Can yoga improve the physical and mental health of students? Absolutely, say Joanne Spence and Lisa Flynn, two of the country’s leading advocates for teaching yoga in schools. In addition, they assert, yoga can tune up students’ academic performance and specifically help with issues such as paying attention in class, test taking, inappropriate behavior, and conflict among students. Spence and Flynn concede that some educators may question yoga’s relevance, but they insist its benefits are proven.
“We know that sometimes there is reluctance about yoga, but it is really very practical, and it gets students ready to learn,” says Spence, a Pittsburgh-based yoga instructor and former social worker who founded Yoga In Schools, a nonprofit that has worked with about 20,000 children.
Flynn, founder and director of Dover, NH-based ChildLight Yoga and Yoga 4 Classrooms, points to supporting research, noting that hundreds of studies have been published on the subject over the last four decades. (See sidebar below). “School-based yoga programs can offer a cost-effective, evidence-based solution for many of the behavioral and academic challenges faced by schools,” she says, noting that research also has shown it improves social skills and school climate.
A survey last year found that yoga instruction was offered in nearly 1,000 schools across the country, and that the number of programs grows each year.
Stretching Into Schools
After a handful of girls interested in yoga at Boulder High School in Colorado started a club at school, interest spread, and yoga is now offered as part of the PE curriculum at 14 high schools throughout the district. The Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School in Oak Lawn, IL, also boasts a popular yoga club. At New Haven Academy in Connecticut (a small public high school), students are required to take yoga three times a week. “It’s awesome,” says Principal Greg Baldwin. “Besides stretching in new ways, students are picking up skills in mindfulness and reflection as they begin their high school careers,” he told a local newspaper.
When schools in Des Moines, IA, became concerned about low performance and the soaring number of students who were being suspended, Jaynette Rittman, a new principal at Edmunds Elementary, took on the challenge. Edmunds was a poorly performing inner-city school with a high poverty rate, where English-language learners made up more than 60 percent of the student population.
Rittman developed an “EC3” program (Edmunds Culture, Climate, and Content), which included a “stop and think and make a good choice” component to reduce reactive behavior. Rittman and her colleagues, based on research they’d uncovered, decided to work with Flynn’s Yoga 4 Classrooms model to experiment with brief yoga sessions twice a day to help students be more thoughtful.
In two years, Edmunds increased test scores by nearly 20 percent, the biggest improvement district-wide. Office referrals decreased from 1,000 per year to about 300 in 2016. “I think the biggest benefit is the students’ ability to self-regulate their emotions and respond in an appropriate way,” Rittman says. “We have provided them with the tools they need to notice, identify, and react appropriately when they become angry, upset, worried, or stressed, and know how to handle themselves. That is critical.”
She believes the benefits would be similar in middle and high schools. She notes that teachers say they are more resilient and are more effective after having learned some yoga, too, a result reported by other schools. Many teachers go on to take classes themselves, she says. “Not surprisingly, the general feeling of community, connectedness, and overall engagement that resulted has had a significantly positive impact on school climate,” Rittman says.
Learning to Relax
Cindy Zurchin, a consultant with 30 years’ experience as a teacher, principal, and superintendent in the Pittsburgh, PA, area, promotes yoga instruction in her schools at all levels. “Teachers told me that students were reporting they could relax and get to sleep using some of these practices, which is significant for young people who are thinking about important new life decisions and using electronic devices late into the night,” she says. “Others told me they could reduce stress, including for major tests.” Zurchin also asserts that while it is often thought of as an activity for elementary schools, she found it particularly helpful in the middle and high schools.
Steve Green, superintendent of the DeKalb County School District near Atlanta, where yoga has increasingly shown up in schools, has said that teachers tell him yoga helps students at various levels control their mood and temperament. “If it helps our students in some way, I’m very much in favor of it,” he said in an interview earlier this year with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after trying yoga himself. “I’ve heard about the benefits of it, and I’ve experienced it.”
Show Me the Research
Bethany Butzer, who studied the effect of yoga on school performance at Harvard University and now consults and speaks on the topic, has found that yoga will “help students develop self-regulation, mind-body awareness, and physical fitness” and result in “additional socio-emotional learning competencies and positive student behaviors,” she says.
One recent study that examined nearly 50 articles on the topic suggested yoga was no more effective than other exercise and showed not enough specific, thorough research had been done on its effects. It noted, however, that some researchers found it improved memory, gave students “a sense of well-being,” and reduced stress levels when they participated in well-designed and consistent yoga programs. The study recommended that any classes be treated seriously by staff and specifically designed for the age group and type of students involved. Another recent study indicates that yoga contributes to “good mental health … to include improvement of [students’] attention, self-esteem, empowerment, and self-regulation.”
