Yoga is being used in children's school settings within America. The practice of Yoga has had a negative conception in our Judeo-Christian American society, but it is being adapted and accepted by some school systems. Proponents state that the health benefits and meditative process' of yoga help de-stress our children who are used to a more busy culture, while opponents shun the practice that was developed in deep roots of Hinduism.
There are many reasons to do yoga- spirituality, health benefits, stress reduction, popularity... but should children be able to do yoga? Is yoga really right for our youth? Isn't yoga all about Hinduism and non Western ideals? Our school children couldn't possibly have any use for yoga... But yoga for youth is becoming increasingly more popular. It is being implemented into many school systems, funded by different organizations, and there have been several studies on the matter (Berger, 2009, Getting Grounded, 2005, New York School community debates yoga in public school, 2008, Pradhan, 2010, and White, 2009) . Children today are stressed and can not focus easily (Getting Grounded, 2005). Studies show that yoga can help individuals with ADHD, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and can increase mental capacity (White, 2009). But are these studies truly sufficient? What about the inherently religious undertones of yoga and the culture behind it? Can the practice and the religion be separated? Concerns for this issue have put holds on several school systems looking to create mini yogis. The concepts behind yoga are complex in themselves, do children really understand the benefits of the practice?
Children have always been interesting to me. They inherently see things in a different way than most adults. For school age children (anywhere from 6-18) yoga can be particularly interesting. Culture and religion are very abstract concepts to them, and they are things that they sometimes like to take a grocery list approach to- pick some of the things they like about each and “purchase” them. This is a concept that most Americans follow. I believe to them the religion behind the practice wouldn't matter, it would be all about “having fun”. In many of the different yoga classes I've attended and seen throughout our class, I've seen that Americanized yoga practices attempt to separate these concepts. Children, particularly hyper active children, don't take the time to think “spiritually” about the practice, they're just exercising and having fun. As Ms. Teicher, from the New York Messena school district states “Kids aren't concerned with competition or doing the perfect pose. They're just being dogs. They get what yoga is supposed to be about” (Getting Grounded, 2005, 1). I like to approach many things in my life as a child might- how can I make this more fun? I believe yoga is a very complex, multifaceted, spiritual, physical, and perhaps even emotional process. So I wonder, how could this help a child? I am also an education major, as a future teacher I want to know about any and all possibilities to help my students and garner their attentions. Many of the studies of children and yoga are in a school setting, a lot state positive benefits of improving attention or performance on tests, if those results are true, I am interested. Yoga for kids is expanding to community centers, yoga studios, private and public schools, and after school programs throughout the US. Sisters Jacqueline and Teddy Kellam, founders of Yogadoodles, a preschool program in San Francisco believe “kids have an overstimulated environment, and parents instinctively want to give kids something that has a therapeutic element” (McGonigal, 2006, 1).
Yoga in Western Culture
Yoga has had a bad reputation in Western Culture in the past. Yoga is recently beginning to gain more acceptance and popularity in the media and homes. It still has its opponents, who believe yoga to be a practice deep seated in religion such as the parents at the Massena school district in New York, which isn't completely untrue (New York community debates yoga in public school, 2008). The word yoga comes from the word meaning “to yoke”, or “to harness”, as such the goal of yoga was to guide one to wholeness, happiness, and well being (White, 2009). Yoga is based in Indian culture and Hindu practices. This has caused some to think it can not be separated from the religion. In New York, the Massena School District Board of Education stopped the schools yoga programs after receiving numerous complaints from parents claiming their children were being “indoctrinated in Hindu rites” (New York community debates yoga in public school, 2008, 1). Statements like this give yoga a bad reputation, and make it difficult for teachers just looking to get their students more active. A local reverend, Collin J. Lucid stated that “yoga, even in its most basic form, is tied into Hinduism”. One parent commented that he was afraid yoga would “confuse” his kids who were being brought up Christian, and the children who chose not to participate would be ostracized (New York community debates yoga in public school, 2008, 1). A teacher who is just trying to teach her students better circulation and stretching practices has been completely stonewalled due to issues of church and state. Is yoga an issue of bringing the church into schools? Or does yoga lie beyond the lines of religious ideology. In its rawest form yoga is focused on breathing to help the mind focus, physical postures to strengthen the body and increase flexibility, and relaxation and meditation to calm and focus the mind (Berger, 2009).
