Yoga in schools: an ancient practice helps students deal with modern stress

Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.

Psychology Department

Yoga is being increasingly taught in school settings as a technique to help students regulate their emotions and manage their stress and mood. In my role as a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School, I had the pleasure of studying the science behind how yoga helps students cope with stress. 

Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.

Psychology Faculty

While the individual curricula of school-based yoga programs differ, what they all have in common is a desire to combine four basic elements of yoga (physical postures, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and meditation) with a variety of techniques and topics such as games, art, philosophy, psychology, health, and pro-social behavior in order to help students develop skills that will benefit them not only at school, but in life as well.

One of the problems with our current education system is that it is highly focused on enhancing students' academic achievement. Many students leave high school with the subject matter knowledge that is necessary for them to get into college, but they lack basic skills to help them deal with difficulties that are bound to arise in their lives. As a result, we end up with a workforce that suffers from a variety of psychological and physical problems. We have extremely successful architects, engineers, and stockbrokers who are also profoundly stressed and/or depressed.

Research suggests that in the United States, the cumulative prevalence of psychiatric illness by age 21 exceeds 80% (Copeland, Shanahan, Costello, & Angold, 2011), and that the majority of adult psychiatric conditions have child-adolescent onsets (Kessler & Wang, 2008). The good news is that studies are starting to show that school-based yoga can have a positive effect on student health and well-being, and researchers have come up with a few ideas about how this works.

Three Ways That Yoga Helps Students Succeed

  1. Developing Mind-Body Awareness. By training students how to pay attention to the relationship between their mind and body, school-based yoga helps kids 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 five 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, 2009) and young adults (Eastman-Mueller et al., 2013) are starting to support these ideas.
  2. Improving 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, 2010) and behave more positively (Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010). The basic idea is that yoga helps calm the fight or flight response and induce the relaxation response, thus helping kids 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.
  3. Enhancing Social-Emotional Skills. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning involves developing five 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).    

One important thing to keep in mind is that the research in this area is very preliminary, and much work remains to be done. For example, we're still not sure what frequency, or "dose" of yoga is most effective for students. We're also not sure how long the positive effects of yoga may last, because few (if any) studies have included long-term follow-up. There's also the issue of some parents feeling uncomfortable with yoga being offered in schools, as they believe that this is a religious practice that violates the separation of church and state.

Personally, I think that as more high-quality research begins to emerge, yoga programs will start appearing more regularly in schools. As part of this effort, I'm continuing to collaborate with some of my research colleagues in Boston, and I'm developing connections with researchers in the Czech Republic who are interested in this topic.

In the end, I think that radical change is needed in the way that we define success for students. Grades are important, but we need to broaden our definition to include personal well-being as well as academic achievement. I'm confident that learning yoga and meditation from an early age will provide benefits not only in childhood, but in adulthood as well.

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