“One of the real benefits of yoga is learning to be present in the moment and focus your thoughts,” Spence says. “This is really useful for students who are too involved with electronic devices or have attention issues and can’t concentrate, which are big problems for schools.”
Abby Wills, who teaches yoga in schools to teens in California, recalls an eighth-grade girl attending a class for the first time who had been told by her parents and teachers that she had serious attention issues. “On the first day of yoga class, she waltzed into the room and declared, ‘I can’t do yoga because I can’t focus,'” Wills recalls. “I asked her where she got that information. She said her parents and teachers said she has ADHD, so she doesn’t know how to focus.” Wills explained to the teen that a major goal of the class was to teach students just those skills. “Within a few sessions, she approached me after class and said she felt so much calmer. She was pleased to discover it helped her learn to focus.”
Spence also believes that because adolescents are so self-involved, yoga helps them handle that excessive “inward attention,” which can create stress, as well as mental health and emotional issues, which can be consuming. “Practicing yoga also can shift the culture of a school, bringing more balance, support, and building community,” she says.
Beyond the potential benefits to the mental or emotional health of students, advocates say it is a good exercise regimen because a young person with any body type, disability, or level of athletic skill can participate. “Yoga doesn’t discriminate,” says Gray Cook, co-founder of Functional Movement Systems, a training program used by top college and professional teams. “Whether an athlete or not, everyone is equally matched in their own bodies during a yoga practice, where the focus is internal,” he told CNN for an article about the benefits of yoga in school.
There are barriers to introducing yoga into schools, however. A survey last year reported, “It is important to note that implementing yoga within school settings often comes with a unique set of challenges. Traditional bureaucratic structures, combined with potential fears and misunderstandings about yoga, can cause some parents to be reluctant to endorse participation of their children in yoga-based programming.”
Busy teachers and staff may be skeptical about what they see as an unproven or “trendy” idea; they should be encouraged to use it themselves first. “Once people have experienced the benefits, they often become advocates,” she says. Zurchin recommends having skilled trainers show administrators, team leaders, and even parents some techniques as a way to get them on board.
Other experts recommend interviewing various yoga instructors or programs that can persuade staff members of its benefits and teach both the staff and students. Focus on fitness and relaxation benefits.
Zurchin notes that sometimes yoga faces misunderstanding. “In some communities, everyone is ready to embrace it, and in some there is a group that is uncertain,” she says. “Then, in some, it is a four-letter word. That is when you have to make it clear that it has real value for students and isn’t connected to religion.”
Flynn hopes administrators can see past these issues and recognize how yoga can help with critical goals they face. “I’m sometimes asked how yoga and mindfulness align with or support the Common Core,” she says. “We have worked hard to make connections to educational standards, but the short answer is this: Common Core doesn’t matter much if students are not ready to learn.”
Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.
Potential Benefits of Yoga
Consider these potential benefits of yoga for teens based on a detailed list developed by Lisa Flynn and Marlynn Wei, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and co-author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga.
For the body:
- Assists neuromuscular development
- Develops strength and flexibility
- Increases balance, body awareness, and coordination
- Improves posture, alignment, and core strength
- Reduces chance of injury
- Improves digestion and circulation
- Strengthens the immune system
- Relaxes the body; promotes better sleep
For the brain:
- Calms and clears the mind
- Relieves tension and stress
- Increases concentration, focus, and attention
- Stimulates auditory processing and responsiveness
- Expands imagination, creativity, and self-expression
- Improves discipline and ability to be less reactive
- Builds confidence and self-esteem
Schools may find that some parents and community members believe yoga has a connection to religious theory or rituals and think that it may conflict with their values.
An assistant principal in Cobb County, GA, has filed suit against the local school board, claiming she was forced to change schools because she introduced yoga at her elementary school, which drew protests from the community. Bonnie Cole, who is now a principal at Mableton Elementary School in Cobb County, says the district buckled under pressure from parents who held protests about the yoga classes she implemented. The protesting parents said they wanted “Jesus to rid the school of Buddhism.” Cole apologized for the misunderstanding and changed the format and language in the program to eliminate any connection to Eastern religion before she was transferred.
Meanwhile, a judge in Encinitas, CA, recently ruled in favor of the Encinitas Union School District in a case brought by a national group that protects religious freedom. The group sued the district on behalf of parents who claimed a yoga section in the PE curriculum was objectionable.
Even though yoga has its roots in ancient Hinduism, the district developed a class that avoided religion, was beneficial to the students, and emphasized respect and proper breathing and posture, the judge in the case said. “There’s nothing religious about that,” said Superior Court Judge John Meyer.