The focus of yoga does not have to be intermingled with religious reflection. In fact Americans have long been modeling it to suit their own needs. In 1893 Swami Vivekananda attended the Chicago Parliament of Religions and presented Hinduism and yoga to the U.S. (White, 2009). Ever since than Americans have been modifying the process to suit our own needs. Yoga in America has gone through many transformations, from it we've pulled out a very “modern” yoga. Modern yoga reflects our current health interests, including fitness and stress management, as well as the decline of institutionalized religion. Americans have began to associate yoga with alternative medicine and personal inner private religious practice (White, 2009). As yoga is being adapted by many Americans, it is sneaking into the media, which in turn modernizes the practice more. Yoga in schools particularly has been increasingly addressed in the news (White, 2009). Yoga for children has snuck into our books, videos, and activity groups, as well as the school curricula (Berger, 2009). We are developing a new culture around yoga. It was once taboo, but it has now become very commercialized. In fact in 2005 a study estimated that about 7.5% of adults in the U.S. are practicing yoga (Berger, 2009). This is good news for children because school yoga programs are being developed around reduction of stress and anxiety through treatment of the body and mind as well as building self-esteem (Getting Grounded, 2005). Yoga is so successful for children because it emphasis individual abilities rather than competition (White, 2009). School children can take breaks from their normal, very hectic and stressful school lives by participating in a practice that is entirely for them and making them feel comfortable and relaxed. Society is more and more supporting it, and it has already entered our school systems, but how can we teach it to children?
Teaching Yoga in the Classroom
For children the goals of yoga should be less about perfecting postures and more about cultivating compassion, non- judgement, and connections between breath and postures (White, 2009). Yoga should include a calming environment, this is particularly true for children in yoga. Children need to be reminded that they should not compare themselves to others, yoga is an individual process (White, 2009). Children are very impressionable, and because they are still learning and developing their own thoughts and personalities, yoga can help them individualize. By taking the practice to their own abilities, and not following the group yoga can be a positive experience for adolescent development. There are many different forms of yoga for youths. Older students can stretch or focus on deep breathing before a test. Young students can develop their motor and communication skills through balance and partner work (Getting Grounded, 2005). Claudia Teicher a Kindergarten teacher believes “The kids develop listening skills, focus, and the ability to go from an active state to a calm one whenever thy want” (Getting Grounded, 2005, 1). Not only does the practice of yoga help their physical bodies, but a good teacher can intermix the practice with development of other skills. There are many different ways to teach children poses, and they tend to be very different from adult yoga. One of the most important differences is play in yoga. Children's yoga classes may contain only a few poses intermixed with games, singing, storytelling, and creative movement (McGonigal, 2006). A yoga practice for kids must be able to adapt old yoga practices for childrens' needs. Another important thing to keep in mind is to leave room for children's self expression and creativity (McGonigal, 2006). For children, expression and imagination are important aspects of development, without them the practice will become boring and they'll become distracted.
Choosing the right poses for a child can be difficult. Teachers may want to relate poses to plants, objects, or animals to relate to children. Teachers should always remind children not to force a pose or be in pain. Children are particularly susceptible to harm in some of the more strenuous poses (White, 2009). The more you can adapt a child's imagination into the pose, the better the experience will be for them. Another difficult task for teachers is to manage the energy of the group without discouraging the class of acting disciplinary (McGonigal, 2006). Children need to be encouraged, and don't want to be told they're doing the poses “wrong”, because yoga is supposed to be fun; “When you ask a child to be a 'down dog' they become a dog, and you don't tell a dog how to look” says Kellam of Yogadoodles (McGonigal, 2006, 1). Correcting a child without limiting their creativity is one of the most difficult tasks a teacher faces, for yoga, a practice developed on poses this can be difficult. Yoga is also a personal experience where every individual's practice is different, which is why I believe it can work for children. Children are energetic and chatty, practices need to be focused towards the children. Using alternating periods of focused quiet and moments of noisy sillyness can be more appropriate for children (McGonigal, 2006). As children get more into their practices they can learn to use them on their own. They can use certain practices at different moments during the day, such as poses before a test, practices to be learning-ready, and movements to release stress (McGonigal, 2006). Learning to make yoga less of a chore and more of a useful fun activity is the goal of yoga for youth.
The Pros of Using Yoga in the Classroom
There are many positives to using yoga in general, many of these are particularly helpful to school children. Among the many benefits, yoga claims to improve children's well being, self esteem, concentration, strength, flexibility, coordination, and motor skills (Berger, 2009). These are impressive claims, and if they are accurate could be very helpful to students, particularly adolescents with low self esteem, children with attention deficit disorder, weaker children, and children with motor skill deficits. If you have trouble believing these claims, according to Deborah Berger, 24% of pediatricians would recommend yoga as an adjunctive therapy to treat ADD/ADHD (Berger, 2009). This is quite the claim, when you consider how little research there is on children and yoga (Berger, 2009). Perhaps it has to do with the ethics of research on children. In my experience, most studies conducted on children have to be done very carefully and need parental consent, if there is such an issue with parents consenting their child's participation in yoga, it can account for the few studies. In the few studies conducted, however, yoga has been suggested to help ADHD, depression and adjustment disorder, and irritable bowel syndrome (Berger, 2009). Some other, less researched/discussed benefits of yoga have suggested to improve children's ideal body weight and cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, endurance, lung functions, motor skills, motor planning, posture, and decreased BMI (Berger, 2009). The most important benefit of yoga, however, is that weaker students can do it just as well (if not better) than stronger, more athletic students (Wilson, 2008).
