Early in March 2018, the introduction of yoga into the schools of Denver, Colorado, hit the headlines. Instead of using the traditional, punitive approach in response to bad behavior, the schools are using the time usually dedicated to detention, in order to teach yoga. The overarching aim is to give children the necessary tools they need to to become aware of their emotions, and through self-regulation they can start to avoid making the same mistakes again. But while the benefits of yoga for adults are well known, can children find yoga enjoyable and beneficial? And if so, how can schools use yoga to help improve the lives of their students?
Yoga and Physical Health
The health of a child is undoubtedly a big worry for parents, and more broadly speaking for society as a whole. In the US around one in three kids and teenagers are classified as overweight or obese, creating a host of health issues that historically haven’t been prevalent in children. High blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high blood cholesterol levels are all issues that are increasing among children, and while obesity isn’t always the sole cause for these conditions, they do increase their likelihood.
There are also the more invisible, but no less damaging problems with low self-esteem, depression, and negative body image. One in five young people live with a diagnosable mental health condition and half of these develop the condition by the age of 14. Many more also struggle with feelings of anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and sadness, even if they aren’t clinically diagnosed as “unwell.”
There are a variety of reasons why young people face these issues, from the much debated use and influence of social media, to a lack of emotional support and complex social groups, but one obvious contributing factor is a lack of physical activity. According to a 2009 study by Schulz, Anner, and Hills, only 42 percent of children six to 11 years of age met the daily recommendation for 60 minutes a day of exercise. This already seems fairly low, but by the time they reach the age range of 12 to 19, that number drops drastically to only 8 percent.
Children who are overweight are more likely to develop musculoskeletal problems, reducing their levels of activity further. From a physical perspective, introducing yoga into schools simply provides an opportunity for exercise. By supporting their own body weight through certain yogic poses, yoga can build strength and improve bone density, helping to prevent any musculoskeletal issues in the future. For children unused to exercise, yoga offers a gentle, low impact introduction to exercise that not only helps in the short-term, but can help to provide the foundation for future behavior and a lifetime of healthy habits.
The more you practice yoga, the more you become aware of your body and your thoughts, and it’s this increased awareness that can help to reinforce positive behavior in a child’s life. If you eat healthily for a couple of days or week, it’s likely that you’ll notice a bigger effect on your mood and energy levels after eating takeout or a burger. Healthy habits provide contrast for the things that aren’t always great for us, and if children become interested and passionate about yoga through lessons at school, these healthier choices become easier to make, and easier to maintain.
Wellbeing for Young People
We all know that lack of exercise and being overweight carries health risks, but approaching children about this particular topic can often be fraught with complications. Studies have shown that parents who place too much emphasis on physical appearance and weight (such as, by putting a child on a restrictive diet and commenting on their size) can cause a host of emotional problems that can, at times, last a lifetime. In certain circumstances and at the more extreme end of the spectrum, it can even lead to eating disorders.
The beauty of yoga is that by its very nature, it’s both non-judgmental and non-competitive. Yoga is an extremely personal practice where the focus is internal, not on external forces or how our bodies compare with anyone else. This can be particularly helpful for children who feel they struggle in competitive sports. Yoga really is for everybody, for all abilities and while everyone starts at a different place, yoga is an opportunity to teach children how their body is unique to them. While some may naturally have the ambition to get better at certain poses, others can simply enjoy yoga for what it is.
Mental Health and Yoga
It can’t be overestimated how much our mental health impacts our health as a whole, especially for the very young. A teenager who feels depressed or worthless is far more likely to neglect their own self-care, and their feelings can often color the way they interact with the world. A child who feels fearful or anxious may overeat for comfort, while another may avoid socializing and making friends.
Yoga doesn’t only give children the chance to take more care of their physical health, but a wealth of studies have repeatedly demonstrated how it reduces stress, helps with anxiety and alleviates depression. It can also be the source of confidence for young people, teaching kids to love and accept themselves for who they are. By providing a point of calm in their lives, the chance to develop an awareness of their feelings, and the tools to deal with any negative emotions (such as breathing exercises when they find their temper flaring), teaching yoga to children can help them regulate their own behavior.
Daily yoga routines teaches children that relaxation is both important and encouraged, and can offer a refuge from the stresses of an increasingly complicated world. This support to children’s physical and mental health doesn’t only benefit them, but can help to foster a school culture of calmness and understanding. Mindfulness programs that include yoga have been found to increase both self-compassion and empathy for others, and if all children practice yoga, then problems with bullying and lack of compassion should – to a certain extent – begin to improve.
Cost Effective Measure
Teaching is considered one of the most stressful occupations in the United States, and employee retention is increasingly poor; in Arkansas, 40% of teachers leave the classroom after just five years, and in the 2017/2018 school year, teacher shortages were affecting every state.
Stress is a major factor in absenteeism and high staff turnover, and fewer people are enrolling to become teachers due to its high-pressure reputation. All this increases the costs associated within the school system, and schools are finding themselves short-staffed. Put simply, teacher stress and burnout have been an ongoing challenge throughout much of the education system.
While there are relatively few studies investigating the effects of mindfulness training for teachers, a pilot study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that teachers who practiced mindfulness reported improvement in depression and stress, and a greater level of accepting without judgment.
While there needs to be more comprehensive scientific research, early findings strongly suggest that mindfulness (which can be achieved through yoga) within schools leads to improvements in: working memory, attention, academic skills, social skills, emotional regulation, and self-esteem, as well as self-reported improvements in mood and decreases in anxiety, stress, and fatigue.
The overarching hypothesis is that the practice of mindfulness and yoga is associated with a reduced risk of burnout, and the improvement of symptoms associated with stress, depression and anxiety, could help to foster more effective classroom teaching practices.
When all these factors are considered together, making yoga part of school appears to be a sensible and beneficial approach, and one that can significantly improve the school environment both for children and those responsible for them.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Heather Mason, a yoga teacher and founder of The Minded Institute, a center of yoga therapy in London who works with health professionals to create programs supporting those living with mental health and chronic physical health issues. Heather became interested in the use of mind-body therapies after her own experience of depression and anxiety, training over many years and across the globe in yoga and yoga therapy. Follow Heather on Twitter and Facebook.