Educators around the world have introduced yoga in schools recently, bolstered by evidence-based reports of the many benefits of yoga and meditation. Schools are finding innovative ways to combine academics with yoga and mindfulness – an aspect of education that is perhaps an increasingly important offering now with rising stress levels during the Coronavirus pandemic.
In interviews with students, classroom teachers, and yoga instructors, it is clear that yoga is embedded in the school culture of many schools in perhaps as many ways as there are yoga shapes, but one thing is common: stakeholders agree that the benefits of yoga, regardless of how it is implemented, are multitudinous. Yoga teachers report frequently hearing back from students about the enriching experience of yoga classes.
“Yoga is a non-competitive, health-promoting activity that everyone can do, and it is a valuable practice for young people to start and carry on with throughout their lives,” said Jenny Kierstead, a former physical education teacher and founder of the award-winning Yoga in Schools in Canada (www.yogainschools.ca). “Mindfulness and meditation can help children with exam stress, mental health issues and emotional regulation. Both practices encourage self-acceptance and therefore, help to bring peace to a population who are deeply struggling.”
Yoga in Schools is a high school credit course as a physical education elective in public schools in Canada and First Nations Boards in four Canadian provinces. Ms. Kierstead and her husband Blair Abbass have certified more than 1,200 educators in a 200-hour yoga in schools teacher training program and provided in-service training to 10,000 teachers since Yoga in Schools in Canada began 12 years ago.
The tools of yoga and mindfulness offer time-proven methods of managing physical, mental and emotional stress, noted Kimma Stark, a U.S.-based yoga instructor who said studies show that children who practice yoga have improved self-regulation and reduced behavior problems, among other benefits that come from combining the breath with movement.
Step into Kylie Dalzell’s classroom in Brussels and you will find routines structured around moments of peace, time to sit quietly in a calming corner with chimes or a singing bowl and listening to stories that invite students to tune into feelings. Ms. Dalzell, an elementary school teacher at the International School of Brussels, is a certified trainer in Kidding Around Yoga (www.kiddingaroundyoga.com), a yoga method for children.
“Relaxation imagination” time invites creativity. Students may listen to calming music and use visualization techniques while Ms. Dalzell reads from a meditation script taking children on an imaginative journey through a relaxing garden, for example. It’s all about taking mindful breaks, bringing students to the present moment and using the breath to calm and quiet both body and mind so students are in an optimal state and ready to learn, she said. Those moments to go inward can help young people cultivate more thoughtful responses to triggers that could send them into a state of alert, or what psychologists term fight-or-flight mode. “They learn to practice to sit quietly with their emotions,” Ms. Dalzell said.
Across schools, whether in Europe or Canada, the style of yoga, the frequency of classes and yoga and meditation as an after-school activity or as part of the curriculum, varies by country – but people interviewed for this article all agree on positive change as a result of the introduction of yoga in schools. The benefits of yoga and mindfulness are also part of a growing body of research from the social sciences and psychology, which may help quiet skeptics who may have concerns about the value of yoga in schools.
Some schools in the United States have even replaced detention with meditation. Separately, actress Goldie Hawn’s MindUP program (www.mindup.org) is an evidence-based program based on neuroscience that promotes mental health and emotional wellbeing in children. MindUP trains teachers to foster optimism in the classroom and an environment for children to thrive, using the principles of positive psychology and mindfulness. As the saying goes, energy flows where one’s attention goes.
In the UK, Longwood Primary Academy in Harlow launched its first meditation pod in for students, a dedicated quiet space to listen to pre-recorded meditations, in an attempt reduce stress and promote wellbeing.(https://www.inherestudio.com/why-we-donated-a-meditation-pod-to-a-school/) It’s part of a whole new shift in cultivating wellness in students and staff.
Seemingly, there are a variety of ways schools can make yoga part of the school culture: as part of a warm-up in sports programs, integrated into physical education classes or as an after-school activity, said Ms. Kierstead of Yoga in Schools in Canada. Ms. Kierstead created the Girl on Fire empowerment program, which combines yoga and mindfulness activities to build resilience in young women, after the tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons, a teenager who made headlines in Nova Scotia for being cyberbullied.
Ms. Kierstead launched Mindfulness in Schools in 2018, which encourages the application of mindfulness tools within the classroom, such as brain breaks, to help students focus. Research from psychology shows that mindfulness meditation, which is a type of meditation that trains people to be in the moment, reduces stress and chronic illness and protects chromosomes from damage.
In one research study, Davidson et al. (2003) assigned participants to an eight-week mindfulness meditation program and found a correlation between meditation and greater brain activation – and left-sided brain activation correlated with adaptive responses to stress. Electroencephalography technology (EEGs) also shows that mindfulness meditation in long-term meditators, such as Buddhist monks, creates neuroplastic brain changes that do not exist in non-meditators, according to research by Ferrarelli et al (2013).