Yoga can be taught in school children classrooms to help students become more flexible and happy. A yoga class can offer more movements for a greater number of people than an average physical education class or sport (Toscano, 2008). Yoga can allow a greater number of students to experience success, because it is a personal experience and not competition based. Success is an important aspect for young children and adolescents, it is directly related to self-esteem (Toscano, 2008). With more positive self-esteems, yoga can help students realize happiness. Joy through physical activity can lead students to lifelong wellness. Yoga helps students to see the immediate effect of exercise on the body, certain stretches can help them to feel how their bodies are stretching (Toscano, 2008). Asanas help strengthen, stretch, and align the body, which can lead to long lean muscles, better posture, improved breathing, enhanced digestion, better circulation, a relaxed nervous system, and a fortified immune system (Toscano, 2008). Yoga teaches children calmness and inward focus, which can be valuable throughout their life (Toscano, 2008). Yoga can be adapted for any age group. Children ages 2-6 love to role play and pretend and usually have short attention spans. Moving from poses quickly with music is a fun way to teach yoga while developing flexibility, strength, balance, and posture (Toscano, 2008). Children ages 7-11 are gaining more control of their movement and will usually show improvement as they practice asanas (Toscano, 2008). There are many physical, emotional, and psychological pros to children practicing yoga, but do the studies back it up?
Studies on Youth Yoga- The Science Behind it
A few studies have been done on the effects of children in yoga. The first of which is a study by Jensen and Kenny in 2004 which consisted of 19 boys with ADHD who reported reduction of mood swings, temper outbursts, and crying fits with the use of yoga (White, 2009). In another study of 25 participants with irritable bowel syndrome, they were given four weeks of yoga, subjects reported less functional disability and decreased emotion-focused avoidance, and decreased anxiety (White, 2009). Another study reported that after 1 month of 75 minutes of daily yoga breathing, internal cleansing practices, meditation, devotional songs, and relaxation, 10-13 year old girls decreased the time required to execute a mental test (White, 2009). A study by the Program Evaluation and Research Collaborate at California State University, Los Angeles found that when a 36 week yoga program was included in a school's physical education curriculum, the students' behavior and grades improved (McGonigal, 2006). The downside to many of these studies is, many of them are self reported, some do not have control groups, the sample sizes are very small, theres no specific means of measurement, and the groups are mostly disability centric.
The Pradhan study focused on yoga based relaxation on 13-16 year olds which was measured with SLCT (six letter cancellation task). The general results were scores increased after yoga classes (Pradhan, 2010). Cyclic meditation is a technique that uses both “stimulating” and “calming” practices. It is supposed to be used to create a state of mental equilibrium, which leads to stress relief (Pradhan, 2010). The practice was slow paced and enacted with awareness (Pradhan, 2010). Yoga is thought to reduce anxiety by reducing levels of psychophysiological arousal (Pradhan, 2010). The SLCT test they used to measure is a test where students are given a set of numbers arranged in 14 rows and 22 columns and give 1 minute and 30 seconds to cross out as many of a selected 6 letters as possible (Pradhan, 2010). The cancellation task involves sustained attention, concentration, visual scanning, and rapid responses (Pradhan, 2010). One of the most significant results of this study was a reduction of oxygen consumption, which may have helped lead to a more relaxed setting. The results showed improvement in cancellation tasks after the yoga practices. This study, despite its deficits, shows that yoga helps improve attention and relaxation.
Another study measured emotional well being of inner city kids using yoga. Test subjects were broken up into two groups, all the students were able bodied, from similar locations, similar socio-economic settings, similar programs, similar demographics, and similar student:staff ratios. The difference in the two groups was the specific activities (Berger, 2009). The yoga instructed group included physical postures, breathing, meditation, and relaxation, while the non-yoga instructed group was given regular physical instruction (Berger, 2009). Participants were given emotional and physical assessment before and after the program and were assessed through surveys that were read aloud (Berger, 2009). Two different scales of assessment were used for self esteem measurement- Harter's Self Perception Profile for Children- the Physical Appearance subscale and the Global Self-Worth subscale (Berger, 2009). Each question of the survey consisted of two statements that each described a type of kid, and asked students to identify with one of the kids. The physical health scale contained eight items relating to perception of flexibility, strength, balance, and coordination (Berger, 2009). These surveys are designed to allow a child to identify their self image. The many negatives to this particular study include the fact that it is self reported, which results in skewed data, the fact that there was no moderate choices in the surveys, and the fact that the surveys were not designed for non native English speaking students. The results did not show statistically significant changes between the yoga and control groups.
