Scientific Evidence for Yoga and Mindfulness in Schools
How and Why Does It Work?*
As an education professional who is interested in school-based yoga, you might have already witnessed the benefits of yoga for your students. Still, a question remains. How and why is yoga beneficial for children and adolescents, and specifically, in the school setting? Research on yoga in schools has grown exponentially over the past 5 - 10 years, and while the results are still preliminary, scientists are beginning to understand why yoga serves as such a valuable component of school curricula nationwide.
Research suggests that school-based yoga cultivates competencies in mind-body awareness, self-regulation, and physical fitness. And classroom teachers benefit as well. Taken together, these competencies may lead to improvements in students’ behavior, mental state, health, and performance, as well as teacher resilience, effectiveness and overall classroom climate.
The figure below outlines some of the potential benefits of yoga for youth (and adults):
Develops Mind-Body Awareness
By training students how to pay attention to the relationship between their mind and body, school-based yoga helps children notice the impact of stress on their well-being. For example, a student might start to notice that their stomach gets tight when they're worried about a test, or that they tend to gravitate toward unhealthy food when they're feeling down. This awareness (also known as mindfulness) may lead to changes in behavior by, for example, choosing to do 5 minutes of breathing exercises to relax a tight stomach or opting for an apple instead of chips. Preliminary studies of yoga for youth (Benavides & Caballero, 2009) and young adults (Eastman-Mueller et al., 2013) are starting to support these ideas.
At a very broad level, self-regulation refers to our ability to manage our stress, emotions, and behaviors. Psychological and neuroscientific research (MLERN, 2012) is starting to show that yoga and meditation may help youth manage their stress and mood (Kaley-Isley, Peterson, Fischer, & Peterson, 2010) and behave more positively (Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010). The basic idea is that yoga helps calm the fight or flight response, and induce the relaxation response, thus helping children calm themselves down and be less reactive in difficult situations. So instead of lashing out in anger on the playground, a student might take a deep breath and walk away.
Cultivates Physical Fitness
An important difference between yoga and mindfulness meditation is that yoga includes physical postures. In essence, yoga is a practice of “mindfulness in motion” that uses the body to promote awareness of the present moment. Given that more than one-third of American children and adolescents are considered overweight or obese (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2012), school-based interventions that encourage the development of physical fitness are sorely needed. Research suggests that yoga may benefit several aspects of physical health, such as improved respiratory function (Liu et al., 2014), increased exercise adherence (Bryan, Pinto, & Parasher, 2011), and reduced obesity risk factors (Cramer, Lauche, Haller, et al., 2014).
Enhances Student Behavior, Mental State, Health, and Performance
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning(CASEL), social-emotional learning involves developing 5 core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2015). Research strongly suggests that school-based programs that enhance these competencies help students succeed not only academically, but personally as well (Durlak et al., 2011). Early evidence is also beginning to show that yoga and meditation might help students be more self-aware (Monshat et al., 2013), manage their emotions (Noggle, Steiner, Minami, & Khalsa, 2012), enhance their relationships (Conboy et al., 2013), and make better decisions (Barnes, Bauza, & Treiber, 2003).
Research also suggests that school-based yoga may improve academic achievement (Beauchemin, Hutchins, & Patterson, 2008; Butzer et al., 2015; Benson et al., 2000;Kauts & Sharma, 2009; Nidich et al., 2011; Sibinga et al., 2011) and classroom behavior (Barnes, Bauza, & Treiber, 2003; Koenig, Buckley-Reen, & Garg, 2012;Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010). In addition, yoga-based physical fitness may result in numerous positive outcomes including improved mood, reduced risk of psychological disorders, and enhanced cognitive performance (Fox, 1999; Sibley & Etnier, 2003).
In summary, a growing number of scientific studies suggest that yoga may enhance students’ mind-body awareness, self-regulation, and physical fitness which may, in turn, promote improved behavior, mental state, health, and performance (Butzer, Bury, Telles, & Khalsa, in press*; Khalsa & Butzer, in press*; Ferreira-Vorkapic et al., 2015; MLERN, 2012; Serwacki & Cook-Cottone, 2012).
Supports Teacher Resilience and a Positive Classroom Climate
Importantly, the benefits of school-based yoga also extends to classroom teachers. Recent research suggests that providing educators with training in yoga- and mindfulness-based skills may have several beneficial effects for educators, including increases in calmness, mindfulness, well-being, and positive mood, improvements in classroom management, physical symptoms, blood pressure, and cortisol awakening response, and decreases in mind and body stress (Harris et al., 2016; Jennings et al., 2013; Kemeny et al., 2012; Nosaka & Okamura, 2015). Indeed, providing teachers with skills and practices to enhance their own self-care is a crucial step toward improving classroom climate, teacher effectiveness and student outcomes (Roeser et al., 2012).
Based on the increasing evidence supporting the efficacy of yoga for children,school-based yoga programs are being increasingly implemented across the United States. These programs are designed to address stress and anxiety, and promote social and emotional learning, physical and emotional health and well-being, all basic requirements for readiness to learn and a positive, healthy school climate.
*With thanks to: Yoga 4 Classrooms Blog, Tuesday, February 09, 2016
For a comprehensive review of research on Yoga and Mindfulness for Children and Adolescents, please visit the following webpage: http://www.yoga4classrooms.com/supporting-research