Why Yoga is Changing Schools
For the better part of three decades, Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa—an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and an Associate Neuroscientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital—has been studying the effects of yoga on health. A life-long practitioner of Kundalini and the author of Your Brain On Yoga, Khalsa believes—and has proven repeatedly—that focusing on the mind/body connection can have measurably positive results on insomnia, chronic stress, PTSD, and anxiety disorders. And preemptively treating these conditions can have a profound effect on the development of disease. As he explains, “We are facing an epidemic of non-communicable lifestyle diseases—obesity, cancer, depression, type II diabetes—modern humans just cannot currently function. It stems from an inability to deal with stress, and an inability to be aware of our minds and bodies.” While Khalsa believes that yoga is an effective treatment, he believes its true power is in the preventative, and so most of his research in recent years has been on the effect of yoga and meditation on school kids—after all, according to Khalsa, studies indicate that 80% of kids will have some sort of mental health issue. Yep, 80%. He’s run a series of studies on students where half of the kids do traditional P.E., while the other half do yoga—the children track and report on their mood and other key factors throughout. The results have been pretty staggeringly pro-yoga: Almost all kids reported feeling increasingly resilient, focused, and better able to emotionally handle and deal with stress—a toolset that might have a profound affect on their ability to handle the complexities of life in an ongoing way. He explains more below. (Meanwhile, his studies need funding—if you’re so inclined, there are some links at the bottom of the piece to help support.)
Q&A with Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa
Let’s start with the predominance of mental health issues for teens—is that not a staggering statistic?
A vast majority of kids experience some sort of psychiatric condition by age 19. One national survey showed that over the course of a kid’s life to age 19, the cumulative risk of developing a clinically significant mental health condition is 80%. For kids who are more at-risk, i.e., living in the inner city and/or subsisting at poverty levels, the potential for mental health problems are greater. However, these statistics also apply to the average kid, who no longer fits the pristine image of the healthy kid from the ’50s. The stresses of modern society are huge. The near-epidemic proportion of non-communicable lifestyle diseases often have their start in childhood and adolescence.
You’ve done many studies on yoga in the classroom. It seems like across the board, the kids who swapped in yoga claim to feel more focused and in control of their emotions. Does this align with what you’ve observed?
We have some data from both self-reported questionnaires and qualitative interviews with the students supporting improved attention and stress and emotion regulation. In two semester-long studies, we saw statistically significant differences in the changes in scores on standardized scales measuring anger control, resilience to stress, anxiety, and negative mood favoring the yoga group, and trends in scores on confusion and mindfulness. Interestingly, a pattern that we are starting to see is that the differences are mostly due to the fact that the students who do not practice yoga get worse, whereas those in the yoga group do not. For example, the anxiety score in the yoga group improved marginally with a decrease from 6.4 to 5.1, whereas the control group deteriorated notably with an increase from 6.7 to 9.3. This is a testament to the strength of yoga serving as prevention for the decline in mental health occurring in our youth. In a qualitative interview study, students that practiced yoga reported improved mind-body awareness, stress management, and emotion regulation.
I like to think that the benefits come from three major angles. The first is the improvement in focus and control of ATTENTION: whether it’s on the body in terms of perceiving sensations, or on the flow of thoughts and emotions. The meditative component of yoga helps engage the mind through practicing attention control, and thereby reduces excessive ruminating and mind wandering. Over time, this leads to an improvement in the ability to hold the attention, an improvement in mind/body awareness and mindfulness, and ultimately, concentration, cognition, and executive functioning.
Second is improvement in SELF-REGULATION, particularly when it comes to stress and emotion. The practice of yoga—specifically around meditation, breathing techniques, postures, exercises, and deep relaxation—helps kids learn strategies to cope more effectively with stress and emotion. They become more stress-hardy and resilient. They also become more emotionally stable and less reactive, which is important for kids, particularly teens who are going through enormous changes. Improving their stress response prevents them from developing chronic stress, which is a major factor for psychological conditions—depression, anxiety, substance abuse—these are all major problems for kids. It’s essential that they learn how to calm down and self-regulate their internal state.
The third area is just improvement in overall PHYSICAL FITNESS. Learning how to hold and move their bodies with more flexibility and balance. Yoga also improves breath regulation and breathing patterns as well as the ability to physically relax.
None of these three components is fully independent—they all interact with each other. For example, when you focus your attention and engage the brain’s attention networks, you’re actually also inhibiting the emotional brain in the limbic system, which facilitates emotional self-regulation. Similarly, the improvement in the physical practices enhances physical self-efficacy, which contributes to psychological self-efficacy and confidence. With yoga practice, kids develop a comprehensive set of behavioral skills, which help them cope and perform better on many levels.
Can you give an example of this in practice?
An important example is how yoga improves mind/body awareness, which helps them to be more aware of the consequences of certain behaviors. So if they eat junk food or engage in an unrestrained outburst of anger after having practiced yoga for a while, they become more acutely aware of the subsequent negative internal sensations and consequences. Consequently, they slowly choose to shy away from behaviors that lead to negative experiences. Instead, they begin to gravitate toward activities that make them feel better.