A final study on children consisted of two groups of students, each consisting of 45 children aged 9-13 who were assessed on a steadiness test at the beginning and end of a 10 day period. One group received training in yoga, the other did not (Telles, 1993). This study was backed by the consideration that certain poses in yoga require considerable muscular coordination even though the person is not actually mobile. The ability to maintain one's hand extended, yet steady is essential for a wide range of tasks and is therefore useful to measure the improvement of (Telles, 1993). The study was introduced to test whether yogic training can change static motor performance (Telles, 1993). The yoga group had 34 boys, with a mean age of 11.3 years and a standard deviation of 1.6 years, whereas the control group consisted of 21 boys with a mean age of 12.0 and a standard deviation of 1.0 years (Telles, 1993). The yogic training consisted of 8 hours a day aimed at physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual development (Telles, 1993). The results showed that the pre tests were similar for both groups, the yoga group having a mean of 221.2 +/- 10 standard deviations, and the control group having a mean of 221.0 +/- 8.1 standard deviations The post test (after 10 days) showed the yoga group had a mean of 183.3 +/- 7.1 standard deviations and the control had a mean of 217.8 +/- 8.3 standard deviations (Telles, 1993). The general results showed a statistic significance in improved static motor performance for the yoga group. This study, was well conducted and in fact proved its hypothesis that yoga improved static motor performance.
Cons of Yoga for Youth and Why the Studies Are Not Enough
If you look at these studies critically you may be noticing some serious flaws in most of them, and they might not be enough to convince you that yoga in the classroom is the cure all for children. The studies are weak, and in many of them yoga was not the primary aspect of intervention (Berger, 2009). Some of the studies had no control group or they did not specify what the control group specifically consisted of (Berger, 2009). The few studies have small numbers of mixed ages, and not much is done with healthy populations (Berger, 2009). There aren't many studies on self-esteem, which is proposed to be the greatest accomplishment of yoga for youth.
One of the major complaints of yoga for youth is the idea that it imposes Hinduism on its subjects. Colorado parents of a proposed yoga program have complained that yoga deals with religious and spiritual elements that are “innapropriate for public elementary school children” (Yoga class sparks trouble in Colorado public school, 2002). School officials disagree with these concerns, but parent, Mary Blankenship says “My understanding of yoga is that you can't separate religion out of it. If you introduce a child to this at a young, vulnerable age, you could cause them to want to practice it later. If its kinda of a Hindu cult like thing, I don't want my child exposed to that” ( Yoga class sparks trouble in Colorado public school, 2002). Other schools in LA, Seattle, San Fransisco, and Columbus, Ohio have adopted similar programs ( Yoga class sparks trouble in Colorado public school, 2002). Their districts' parents are apparently not as concerned with the “Hindu cult” as in Colorado. Some yoga experts also recommend that many asanas should not be used with children under 12, because their bones are soft and there is a greater danger of harming bone formation through the excessive twisting of limbs the poses require (Wilson, 2008). This step can of course be gotten around by having a yoga class focused primarily on breaths and meditation, as many of the youth yoga teachers and users recommend (Wilson, 2008, Getting Grounded, 2005, White, 2009, McGonigal, 2006). Another negative of using yoga in the classroom is that many yoga techniques require good language comprehension skills, which can pose language barrier issues (Wilson, 2008). Teachers can adapt techniques to suit their students' best needs, rather than using techniques that might frustrate them.
There might not be as much hard evidence in the field of child yoga as a teacher looking to implement it into his/her curriculum might like, but the boasted benefits are extraordinary. The studies done although weak, have shown individual improvements that should not be ignored. Yoga can be a fun experience as well, and science isn't necessary to see a happy and excited child. Whether or not yoga can improve ADHD, irritable bowel syndrome, self-esteem, motor skills, etc is not set in stone, but with all the positive programs already being implemented is there much to lose? Parents will always fight over the church-state issue, and ignorant individuals will always shout Hinduism in the face of yoga, but should that halt the individuals who could be helped by yoga? If implemented properly yoga can be a powerful tool for children in the classroom; it is engaging, exciting, health-promoting, and stress-reducing, it all depends on the teacher.
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