Yoga in Schools: Phys Ed for the 21st Century

Posted on March 1st, 2014 by in Meditation, Yoga

Yoga_in_schoolsFrom Encinitas, California, to Baltimore, Maryland, educators, legislators, and activists are doing their part to bring yoga into the schools. We’ve seen this movement growing and Kripalu is working with school educators and wellness experts to help share the calming effects of yoga to children and adolescents.

Through learning breathing practices, yoga postures, deep relaxation, and meditation, this younger generation is experiencing the connection between mind and body at an early age.

Research shows that yoga and other contemplative practices can help kids better regulate their emotions and behaviors in healthy ways. Findings from the Kripalu Yoga in the Schools (KYIS) initiative show that students who have been exposed to these techniques are less reactive, more optimistic, and better able to focus, concentrate, and interact with their peers.

“Yoga is showing up in many school settings nationwide,” says Edi Pasalis, Director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living (IEL), which administers the KYIS project. “It helps teachers create a more potent learning environment [and] helps students learn.”

As someone who didn’t start practicing yoga and meditation until I was almost 30, I often wonder how my childhood would have been different if I had these tools while dealing with the pitfalls of junior high, taking the SATs, and applying to college.

“We live in stressful society where kids are under a lot of pressure,” says Kripalu-affiliated researcher Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, of Harvard Medical School. He says that, for many adolescents, stress contributes to anxiety, depression, and drug abuse.

“One concept that is underrated is the degree to which adolescents [in particular] are suffering mental-health issues,” says Sat Bir. “Kids are not coping well—you have bullying and attention deficit disorders. Our education system needs to teach skills to develop the whole human being, not just math and English.”

Sat Bir notes that many adult behaviors and patterns begin in adolescence, including mental-health issues, so it’s important to teach these mindfulness tools early on. His research shows that long-term yoga and meditation practice changes the part of the brain that regulates resilience to stress and emotional reactivity.

Ali Smith, Executive Director of the Holistic Life Foundation, has helped bring yoga to Baltimore’s inner-city schools for more than 12 years.

“It has definitely paid off,” Ali says. “We’ve seen better self-regulation skills. Before, kids would have just acted impulsively and flown off the handle. Now, they are much more in touch with their thoughts, emotions, and energy level, and there is a lot more love for themselves and others.”

Ali teaches students how to center themselves and meditate, but 99 percent of what he teaches, he says, is how to breathe. “Most people don’t know how to take a deep breath,” he says.

“One of the cool things [to see] is kids helping other kids,” Ali says. “For example, they’ll lead their class in pranayama before standardized tests. At the root of what we’re teaching is [the idea that] you’re learning it to help yourself, but you’re really learning it to help others.”

Not surprisingly, students are taking the practice home. “We’ve had parents come home stressed, and their children tell them how to sit down, breathe, and meditate,” Ali says. One woman reported that, after she complained of stomach pains, her 9-year-old granddaughter, Anajay, taught her a breathing technique that includes curling the tongue—sitali kriya, or “cooling breath.”

Timothy B. Baird, superintendent of the Encinitas (California) Union School District, implemented a district-wide yoga-in-the-schools program that received national attention. He says, “I’ve been calling this ‘P.E. for the 21st century.’ It teaches them the tools to relax and de-stress, and you know dodgeball doesn’t do that.”

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About Jennifer Mattson

Jennifer is a journalist, writer, yogini, and kirtan junkie. A former volunteer resident at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, she’s a former broadcast news producer for CNN and National Public Radio. Her reporting and writing have appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, USA Today and the Women’s Review of Books.
  • Dixie Hendrix

    For the past 3 years I have taught yoga as PE to 6th -12th graders in the most unlikely of places- an inner-city Oklahoma City school. This year I have 217 students. We learn breathing , meditation, poses, partner work, and other stress relief techniques . 12 deaf students and 17 autistic students are folded into the mix of my classes, which adds a challenge to me, but also is great reward. I feel this is an excellent substitute for the regular PE classes at the school, where 3/4ths of the class stays in the stands texting or playing computer games.

    • KripaluEditor

      This is fantastic, Dixie. Thank you for sharing!

  • Garrett Loomer

    I just did Yoga with my PK-2 classes and I don’t remember any other activity where kids came up to me and asked how they can practice at home. I promptly made copies from the book I was using and handed them out. Most classes loved it enough that I continued it for another week. Being in Baltimore, these kids truly DO react first and need calming activities. Learning to breathe and self regulate is a great skill for this population and I plan on doing more in depth Yoga every year and with every grade from now on.

  • Jennifer

    @Garrett Loomer Glad you are planning on doing more of it. Thanks so much for sharing your first hand knowledge. -Jennifer Mattson, writer

  • Jeannine

    this is great and is something i have envisioned since 2000 when i first became a kripalu 200 hour teacher during the summer when i was a science teacher. i had success with my yoga club back then and it was before the yoga boom! I knew in my heart that I needed to pursue yoga full time. now I have a children’s yoga school called Yoga Rocks! and i would love to know how I can get more involved with all you are doing. Thank you!

  • JoMM

    So glad to be reading this news! As a young mother, 35 years ago, I worked to introduce yoga into my girls’ school day, to no avail. “Too religious” was the response from principal and teachers. A few years later I helped settle my art students with breath and stretch. I’m currently offering yoga to neighbors and friends at the grandparent stage of our lives.

    Your article’s focus on the importance of breath, stretch and meditation, teaching and learning together, improved self regulation leading to RESILIENCE resonates with me. My grown daughters live with yoga in their lives, grandchildren encounter the challenges of school with the tools of yoga and friends awaken to the benefits and bonding of yoga practice. Truly rich reward.

    • Jennifer

      @JoMM SO glad it resonated with you. Your experience is really fascinating. Thanks for sharing it. –Jennifer, writer

  • missy

    At my school in Catonsville, Md, two teachers and I lead a yoga club after school. We had over 80 children apply for the 30 spots. We do two five week sessions. In the end we let everybody participate. The children love yoga!

    • KripaluEditor

      This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing, Missy! You are doing important work.
      Best to you!