Yoga in Schools: A good idea?
Yoga: Theory, Culture & Practice
Final Research Paper
24 April 2013
In recent years there has been an increase in the national focus on yoga as a practice, as well as debate on whether or not yoga should be included in American school systems (Carless, 2012). Because schools are considered a place that manifests children’s overall health and well being, there is a new desire to integrate yoga programming into school’s health and physical education plans. “Yoga has been found to be an effective complementary therapy to promote health and reduce many of the factors related to physiological diseases and psychological disorders” (Serwacki, 2012, p.101). North American culture is extremely concerned with the physical and health benefits of yoga, all of the studies researched in this article specifically support yoga as a therapeutic practice with both typically and atypically developing children.
My goal was to explore a “hot topic” of yoga in American culture. Americans are often overly concerned with body image and have an obsession with perfection, which raises questions on whether or not these ideals are being taught to younger generations. Yoga is considered a therapeutic way to “fix” oneself in our culture and now it is slowly being placed in schools around the country. Having an eight-year-old brother, it raises my curiosity on whether or not his elementary school will ultimately introduce yoga as an alternative form of physical education or as part of their health education. Since my younger brother is extremely active, I am also wondering if there were yoga programming offered his school whether or not it would be considered a “sport” or if it would be considered an activity that the “non-sport” oriented kids participate in. Interestingly, most of the information researched in this article is concerned with the physical benefits of yoga, and not with the spiritual benefits that are focused upon in other cultures.
Yoga with General-Population American Children
In today’s world school aged children are growing up in a high-intensity environment where they are expected to succeed at very young ages. According to an article in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy by Heidi Feldman,
School aged children are expected to learn new skills, perform on demand, and achieve positive results in many areas of their lives. The intense pressure of this developmental period can create a high degree of stress, which can compromise both physical health and psychological well being. Inability to succeed can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, social isolation, and social rejection” (Feldman, 2005, pg.87).
These multi-faceted expectations of children span both their academic and personal lives. American children are also exposed to recent increased levels of child obesity and are being pushed to be hypersensitive about their body image and body weight. Although there are measures being taken to help with these issues, such as encouraging healthy eating habits and exercise, there is very little offered to help with the psychological and emotional aspects of these problems. It is possible that yoga as an alternative therapy in schools could be beneficial to children who are being held to high standards in many aspects of their lives.
Because yoga is thought by some to be a “cure all” practice in our culture, it is not surprising the Americans would begin to implement child-yoga programs into our primary and secondary schools. Feldman created a yoga program for children in schools that catered to all levels of ability. Her goal was to create a haven for children that supported their physical, spiritual, and psychological development (2005). In order to do this she focuses on four fundamental philosophies in her classes: Inclusion (Creating an environment that is accepting of all children), Tantra (Accepting the natural energy flow of children), Body-Mind Connection (Encouraging a link between the physical and psychological experience), and Self-Acceptance (Self awareness without self judgment) (2005). Feldman’s program is unique because it offers the spiritual aspect of yoga and not just the physical, which separates her from the American norm of yoga.
On the other hand, Lisa Toscano specifically explored an alternative to physical education classes in an article, published in the Strategies journal. Toscano claims that
Integrating yoga into elementary physical education classes offers new movement possibilities for wider groups of students than traditional sports and fitness classes… yoga offers children…the opportunity to experience success in physical activity. Yoga is a…system for achieving radiant physical health…mental clarity…and therefore peace of mind (Schiffmann, 1996)(Toscano, 2008, p.1)
Toscano’s focus on body image contrasts to the previous article by Feldman, who incorporated a spiritual aspect of her class. Although the spiritual benefits of yoga in schools is currently being debated and has little research, yoga as a physical practice is already accepted in our culture. An example of this is Bikram Yoga (“Bikram Yoga”, 2012), which is a practice that is taught in the United States, which focuses on 26 specific physical poses and two breathing exercises and is usually taught in a heated room. This very physical-focused version of yoga is so popular in American culture because it supports our need for achieving a “perfect” body and our desire to “automatically” master our minds as a byproduct of the physical practice.
It is important to offer a variety of options for physical activities in schools because of the varying levels of both physical ability and interest in athletic activities. In one study, the perceptions of the children were recorded to measure their levels of satisfaction with an eight week school-based yoga program. Jane Case-Smith interviewed 21 four to five year olds after they participated in this program, and three themes emerged from their responses. The students reported feeling calm and focused, that the program gave them strategies to control their behavior in stressful situations, and that it supported positive self esteem (Case-Smith, 2010). This positive feedback from children supports the idea of having yoga in schools and offers evidence for how effective yoga can be from a mental and physical perspective.
