How Yoga Can Disrupt the School-to-Prison Pipeline

This is an interview with B.K. Bose, who started the non-profit Niroga Institute with a few yoga students in 2005. Niroga was asked to help work with a group of delinquent young women in an alternative high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, and from the first yoga class the Niroga teachers could see how these students took to the mindful action, breathing and centering (the ABCs) like fish to water. They seemed to connect with a place inside themselves that was safe from all the dysfunction around them.

Today, Niroga conducts over 100 yoga classes a week in 40 sites throughout the Bay Area, serving over 5,000 children, youth, and adults annually, in mainstream and alternative schools, juvenile halls and jails, rehab centers, and cancer hospitals. It also conducts trainings for hundreds of educators, mental health professionals, and violence-prevention officials nationwide. In these trainings, participants receive help with personal sustainability (stress management, self-care, and healing from vicarious trauma), which also has a positive effect on their professional practice. Niroga teaches Transformative Life Skills (TLS: mindful yoga, breathing techniques, and meditation).

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

I learned yoga as a child, but my technical training was in computer science. While I was working as a researcher in Silicon Valley, I saw the ravages of chronic stress all around me. It was affecting the health, relationships, productivity, and global competitiveness of so many individuals and organizations. I knew about an optimal solution!

So I became a student of chronic stress and its pervasive impact on individuals and communities. I learned that stress is not only a risk factor for most chronic diseases (which are responsible for 75 percent of our health-care budget), but it affects us all the way down to our DNA, accelerating aging and altering our gene maps (turning on disease-causing genes). Chronic stress is also a common effect of every major social determinant of health (e.g., income inequality, institutionalized racism, and the breakdown of traditional family structures). I also learned from the latest trauma research that we hold chronic stress, traumatic stress, and post-traumatic stress in our bodies as well as our minds. An integrated mind-body approach is essential for optimal healing.

How can yoga become a game-changer in preventing school failure and reducing juvenile delinquency

Approximately one in two youths is dropping out of our inner-city schools. About a million youths are dropping out of school every year across the U.S. … When a youth drops out of school it is very likely that he/she will be involved in crime and violence.

Many of the children and youth who are at greatest risk of school failure come to school not ready to learn. They are dealing with the trauma of abuse and neglect, crime and violence, guns and gangs, drugs and death. We rush to teach them, forgetting that we need to heal them first.

If we could bring optimal trauma-informed programs such as mindful yoga, breathing techniques, and meditation to enough children enough times, I believe we could reach a powerful tipping point. An efficient and cost-effective approach to doing this is by training the adults who are around these children (e.g., schoolteachers, counselors, and parents) in these practices. This would have a dual advantage: It would help the adults with their own stress management, self-care and healing from secondary trauma, and also enable them to create communities of practice in their schools and homes.

Why should health professionals and school administrators know about Transformative Life Skills (TLS)?

The latest neuroscience research shows that chronic stress disrupts our ability to hold attention and regulate our emotions; neuroscience also shows that mindfulness practices can mitigate these very effects.[1-4] Researchers have already established that self-control is a predictor of academic achievement, and that low self-control is responsible for a broad range of personal and interpersonal problems.[5],[6]

Independent researchers studying the effect of Niroga’s TLS among hundreds of youth in inner-city schools have shown that TLS lowered stress, increased emotion regulation, enhanced school engagement, and changed attitude toward violence.[8] I believe this has multi-dimensional impact on our school-to-prison pipeline, as well as on education equity and the achievement gap, since so many of the youth dropping out of school and ending up in juvenile hall are boys of color.

In addition to the studies you cite above, is there an evidence base for your program in particular? What is the return on investment?

As I said, there is compelling scientific research showing 1) stress affects self-control, and self-control predicts academic achievement; and 2) yoga/TLS lowers stress and increases self-control. So it is quite possible that yoga/TLS will affect academic achievement, and this needs to be researched. It will require getting yoga/TLS to a large number of youth randomly selected to receive TLS enough times (sufficient frequency and duration), and following their trajectories for several years. We are just starting to get interest from entire school districts to study just this.

Of course, we see instances of transformation every day in our direct service programs in the community. When a young man is able to let down his armor of hyper-vigilance, when a young woman in a homeless shelter says that her constant emotional pain is eased through the practice, when opposing gang members are able to close their eyes and relax beside each other at the end of a practice session, when a high-risk teen graduates from an alternative high school and joins our teacher training program so that she can help pull her friends out of the quicksand of hopelessness, we consider these victories bread for our journey!

It costs less than $1,000 to saturate a child or youth’s life with TLS. If we applied TLS throughout our schools, and if the graduation rate could be increased by just 1 percent, the math is simple and clear — we would get our money back many times over!

What is the greatest challenge you face in bringing TLS to those who need it most?

There are so many misconceptions around yoga. Even with 20 million people doing yoga in the U.S., it is often perceived as socially elite. It is also often presented as a fitness fad for flexibility, or simply as stretching.

So we call our program Transformative Life Skills (TLS), skills that nudge us towards healthy behaviors and healthy lifestyle choices, even as they transform us from the inside out. Anchored in mindfulness, connecting with our breath, we emerge in movement, so that the entire practice becomes dynamic, embodied mindfulness — mindfulness in motion, or moving meditation. It is a universal, secular transformative practice, which anyone can do anytime, anywhere.

Awareness regarding the power and potential of these transformative practices needs to grow among educators, health-care professionals, and violence-prevention officials. Thought leaders in these interconnected major domains of social function are just beginning to realize that these time-tested practices are evidence-based, validated by cutting-edge research in multiple disciplines. Long-term funding commitment is required, so that comprehensive research can be conducted to establish system impacts, such as high school graduation rate and the recidivism rate in juvenile halls.

What are two key features of your approach to reducing stress and increasing self-control and resilience among at-risk children and youth?

We believe that every child and every youth has infinite capability for self-awareness and self-mastery, to act rather than merely react, to achieve their fullest potential.

We also believe that we are not trying to fix or help anyone, simply to serve them with love and compassion, unselfishly and unconditionally. Doing so is our privilege. We are thankful to those we serve, since each of them provides us with the opportunity to grow in many ways.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

I dream about the possibility when most of the people in communities across the U.S. and beyond have access to these profound and powerful practices, so that they can act with self-awareness and self-mastery most of the time. Such access will transform ourselves, help heal our communities, and help make our fragile planet more sustainable for generations to come.

None of us can do this alone. We will need all of our passion and compassion, vision and imagination. Yoga practitioners will need to extend their practice beyond the boundaries of their mats, bringing it from individuals to institutions, from classrooms to corporations, from jails to juvenile halls, building healthy and vibrant communities one breath at a time.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from Rob Schware, Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Recent articles


Upcoming courses

FREE 3-Part video series!

Yoga for
every body

How to Avoid the Top 3 Pitfalls of Forward Bends

With Julie Gudmedstad

Recent articles


Sorry, You have reached your
monthly limit of views

To access, join us for a free 7-day membership trial to support expanding the Pose Library resources to the yoga community.

Sign up for a FREE 7-day trial