Yoga In Schools Improves Health Research Shows
A new study review, “Scoping Review of Yoga in Schools: Mental Health and Cognitive Outcomes in Both Neurotypical and Neurodiverse Youth Populations,” found evidence to support the use of school-based yoga programs for the improvement of self-concept, resilience, depression, self-esteem, subjective wellbeing, executive function, and academic performance in both neurotypical and neurodiverse populations. These findings support providing yoga programs in schools to improve mental health and cognition and could clear the way for future research and school-based yoga intervention development.
An earlier survey suggests that roughly 80% of children and adolescents will have some form of psychological problem by age 21. Many of these conditions, like depression and anxiety, are rooted in chronic stress. This is one reason why more schools are turning to yoga to improve the health of American youth, according to a review of the research published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Research Review Examines Positive Effects of Yoga in Schools
The review examined all of the published peer-reviewed research in which yoga was used as a school-based intervention for the general population. A total of 47 publications in which yoga was used in preschool (n= 1), elementary schools (n= 18), middle schools (n= 7), and high schools (n= 13), as well as elementary and middle schools combined (n= 6) and middle school and high schools combined (n= 2) were included in the final analysis. Sample sizes in these studies ranged from 20-660 students (median = 74), and most trials took place in the United States (30) and India (15) and were published after 2010.
Research designs for these studies included randomized controlled trials (57%), non-randomized controlled trials (15%), uncontrolled trials (19%) and qualitative research (9%). Despite the use of randomized controlled trials, which are generally considered to be empirically rigorous, some studies suffered from methodological problems, which is common in school-based research where randomization of students to an intervention or non-intervention condition can be particularly challenging.
As is typical for yoga studies, there was a tremendous degree of variability in the types of yoga interventions used, as well as their format, content, and length. The overwhelming majority of yoga programs were delivered during school hours (85%) rather than before or after school. Program length varied from 1 to 52 weeks, with the number of sessions ranging from 5 to 100. Similarly, the duration of each session was highly variable, lasting from 4 to 180 minutes. The high degree of inconsistency of yoga “dosage” makes it difficult to assess whether program outcomes were related to the length of sessions offered or program duration.
Despite the inconsistency in program delivery, 62% of the studies reviewed used some sort of formal school-based yoga program. The remainder of studies relied on interventions developed by the researchers or their team. Similar to the “dosage” problem, the high degree of heterogeneity of yoga program types made it difficult to compare results across studies or to understand which particular aspects of yoga were most effective in schools.
Yoga In Schools Helps Reduce Student Psychological Problems
In general, yoga interventions in schools were shown to be helpful across a wide variety of child and adolescent outcomes. On the whole, studies provided evidence for student-reported improvements in stress reduction, mood, self-control, self-regulation, emotion-regulation, self-esteem, happiness, positive health, nonviolence, truthfulness, relaxation, and even working memory. In addition to these positive effects, decreases in self-reported depression, anxiety, stress, aggression, intrusive thoughts, alcohol use, and other psychosocial problems were also noted.
Although most of the research relied on student self-report to assess program outcomes, which may be subject to reporter bias, some studies also included teacher reports of student behavior. These studies showed positive effects in teacher-rated student social-emotional skills, mood, classroom behavior, performance, attention, social skills, concentration, and stress management. In addition, school records and academic test data showed that some students demonstrated improvements in academic performance following a yoga intervention.
There were also several studies that reported changes in physiological and cognitive outcomes, including increased heart rate variability, decreased cortisol concentration, improved respiratory muscle and abdominal strength, greater flexibility, improved planning and execution of cognitive tasks, and even declines in physiological stress reactivity.
Yoga In Schools Also Benefits Teachers
Although most of the yoga research in schools examined the effects on student outcomes, this review also found several studies of yoga for teachers and school staff. In one study of a stress management program for school employees, results showed significant decreases in teachers’ mental and physical stress and increases in cheerfulness, calmness, and comfort.
A study of middle school teachers noted self-reported increases in mindfulness, positive mood, classroom management, distress tolerance, and several physical stress indicators following a brief, daily intervention. Another study found a trend toward lowered perceived stress and emotional exhaustion among educators.
The field of yoga research is relatively new and largely underfunded. As a result, many studies use less-than-optimal research designs and rely predominantly on self-reports to assess outcomes of interest. Further, there is considerable heterogeneity in the types of yoga interventions used, and we know little about intervention fidelity, implementation, and the optimal “dose” of yoga required to have a meaningful effect.
The authors of this systematic review noted that some of the controlled studies reported no significant student improvements in addition to higher negative mood states and stress ratings following a yoga intervention. It is possible that these effects occurred because participants became increasingly more aware of their psychological state as a function of yoga education rather than being harmed by it. More research will be required to bear this out.
In general, this review of the published evidence suggests that school-based yoga programs may be helpful in reducing student and teacher stress and increasing mood, health, performance, and pro-social behavior. This is great news for those hoping to gain support for bringing yoga into the classroom.
B Grace Bullock, Ph.D., E-RYT 500, is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, yoga and mindfulness expert, and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and well-being and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing, and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology, and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders, and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness, and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns, and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is also the Founding Director and Principal Consultant of the International Science & Education Alliance, an organization devoted to exceptional research, program evaluation, assessment design, strategic planning, and capacity building to support equity, programmatic diversity, and scientific integrity and promote effective leadership, decision-making, and social change. Bullock is a certified Viniyoga therapist and faculty member at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information, see www.bgracebullock.com.
- Khalsa, S.S. & Butzer, B. (2016). Yoga in school settings: a research review. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13025