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Scientific Evidence for Yoga and Mindfulness in Schools: How and Why Does It Work?

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

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, 2009Wang & Hagins, 2016) and young adults (Eastman-Mueller et al., 2013) are starting to support these ideas.

Improves Self-Regulation

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, 2010Miller et al., 2014) and behave more positively (Butzer et al., 2015Schonert-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 improve physical fitness in adolescents (Purohit et al., 2016) as well as 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 (Butzer et al., 2015; Kauts & Sharma, 2009Singh et al., 2016; Wang & Hagins, 2016) 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 et al., 2016Ferreira-Vorkapic et al., 2015; Khalsa & Butzer, 2016; 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, emotional reactivity, 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, 2015Schussler et al., 2016; Sharp & Jennings, 2016). 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.

Ultimately, anecdotal evidence about the benefits of school-based yoga is not enough. Rigorous scientific research is what’s needed to change educational policy and make yoga a universal component of the public school system. Yoga 4 Classrooms® is excited to be part of the growing evidence-base for school-based yoga (you can read about our research study here).


Announcing the "Research Repository: Yoga and Meditation for Children and Adolescents"

With the intention of providing a FREE, helpful resource for educators, schools, program providers, researchers and others interested in the body of evidence supporting yoga, meditation and mindfulness for children, adolescents and in schools, Yoga 4 Classrooms and ChildLight Yoga founder, Lisa Flynn, and Bethany Butzer, PhD, partnered to compile a comprehensive research repository. This organized reference list of peer-reviewed published studies and research reviews provides links to abstracts and full-text publications when available. And, it's updated quarterly!

Download the Research Repository FREE from our Supporting Research Resources page here.


Portions of this blog were derived from a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Children’s Services titled “Implementing Yoga within the School Curriculum: A Scientific Rationale for Improving Social-Emotional Learning & Positive Student Outcomes” by Bethany Butzer, Denise Bury, Shirley Telles, and Sat Bir S. Khalsa.


Article Author:
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
serves as a research consultant for Yoga 4 Classrooms. Bethany received her Ph.D. in psychology in 2008 from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and she recently spent 2.5 years as a postdoctoral research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, where she studied the effects of yoga in school settings. Bethany is also an author, speaker, researcher, and yoga teacher who helps people create a life they love. Learn more at www.bethanybutzer.com. 







Contributor:
Lisa Flynn, E-RYT, RCYT,
is founder and CEO of ChildLight Yoga
and Yoga 4 Classrooms, and author of the Yoga 4 Classrooms Activity Card Deck; and Yoga for Children: 200+ Yoga Poses, Breathing Exercises, and Meditations for Healthier, Happier, More Reslient Children. Lisa contributed to the first research study to use subjective and objective data to examine the acute and longitudinal effects of a school based yoga intervention in young children. Recently honored as Dover, NH region’s “Small Business of the Year,” her studio and training center, serves as headquarters for its internationally recognized trainings and products while providing award-winning yoga programming for local families. Learn more about Lisa.





Related Articles from Our Blog:
Yoga in Public Schools: A Nationwide Grassroots Movement
Educators Use Yoga 4 Classrooms to Help Ease Student Anxiety Over Testing
An Antidote to Teacher Burnout: How Yoga and Mindfulness Can Support Resilience In and Out of the Classroom
Mindfulness in Schools: What Research Tells Us
Yoga in the Schools Movement: Defining Success
Research Report: Bridging Yoga Practice and Scientific Research

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