This change in behavior is very important for avoiding the chronic lifestyle diseases that are becoming so common—type 2 diabetes, obesity—this kind of reduction in risk factors for these kids is critical. Furthermore, the reduction in stress, which is a major precipitating factor for mental health issues, is also very important. Ultimately, this enables kids to become more evolved and higher-functioning human beings. These enhanced behavioral skills go beyond personal changes and expand to cut across interactions with peers, parents and society—it can have a positive affect globally.
Have you found that yoga in the classroom is universally beneficial? Typically, how long do these studies run?
We haven’t had the funding to conduct a long-term study—I would love to be able to do this over a few years to really see the changes as they manifest into adulthood. At most we’ve been able to do a full year, though often just 34 classes over 12 weeks, with 2-3 yoga classes per week. In fact, we’re having difficulty getting funding to continue this line of research. We’ve written a dozen grants to the National Institute of Health, but aside from a pilot grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, our yoga in schools work is coming to a grinding halt. We have had generous support for our research work through private donors contributing to the Kripalu Yoga Center (see below)—it is from people who practice and know the benefits of yoga.
Is this taking hold in schools on its own?
Absolutely. There’s a grassroots movement of implementation of yoga in public school settings that’s growing. We published a paper reviewing all of the formalized yoga in schools programs—there are currently about three dozen of them. The website K-12YOGA.org is a useful online resource for this movement providing information and locations of these programs. Most of these yoga in school programs provide training curricula for yoga instructors and even school teachers: What to teach and how to teach it, when it’s not possible to bring a yoga teacher into the school. These programs are certifying thousands of teachers across the country. In addition, there are a number of school systems that have instituted yoga district-wide. Initial examples include Encinitas, California, and Houston, Texas, and there are many programs in schools in Newark and New York City. By and large, this is all grassroots implementation, i.e. not initiated by school districts or government agencies.
Ideally, where should it be placed in the schedule? As a P.E. substitute?
This is a good question. Should yoga be implemented as an after-school program, or do you put it in the curriculum, and if you do, where do you fit it in? Do you put it in as a wellness class, or in lieu of P.E.? That kind of translational issue still needs to be worked out.
It’s currently a mixed bag in practice. Some teachers are slotting it in by doing 15 minutes at the beginning of the day, 5 minutes at the end of the day, and some breathing, stretching, focus and meditation scattered throughout. Some schools are also bringing in yoga teachers who have some specific expertise and training, which is possible if the school has funding.
The question of dose, or frequency and duration of practice sufficient to achieve yoga’s benefits is also an important issue. For a short-term research study, ideally, it would be done 2-3 times per week with some homework: for example, to do a little bit at home, while sitting on the bus, or during other opportune times for meditation or slow breathing practices.
In terms of how this could look in the future, I would like to see universal implementation of yoga practices. If I had to make an analogy it would be to liken this to dental hygiene, which began to be implemented into schools and society a century ago. We now have the universal implementation of dental hygiene in modern society. I think it is time we moved towards implementation of mind-body hygiene. i.e. yoga.
Are there parents who believe that yoga is too New Age to be part of a school curriculum?
A 2012 national survey by the CDC revealed that about 10 percent of the population is now practicing yoga—it’s become a significant part of American culture and a way of life. Parents are practicing it themselves. From our experience in Massachusetts, only 1-2% of parents said that they didn’t want their children involved with yoga. For the most part it’s been overwhelmingly positive and we’ve been greeted with open arms. They know from yoga’s popular reputation that it’s very helpful.
Furthermore, there is also the field of yoga therapy, and the principles and practices of yoga as part of healthcare is exploding. Yoga therapy research studies are showing that there has been some degree of symptom reduction for virtually every disease studied. In fact, yoga can actually be a cure for a number of diseases, especially those that are caused and dominated by uncontrolled chronic stress and poor lifestyle behaviors.
We are currently running a five-year NIH study of yoga for generalized anxiety disorder. And while yoga has a clear utility for therapy, I believe its biggest strength is in prevention. We are facing a near-epidemic of non-communicable lifestyle diseases—obesity, cancer, depression, type 2 diabetes. I believe that major risk factors for these diseases include an inability to deal with stress, and an inability to be fully aware of our minds and bodies. Yoga addresses these.
How can people learn more and show support?
There are many ways to support.
I do my research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is a great place to make a non-profit charitable donation. There are also additional non-profit charitable organizations (like Kripalu) that can funnel funds to support my yoga in schools research.
The Institute for Extraordinary Living with the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health (I’m the research director) holds a yoga in schools symposium, which brings together many professionals implementing and researching yoga in schools in both the U.S. and internationally.
The International Association of Yoga Therapists is one of the most useful, engaged, and intelligent organizations with respect to yoga in the West. They hold an annual conference for those who are interested in learning more, including the Symposium on Yoga Research, which I help coordinate.
The International Association for School Yoga & Mindfulness databaselists all the programs and summarizes all the areas of movement in this field—it’s a very good resource. However, most of the formal yoga in schools programs have their own websites that can be easily found with an internet search. If I were a parent looking for a program, I would start there. You could also look for a trained graduate or certified person from some of the existing yoga in schools programs to bring them into your school setting.