by Bethany Butzer
I’ve always been obsessed with achievement – especially when it comes to school. My achievement junkie status even brought me all the way to the ivory tower of Harvard. Getting here, however, has involved more than a few upsets, breakdowns, and dark nights of the soul.
As a perfectionistic child, I quickly became obsessed with getting good grades. I didn’t have many friends, I had few hobbies, and I couldn’t play sports to save my life. I started to feel like good grades were the only way for me to gain attention and praise from the adults in my life. So I pushed myself to win every gold star, every scholarship, and every diploma under the sun. I went straight from kindergarten to PhD – without a single break in-between.
And I completely burned myself out.
Many years of soul searching, countless hours in therapists’ chairs, and several rounds of antidepressants later, I finally discovered a resource that helped me curb my achievement addiction and bring my stress down to a manageable level: Yoga.
Unfortunately, I didn’t start doing yoga until I was in my early twenties, which means that I spent most of my childhood and early adulthood without any knowledge of how to manage my stress. The good news is that for today’s youth, this situation is starting to change.
Yoga is being increasingly taught in school settings as a technique to help students regulate their emotions and manage their stress and mood. One of the cool things about my job at Harvard Medical School is that I spend most of my time studying the effects of these programs on child and adolescent well-being. Over the past year my team has managed to find over 30 programs that are currently offering yoga at over 800 schools across North America. The sheer number of yoga-in-schools programs is pretty overwhelming, and new programs seem to pop up every week. A few examples include Yoga Ed, Yoga 4 Classrooms, Kripalu Yoga in Schools, Bent on Learning, The Holistic Life Foundation, Y.O.G.A. for Youth, and the Newark Yoga Movement.
While the individual curricula of each of these programs might differ slightly, what they all have in common is a desire to combine the four basic elements of yoga (physical postures, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and meditation) with a variety of techniques and topics such as games, art, philosophy, psychology, health, and pro-social behavior in order to help students develop skills that will benefit them not only at school, but in life as well.
One of the problems with our current education system is that it is highly focused on enhancing students’ academic achievement. Like me, many students leave high school with the subject matter knowledge that’s necessary for them to get into college, but they lack basic skills to help them deal with difficulties that are bound to arise in their lives. As a result, we end up with a workforce that suffers from a variety of psychological and physical problems. We have extremely successful architects, engineers, and stockbrokers who are also profoundly stressed and/or depressed.
This was the path that I followed for most of my childhood and early adulthood. On the outside I was excelling – but inside I was screaming. I was anxious, depressed, and obsessed with maintaining an external façade of academic success. One of the reasons I’m researching yoga in schools is to help future generations avoid going through what I went through.
Recent research suggests that the cumulative prevalence of psychiatric illness by age 21 exceeds 80% in the United States, and that the majority of adult psychiatric conditions have child-adolescent onsets. The good news is that studies are starting to show that school-based yoga programs can have a positive effect on student health and well-being, and researchers have come up with a few ideas about how.
Three Ways That Yoga Helps Students Succeed
- Developing Mind-Body Awareness
By training students how to pay attention to the relationship between their mind and body, school-based yoga programs help kids notice the impact of stress on their well-being. For example, a student might start to notice that their stomach gets tight when they’re worried about a test, or that they tend to gravitate toward unhealthy food when they’re feeling down. This awareness (also known as mindfulness) may lead to changes in behavior by, for example, choosing to do 5 minutes of breathing exercises to relax a tight stomach or opting for an apple instead of chips. Preliminary studies of yoga for youth and young adults are starting to support these ideas.
- Improving Self-Regulation
At a very broad level, self-regulation refers to our ability to manage our stress, emotions, and behaviors. Psychological and neuroscientific research is starting to show that yoga and meditation may help youth manage their stress and mood and behave more positively. The basic idea is that yoga helps calm the fight or flight response, and induce the relaxation response, thus helping kids calm themselves down and be less reactive in difficult situations. So instead of lashing out in anger on the playground, a student might take a deep breath and walk away.
- Enhancing Social-Emotional Skills
According to the Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning involves developing 5 core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Research strongly suggests that school-based programs that enhance these competencies help students succeed not only academically, but personally as well. Early evidence is also beginning to show that yoga and meditation might help students be more self-aware, manage their emotions, enhance their relationships, and make better decisions.
One important thing to keep in mind is that the research in this area is very preliminary, and much work remains to be done. For example, we’re still not sure what frequency, or “dose” of yoga is most effective for kids. We’re also not sure how long the positive effects of yoga may last, because few (if any) studies have included long-term follow-up. There’s also the issue of some parents feeling uncomfortable with yoga being offered in schools, as they believe that this violates the separation of church and state.
Personally, I think that as more high quality research begins to emerge, yoga programs will start appearing more regularly in our schools. As part of this effort, I’m running a study at a Boston-area school in collaboration with Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa and the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, where we’re examining the effects of a 32-class yoga program (offered during physical education class) on 7th graders’ well-being. We’re also going to follow-up with these students one year after the program, so our study should help answer some of the questions above.
In the end, I think that radical change is needed in the way that we define success for students. Grades are important, but we need to broaden our definition to not only include academic achievement, but also personal well-being. I’m confident that learning yoga and meditation from an early age will provide benefits not only in childhood, but in adulthood as well. After all, if these tools can work for an achievement-addict like me, I have immense hope for others!
Join Bethany Butzer and Iona Smith Sunday, March 1, 2015 11:05 am-12:30 pm for Yoga and Mindfulness in Schools: Best Practices from a Randomized Controlled Trial of Yoga for Substance Use Prevention