In my personal experience working with middle school aged children, it is my belief that yoga would be an appropriate alternative to physical education and should be incorporated into schools as a stress-reducer and a way to raise self-awareness and self-acceptance. Some of the young girls I work with have severe insecurities and are sometimes debilitated by stress and the pressure of both school and social interactions. Although the program that I work for offers physical education outside of school, there are some students who are not as active and end up rejecting the physical activity and are then stuck with limited options. It is important for these students to have not only an alternative way to reduce stress, but also a way to stay physically active. Most schools are cutting out recess and are no longer offering breaks during the day for students to stay active and be able to re-center themselves mentally. A yoga program as an option for them would help students reduce stress and lower their risk for both emotional and physical difficulties.
In an article published in the Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, “A recent study indicated that 7.5% of adolescents meet the [DSM IV] criteria for one or more mental health conditions” (Khalsa et al, 2012). This means that adolescents could especially benefit from yoga programs, which focus on mind-body skills. After two systematic reviews of yoga research in younger populations, yoga and meditation appeared to help alleviate some of the psychological hardships, like stress, encountered by secondary school students (2012).
After viewing the film Enlighten Up! (2008), multiple forms of yoga were observed across the world, which offer a different perspective of what yoga practice can look like and proves that there is no one “right” way to do yoga. Most of the research on yoga in western culture schools is focused on the medical benefits and less on the spiritual, but in some other practices and cultures the focus is reversed. Some of the yoga forms seen in the film included Hatha yoga (focused on physical poses and breath work), Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion), and Laughter Yoga. Most of the practices had a spiritual component to them and the focus of the practice was not about bettering your body, but instead bettering your mind and body together in order to achieve something greater, such as self-awareness. Bahkti Yoga is a practice about devotion and giving yourself to God, which raises my curiosity on whether or not American yoga programming should have a spiritual component to them as well. Since religion in the United States is considerably debated, a specific spiritual “goal” of a children’s yoga class would most likely be rejected. Instead I wonder if more programs were formatted like Feldman’s class, where the environment supports all forms of development, including spiritual (in whatever way the child defines it) would be a better way to approach an intercultural practice.
Yoga with Atypically Developing Children
For students who are developing “atypically” and have intellectual, emotional, or physical disabilities, there is a growing need for “unconventional treatments” in schools, which include yoga (Serwacki, 2012). When considering why yoga would be the optimal alternative treatment, it is important to note “The use of yoga to improve mental and physical health is well documented in adults, and preliminary studies suggest that Yoga is beneficial for treating obesity, asthma, diabetes, and ADD/ADHD, which are some of the most persistent obstacles for children…” (Harper, 2010, p. 100).
Yoga can also be beneficial when working with autistic children. As stated in Serwacki’s article, a yoga program called “Creative Relaxation” is designed for autistic children and the creator follows core principles of “make a sacred space, engage the student, provide tools for success, and create opportunities for independence” (Serwacki, 2012 pg 103). After being piloted with six autistic children, it was proven that the Creative Relaxation program lowered the pulse rate and the stress levels of the students (2012). Because of these results it is believed that there is a potential for yoga being helpful for more autistic children and can be a tool for them to learn how to self-manage their bodies and emotions through the relaxation practices and breathe work. There is a strong need for further research on this subject because autism is a broad diagnosis and there are varying degrees of severity; is yoga an effective “unconventional treatment” for all children with autism? Or is it more effective with children who are on the spectrum but are high functioning, such as Aspergers Syndrome?
Another program that works with atypically developing children is called the Self-Discovery Programme and it “integrates yoga, massage, and relaxation for children identified with special needs on the basis of emotional, behavioral, or learning problems” (Serwacki, 2012, pg 104). Students who participated in this program showed improvements in social confidence, self-confidence, and communication (2012). When speaking specifically of students with attention problems, it connects directly to learning problems. According to an article in the School Psychology Review, “Some researchers have found that as many as 80% of children with attention problems also display academic performance problems” (Peck et al, 2005, p 416). Yoga can be an effective alternative treatment for these students because yoga helps students increase self-awareness and helps calm intense emotions.
One of the early studies that employed yoga as a treatment for ADHD and oppositional behaviors was successful in reducing inattention and impulsive and oppositional behavior (Redfering & Bowman, 1981). A yoga program that incorporated meditation decreased children’s hyperactivity, inattention, and anxiety, and improved their peer relationships and sleep patterns (Harrison, Manocha, & Rubia, 2004). (Peck et al, 2005, p. 416).
After working with middle school students who have ADHD and oppositional behavior, I believe that hatha yoga specifically would be a beneficial practice because it helps teach students how to self-regulate. A lot of times when I am working with students with ADHD they are so used to getting negative attention from their parents and their peers that they begin to desire the negative attention and become oppositional. When this happens it is extremely difficult to “get the student back” and frequently results in having to get the student in more trouble. By offering them breathing techniques and meditation opportunities it would enable the students to observe how they feel when they can’t focus or feel oppositional and learn how to bring themselves down from a “crisis” instead of continuing to challenge authority for attention.
