Yoga and Schools: For All Levels of Health and Wellbeing in Education

by | Nov 9, 2020

This post is part of an ongoing public discussion relating to the scientific research of yoga and schools that can be found in our referenced videos below. Comments are welcome in the comment field provided below this post. All comments are moderated for content and may or may not be published.

Yoga provides socio-emotional and health benefits to students of all ages and levels. It is also highly beneficial for children in lower socio-economic groups.

The conversation of teaching animates the yoga community, of course. Taking the dialog a step further, we have an intersectional opportunity in considering yoga as a part of—as a pedagogy in—the school system. With education globally upended by COVID, 2020 has proven fruitful for such a conversation. Yoga Alliance’s Director of Yoga Research and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa and I had much to discuss as four times we talked about the scientific research on yoga in schools.

Though in its nascency as a field, the scientific research on yoga and schools already provides supportive evidence for the benefits of yoga within schools and for students. Whether for mental clarity or stress relief, or for stretching postures and stronger asana (think Surya Namaskar in gym class), yoga can address and improve many aspects of students’ and teachers’ lives.

Four talks: data and advocacy

Dr. Khalsa highlighted more than 40 peer-reviewed publications, many of which have been published in the last two years and are available on our curated site resource. In our first two talks, he covered the research on yoga for students, especially those in K-12 populations. He emphasized the significant mental health benefits seen in regular yoga practice as a framework for understanding how to support students during COVID. The second part of our conversations, “The Scientific Research on Yoga for Students of All Ages and Levels,” Part 1 and Part 2, covered advocacy for yoga and schools (Part 1) and the research behind its benefits for students—and administrators—of all levels in all types of institutions (Part 2). 

Mental health “degradations” prevalent at all levels

Throughout all four talks and in several excellent Q&As, we looked at data suggesting that most students face crippling stresses, from bullying to social anxieties to performance stress. He cited recent research on the prevalence of psychiatric disorders occurring by young adulthood, which includes the arresting statement: “[M]ost likely, the lifetime prevalence of psychiatric problems by age 21 well exceeds 80%.”“The point of yoga in schools,” Dr. Khalsa said, “is to prevent more mental health degradations than what already exist in alarming numbers.”

Many expressed the reality of yoga being viewed as a religion in their school districts. What are your thoughts on yoga viewed as religion in schools? Email us your thoughts or post below to start a conversation.

Mental health isn’t all of it. Students face challenges in every area of life, including poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and attention problems. That’s why, in recent years, the scientific and education communities have organized and collaborated around the concept of educating “the whole child.” Read more from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), who have created strategies that help us consider the overall health and the social/emotional wellbeing of the school-aged child.

Scientific research, Dr. Khalsa said, has measures to observe how, if at all, yoga improves the challenges (see chart), both from self-reported, i.e., qualitative characteristics, and from biologically quantified characteristics, i.e., measurements of heart rate variability (HRV), blood pressure, salivary cortisol (a measure of stress), body-mass index (BMI), and others. 

As promising as much of the findings so far are, research on yoga in schools is just beginning to be able to ask meaningful questions beyond the simple, first ones that research always starts with: What yoga does, how much of it we might need, and when it should be offered. “It’s a learning curve,” Dr. Khalsa said. “We’re just getting started.”

Effects of yoga have also been studied in medical students, including nurses, and in teachers.

In our September talks, we surveyed what yoga is actually being taught in a variety of educational institutions, not just through groups like bentonlearning and Kripalu’s RISE Program, whose efforts we discussed at length in a 90-minute expert teacher panel on the yoga in schools. Dr. Khalsa also catalogued a top-level list of the studies showing benefits throughout the educational system to manage different types of stress and overall well being.

Here is a sampling of citations from the presentation (full citation list below).

Randomized control trials are considered the “gold standard” in research. In a systematic review of 39 randomized control trials of yoga with youth, Dr. Khalsa and several colleagues this year found that yoga improved outcomes in psychological/behavioral, cognitive, and physiological/physical functioning” in all but a handful of studies. The team recommended that “future research include specification of testable theoretical models with hypothesized intervention core components and mechanisms of action, assessment of intervention mediators and moderators, routine monitoring and reporting of factors associated with program implementation, use of common validated outcome measures, and reporting of null or iatrogenic intervention effects.”

In the jourmal PlosOne, researchers found that in a 10-week study of yoga versus school sports, each practiced 90-minutes once weekly, yoga was better at improving heart-rate variability, resulting in “an improved self-regulation of the autonomic nervous system.” The yoga intervention was conducted in an “ideologically neutral manner” and included the four standard basic elements of western yoga: (1) physical postures (asana), (2) breathing exercises (pranayama), (3) relaxation techniques and (4) meditation.

From Elsevier’s Complementary Therapies in Medicine, a study of educational professionals aimed to address the chronic stress and burnout in the profession. “A Pragmatic Controlled Trial of a Brief Yoga and Mindfulness-Based Program for Psychological and Occupational Health in Education Professionals” found that even three days of a yoga-based program improved multiple measures of psychological and occupational health.

Research Citations

Overall Research on Stress and Behavior in School-aged Children

Behavior, Academics, Physical Health

Mental Health

Studies on Implementing Yoga and Mindfulness in Schools

Higher Education and Education Professionals Research

 

About the Author

About the Author

Kim Weeks

(RYS 200, RYS 500, E-RYT 500, CEP)

Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher and wellness expert, and founder of a wellness consulting and education company called Weeks Well, whose mission is to foster transformation in work and life.

Videos Associated With This Article

Yoga and Schools

Schools have often faced challenges implementing yoga for their students. Here, learn about the little research done on this topic and the ways children can benefit from this practice.

CE Workshop | Scientific Research on Yoga in Schools, Part 1

Schools have often faced challenges in implementing yoga for their students. Here, learn about the little research done on this topic and the ways in which children can benefit from this practice.

CE Workshop | Scientific Research on Yoga in Schools, Part 2

Schools have often faced challenges in implementing yoga for their students. Here, learn about the little research done on this topic and the ways in which children can benefit from this practice.

CE Workshop | Applications of Scientific Research on Yoga in Schools and Students of All Ages and Levels, Part 1

This workshop uses scientific research on yoga’s effects to make a case for including yoga in the school system, all the way from Pre-K to Doctorate levels. Among data shared is yoga’s measured impacts on concentration, stress reduction, and overall life-meaning.

CE Workshop | Applications of Scientific Research on Yoga in Schools and Students of All Ages and Levels, Part 2

Learn about the growing body of research on yoga effects on schoolchildren of all ages and research conducted on educators. This session cites specific studies covering improved concentration and athletic performance, stress reduction, and yoga’s benefits on students’ breathing and nervous systems.

CE Workshop | Applications of Scientific Research on Yoga in Schools and Students of All Ages

The final event of the Scientific Research on Yoga in Schools series features a panel discussion facilitated by wellness expert Kim Weeks. Guests will touch on yoga’s practical applications in schools and answer the most pressing questions that arose from Parts 1 and 2 of this enlightening series.

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