance several aspects of physical fitness, such as improved respiratory function, increased exercise adherence, and reduced obesity risk factors. There are also studies suggesting that yoga is as effective as, and in some cases better than, standard physical exercise in the improvement of positive health-related outcomes.
The movement of yoga in schools shows promise for improving a variety of student outcomes, however, the need for more studies and future research is critical. Because school attendance is mandatory, yoga in schools may play a vital role in helping children establish healthy lifestyle behaviors from an early age. Therefore, the implementation of yoga in schools could have far-reaching implications for school health, and also for society as a whole. In summary, there is a need for SEL skills for our youth, existing research suggests that yoga provides SEL skills that improve mental and physical heath in childhood, and, therefore, school-based yoga programs may as a result have long-term implications for health in adulthood. Currently, grassroots efforts for yoga programs in schools across North America have been increasing, but more studies showing the benefits of these programs will be instrumental to expanding the presence of yoga in schools. The scientific rationale for yoga in the public schools described in this article has been more fully articulated in a peer reviewed manuscript that is currently in press in the Journal of Children’s Services (Yoga within the School Curriculum: A Scientific Rationale for Improving Social-Emotional Learning and Positive Student Outcomes; Butzer B, Bury D, Telles S, Khalsa SBS), which we hope will be of use as a supportive document for yoga-in-school program administrators in justifying the application of their programs in school settings. We are hopeful that yoga could become a well-accepted and universal part of school curricula.