For parents and older people reluctant to join the yoga movement, it’s worth noting that mindfulness-meditation may slow cell aging by protecting telomeres, which protect chromosomes from damage as they divide, research by Epel et al. (2009) indicates. There is also fMRI research showing that mindfulness-meditation stimulates prefrontal cortex activity (Ludwig & Kabat-Zinn 2008). The pre-frontal cortex is an area of the brain responsible for planning, problem-solving and decision making. Other research has shown meditation reduces stress (Oman et al. 2008) and binge drinking in college students (Mermelstein & Garske, 2015).
Picking up on the findings of research in psychology, John Crane, an IB Psychology teacher in Prague in the Czech Republic and a workshop leader for InThinking, launched a Mindfulness Food Project in 2018 for his students, a six-week program with the goal of examining research, encouraging discussion and reflecting on food behaviors.
“We try to give our kids the best options for their future. I think that stress is huge for kids,” he said. The project’s inspiration came in part, he said during a recent interview in Lisbon, due to his own concerns about improving his health. His students set goals such as sitting through a family meal without using their mobile phones. They kept journals and took mindful walks, leading to lively class discussions about changing habits, he said. He recalled one basketball player who reported learning to enjoy eating more – and not to just view food as fuel for sports. Through the program, Mr. Crane said he learned to savor his food and slow down.
For teachers, health-based programs are an opportunity to cultivate a very different relationship with their students because the work is so personal and growth-oriented. The wellness movement is clearly a partnership between students and the adults caring for them.
“Children are at a crisis point with mental health challenges, and sedentary related physical conditions – and yoga hits all aspects of a person’s life,” Ms. Kierstead said. The physical, mental and spiritual integration – helping connect students to their sensations, thoughts and feelings so they will develop better interoception (or the ability to sense the internal state of the body) and self-awareness as young adults – may just be the key to thrive, she said.
Seventeen-year-old Claudia McGuinty Canete has practiced yoga on and off for approximately three years and said yoga can be particularly beneficial for students taking the academically-challenging International Baccalaureate program. As a Grade 12 IB student at ACS International School in London, she said she recently experienced high stress from mock exams. Her antidote? First, she took a nap, then did yoga – a recipe for feeling refreshed, she said. “Yoga just really brings it all together – the body and the mind. You just feel so relaxed afterwards. Yoga really calms me down,” she stated.
In addition to the physical benefits of a regular yoga practice, McGuinty Canete credits yoga with helping her cope with stress and migraines.
The recent proliferation of yoga articles in the mainstream press and images on social media have increased the exposure to yoga among teenagers, McGuinty Canete said. Meditation apps from Calm to Headspace promote this new way of thinking about health and wellbeing. Another case in point: Yale’s most popular course is about happiness and the science of wellbeing by Laurie Santos.
Yoga should be introduced to young people in such a way that it meets the individual needs of students so they can see the benefits – whether it emphasizes the physical practice or involves setting up a class as a way to deal with anxiety and stress in a quiet, calm environment, McGuinty Canete said.
That is a sentiment echoed by Brussels-based Ms. Dalzell and it is something she said she promotes in her training to educators everywhere from Brussels and Lisbon to Toulouse and Warsaw. “There absolutely is a buzz. It’s a wellness movement and educators are finding mindful moments throughout the day to make it part of the routine.”
Educators have long paired academic achievement with social and emotional wellbeing but now there is clearly more of a focus on yoga programming. “The way we do things is changing. Before our school was purely academic,” said Ian Latham, an IB Psychology teacher who is also a tutor at Oak House School in Barcelona where students have taken yoga as part their Community, Action, Service (CAS) requirements in the IB Diploma Programme. “They take it seriously. They really like it. They just need time to clear their minds.”
As yoga becomes more mainstream in schools, including in international school settings, the next step is wellness programs for staff and parents to mirror how yoga has evolved from studios to the classroom and into the workplace, Ms. Stark said. “Yoga is a philosophy for living a more centered and balanced life,” she noted.
Perhaps like academics, yoga offers that ideal combination of challenge and ease for people to discover their unique strengths and limitations.
Davidson, Richard & Kabat-Zinn, Jon & Schumacher, Jessica & Rosenkranz, Melissa & Muller, Daniel & Santorelli, Saki & Urbanowski, Ferris & Harrington, Anne & Bonus, Katherine & Sheridan, John. (2003). Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosomatic medicine. 65. 564-70. 10.1097/01.PSY.0000077505.67574.E3.
Epel, Elissa et al. “Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1172 (2009): 34-53. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x
Greeson, Jeffrey M. “Mindfulness Research Update: 2008.” Complementary health practice review vol. 14,1 (2009): 10-18. doi:10.1177/1533210108329862
Mermelstein LC, Garske JP. A brief mindfulness intervention for college student binge drinkers: A pilot study. Psychol Addict Behav. 2015;29(2):259-269. doi:10.1037/adb0000040
Oman, Doug & Shapiro, Shauna & Thoresen, Carl & Plante, Thomas & Flinders, Tim. (2008). Meditation Lowers Stress and Supports Forgiveness Among College Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of American college health : J of ACH. 56. 569-78. 10.3200/JACH.56.5.569-578.