by Kat Olson
One of the biggest perks of my yearlong internship with the Kripalu Yoga in the Schools (KYIS) program (an initiative of Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living (IEL)) is the fieldwork—going into our participating schools to interact with the kids, and working side-by-side with our amazing teachers and researchers.
This past January, I collaborated with the IEL’s research team on a qualitative study of the KYIS program, interviewing some of the participating seventh-graders about the way they experience yoga and mindfulness. This is the youngest group KYIS has reached to date, and I was fascinated by every nuance of my interactions with these 11- and 12-year-olds.
Three main (non-scientific) deductions came to me right off the bat:
- Being a kid is hard.
- Middle school is terrifying.
- Yoga helps.
I spent 40 minutes or so with each student, soliciting feedback about the program and the role it’s played in their lives. I also questioned them about how they personally perceive stress and how they perceive the ways in which other seventh graders may cope—or don’t cope—with stress and peer pressure. I was shocked to hear every single student speak openly about experiencing nearly unbearable levels of stress on a regular basis.
A large proportion of kids’ lives takes place in school. It’s difficult to be cooped up in one building all day no matter how old you are, but it seems particularly tough for middle-schoolers. As their curiosity—and confusion—about life and the world is expanding, their academic world can feel incredibly constricting and burdensome. Add to that the social tensions of middle school, and you have a perfect recipe for stress.
The ultimate result of stress is burnout, which hinders student’s ability to perform in other aspects of life. That’s heightened by the fact that the brains of seventh graders are still developing, so if they’re stressed most of the time, their physiological makeup is actually altered. Another danger: stress leads to other common adolescent issues, including anxiety, depression, and drug abuse.
It’s not breaking news that stress in adolescents is a problem. The mission that IEL has undertaken with KYIS is to address issues that seem almost inevitable in today’s society. The good news: It works. KYIS is ideally delivered in a school setting, as a module in a P.E. or health class, which gives our participants a carefully crafted break from the regular demands of the school day. The program also gives young people tools for thriving amidst their circumstances. They learn to see that stress doesn’t have to be a constant state of being, and that there is alternative to feeling helpless and out of control. They learn to tap into resources within themselves and in their communities to sustain their health, and to inspire others to do so as well. The strategies we teach them really do come from within each one of them, empowering them to live fully, safely, and consciously, every step of the way.