Spirituality and Yoga
Beliefs about how spiritual yoga is depend on the culture that they are being applied to and the type of yoga practice. In most Eastern cultures there tends to be more of a spiritual connection in yoga because practices are aimed at achieving enlightenment and being closer to God. Bhakti yoga is an example of this, where people devote their practice to loving God. Another example is in Krishnamurti’s text where he discusses what is holy,
When there is no movement, is there something totally original, totally untouched by humanity, untouched by all the movement of thought? That may be that which is original and therefore most holy…when there is something most holy…then life has a totally different meaning. It is never superficial, never. If you have this, nothing matters” (Krishnamurti, 1999, pg 122)
This is a form of spirituality that he claims can only be reached through meditation, practice, and observing the “now”. The goal of the practice is very different than Western practices because it is completely focused on the person achieving a “light in oneself” and is not concerned with the physical benefits of yoga.
In Western culture, spirituality in yoga tends to get ignored or “sold” as a different concept. It is common to see modern yoga studios in America have a leader or a “guru”, but they are not there to teach the people how to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The teachers have become more like sexualized assistants in the practice where they demonstrate poses and physically assist others during the practice. The teachers will use words like “Namaste” to help sell their authenticity and connect “spirituality” to it, but it is not engaged in further. Some people believe that spirituality in yoga is not necessary, and can be successful without it. According to an article by Laura Douglass, a neuroscientist was quotes stating that “Although yoga comes from a culture that has mantras, fancy names for asanas and is deeply spiritual, the truth is you can teach yoga without all of that and it is just about as effective” (Douglass, 2010, p 169). This statement coincides with Western culture because we do not focus on the spiritual part of yoga and prefer to focus on the physical and health benefits of the practice, even though we like to be “sold” some of the authentic Sanskrit words to make us feel as if we are achieving something spiritual as well.
When connecting this to public schools, it is interesting to see how as a culture Americans tend to make yoga a secular practice, yet there are still some people who believe that yoga is intertwined with Hinduism and should not be taught in public schools.
Secular use of Yoga in K-12
Because the United States has such controversy about religion and the use of religious-influenced practices in the public schools, yoga has developed as a more secular practice in our culture. By having a more secular approach to yoga, it allows our culture to engage in the practice and not be “forced” to have specific ideals or beliefs come with it. A secular yoga practice makes room for people to apply the spiritual aspects of yoga to their own religions. As quoted in Douglass’s article, “…after we listened to our inner strength while in Warrior I…a sixth grader said that she often thought of Jesus while in these poses. It helped her feel strong she said” (Douglass, 2010, p.165). This example shows that yoga does not have to be strictly connected to Hindu beliefs or any particular religious beliefs.
Unfortunately, there are still parents who believe that yoga has no place in public schools. “ 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 it’s kind of a Hindu cult-like thing, I don’t want my child exposed to that” (2010, p. 166). The fact that this parent believes that yoga is irremovable from Hinduism echoes an ignorant perception of some Americans. Although yoga has roots in Hinduism and includes spirituality as part of the practice, it is not impossible to remove all religious contexts from it. As stated previously in this article, it is possible to create programming that is geared towards a more Hatha-yoga approach, which focuses on the physical poses and breathing exercises. It would be very interesting to see what would happen if more programs were modeled like Heidi Feldman’s, where she incorporates Tantra and Body-Mind connection as part of her practice with children. Would it be more acceptable to parents because it is not directly religious and instead encourages awareness of “energy” and being able to connect the mind with the body?
Overall, yoga in public schools is a highly debated topic, which still needs a lot more research. There are major loopholes in the research because there are few yoga programs already established in public schools in the United States. There are obvious benefits of yoga when working with children, which not only include the physical benefits but also the psychological benefits. Yoga was shown to help reduce stress, increase self-awareness, and offer alternative behavior management opportunities for children developing both typically and atypically. Culture also has a major influence on the research about this topic because almost all of the evidence found for this topic was from a Western perspective. This data was not collected to specifically exclude Eastern authors, but instead I found it extremely difficult to find Eastern perspectives on yoga in schools. My own personal culture influenced my research on this topic because I have a younger brother who is currently going to a public school where yoga could eventually be integrated into his daily routine. Spirituality and secularism regarding yoga in this culture is highly controversial, but I do believe that there is a way to have an integrated yoga practice that is not only physically focused, but allows students to consider the spiritual side as well (even if it was as simple as learning how to observe their own behaviors, feelings, thoughts etc…).
About Bikram Yoga. (n.d.). Yoga | Health yoga | Yoga teacher training programs | by Bikram Yoga. http://www.bikramyoga.com/BikramYoga/about_bikram_yoga.php
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