I have had the amazing fortune to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to hundreds of young people; to witness the joy and peace that they experience when practicing children’s yoga; to hear their feedback that yoga helps them feel in control, calm, and relaxed; to hear countless stories from teachers how yoga has helped their students become less anxious, more focused, more patient and better able to self-regulate; and to hear grateful stories from parents how their children seem to be happier, more self-aware, more compassionate, and more self-fulfilled. These observations suggest that yoga may foster assets in youth that make them more resilient when faced with life’s inevitable stress. Still, there are a lot of unknowns in the world of teaching yoga and mindfulness to youth.
Chronic stress is not only a concern for adult health. Children and adolescents who experience high levels of stress are at risk for negative outcomes, such as substance abuse, aggression, anxiety, depression, and underachieving in school (Suldo, Shaunessy & Hardesty, 2008). When children are consistently exposed to stressors during the early sensitive developmental periods of neural circuitry, they are more likely to experience difficulty in learning, anti-social behaviour, and poor mental and physical health (Hertzman and Boyce, 2010). With more and more youth reporting that they feel “stressed out,” it is urgent for parents and educators to provide youth with skills to cope with stress.
Because young people often have little control over external stressors, developing internal resources that help them voluntarily self-regulate or “cope” with stress can promote well-being and positive outcomes, perhaps even preventing future health issues. Recently in education there has been a rising interest in whether yoga and mindfulness practices may offer ways to bolster resiliency to stress in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.
Research on adults indicates that these practices can help prevent and reduce stress (e.g., Büssing, Michalsen, Khalsa, Telles & Sherman 2012; Carmody & Baer, 2007). In a review of the research on the effects of yoga on adults, Khalsa (2004) reported several studies in which various yoga practices seem to have counteracted the “stress response” and activated the “relax response” in participants.
Although in its exploratory phases, research on yoga and mindfulness practices for youth is adding insight to the study of resilience to stress in children and adolescents. Preliminary research indicates that the practices may offer similar benefits for youth as adults, but there is still much more work to be done before we know what works and what doesn’t for young people at different stages of life (Greenberg and Harris, 2012). Most of the studies to date have been quite small and less than rigorous. Therefore we must be cautious in interpreting and generalizing research findings.
What Does the Research Say?
The benefits of yoga for youth seem to become more apparent over time, and young people who practice more often appear to gain more benefits (Pandit & Satish, 2013). Recent studies on yoga with youth have found that doing yoga results in:
- Increased self-regulation and reduced rumination and emotional arousal (Mendelson et al., 2010)
- Increased ability to cope with stress (White, 2011)
- Improvements in physical tests of agility, strength, and flexibility (Shikshan, 2013)
- Improvements in cognitive functioning (Manjunath & Telles, 2001, 2004)
- Decreases in impulsivity, inattention, restlessness, and mood swings in boys with ADHD (Jensen & Kenny, 2005)
- Improved focus and decreased behavioural problems in children with emotional and behavioral disorders (Steiner, 2013)
- Decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, fewer negative responses in response to stress in adolescents (Frank et al., 2013).
- Action less likely to be motivated by hostility of revenge (Frank et al., 2013).
- Less anxiety and improved mood in adolescents (Noggle et al., 2012)
Mindfulness practices are meditation practices that aim to foster a state of consciousness that is rooted in the present moment and accompanied by experiences of calm alertness, clarity, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion, and equanimity.
Several studies have suggested that mindfulness practices may also offer benefits to youth (see Weare, 2013 for a review). Some of the benefits that have been found are:
- Improved cognitive function and self-regulation
- Increased prosocial behaviour
- Increased optimism and self-esteem
- Increased positive affect (mood)
- Greater resiliency to stress
- Decreased anxiety and somatic distress
What Does It All Mean?
What it comes down to, is we don’t know all that much and should be cautious about making over-enthusiatic claims about the benefits of practice. Teaching yoga to youth in North America is a relatively new endeavour – one we don’t know much about. It’s not clear which practices may be most effective during different developmental periods, and it’s unlikely that there is a one-size-fits all practice.
What does this mean for people who would like to introduce youth to yoga and mindfulness practices? Learn about positive youth development and learning so that your yoga classes are developmentally-appropriate and engaging. Yoga modelled after adult classes is likely not appropriate for children and teens when taken from a developmental perspective. In the same vein, classes for young children should look very different from older youth.
Always offer young people a choice whether they would like to try a practice or not. This is especially important in school and program settings where participants may have not chosen to take part of their own accord. Help youth develop self-awareness so that they can monitor whether the practice is right for them in that moment.
Observe participants for any signs of physical or mental discomfort, and adjust your instruction accordingly. Help youth develop body awareness to recognize when something is not appropriate. Can they breathe easily? Are they free of sharp pain or dull pins-and-needle sensations? Help them recognize the difference between challenge and pain. Challenge offers an opportunity to grow; pain is a set back, not a gain.
Keep an open discussion with participants to learn about and honour their experiences. Don’t assume that you know what’s best for them – empower them to explore this question for themselves. Don’t imply that you are trying to “fix” them by teaching the yoga or that they “need” it. If someone isn’t interested in participating in a group session, encourage them to take the time to relax, and offer them the choice of joining in whenever they want to.
Perhaps most important – keep the practices fun and engaging. It would be a shame to turn young people off these potentially life-enhancing practices because the practices (and teacher!) were too serious and boring. Lighten up and you might feel “enlightened!”