While yoga has been practiced in schools across the country for several decades, lately the movement has sky rocketed. Organizations coast to coast are successfully implementing yoga in thousands of classrooms via live teachers, digital video technology and even apps. Why has this ancient practice taken root in our schools? Perhaps because yoga offers practical solutions to some of our schools biggest problems.
1. Healthy Students are Effective Learners. It’s no secret that Physical Education (PE) programs continue to be cut under the systemic financial crisis facing schools. What some folks don’t know, though, is the proven link between physical health and learning. While PE and arts programs are often deemed “extracurricular,” these programs are actually vital to academic success. Students who are physically active and creatively sparked are better able to concentrate and retain learning. Yoga-based exercises stimulate brain function associated with memory, attention and critical thinking. Further, at a time when obesity rates in children are soaring, schools need to put health front and center. The bottom line is: sedentary, unfit students cannot do their best academically. Students who are given plenty of opportunities to move, stretch and consciously relax are more equipped for learning.
2. Affordable and Accessible Programs. In the desperate budgetary mess many districts find themselves, yoga programs offer a relatively low cost solution to meeting the physical needs of students and teachers. While not every school can manage hiring yoga teachers to take residency, most schools can afford to purchase from the growing catalog of yoga practice tools tailored for the classroom. From card decks to DVD’s, free downloads online and professional development workshops, teachers have greater access to resources to support integrating yoga into the classroom. The yoga in schools movement is richly populated with educators specializing in both development and yoga. Many of the easily accessible resources being offered meet PE standards and come with details on how to integrate yoga into curriculum.
3. IQ, SQ and EQ. Yoga works on the whole human system to bring balance. Along with the well documented physical benefits, yoga practice supports social, emotional and academic needs of students. A fast growing body of evidence indicates the power of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs to narrow the academic achievement gap.
Yoga fits the standards set by leaders in the SEL field in regards to development of self-awareness, self-regulation, responsible decision-making, social skills and relationship skills. Yoga practice not only impacts the health of the individual, but has implications on interpersonal relationships as well. In yoga, students learn how to handle their own bodies and minds, and those of their peers, with respect.
4. Inclusive By Nature. Diagnosis of developmental and learning disabilities, including ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders, are on the rise. Yoga practice can provide natural, therapeutic resources to students needing to learn concentration skills, calming methods and impulse control. For students with learning challenges, yoga is a welcomed activity that soothes anxiety and doesn’t require “being right.” The practice of yoga is inherently flexible. Various kinds of learners can participate in the same program in individualized ways. Even in typical adult yoga classes, students are generally encouraged to practice in their own way, not trying to fit a particular mold. In a world of standardized learning and testing, a truly inclusive activity is a welcome relief to students whose very mental composition don’t fit the typical standards.
5. Less Stress, More Success. Stress is one of the leading causes of disease and unhappiness. We are nation of people who desperately need to relax. Teaching students the vital skills associated with coping with stress effectively may be of greater benefit throughout their lives than any particular academic skill. This is certainly not to minimize the importance of the three R’s, rather to add a healthy, whole individual and a harmonious school climate to the shortlist of what really matters. While some “healthy” stress is involved in accomplishment and learning, the levels of stress many teachers and students deal with are far beyond the helpful kind. When students understand how to manage unhelpful stress by learning to work with their minds, their potential to succeed elevates. Mindfulness is a hallmark of yoga practice. Simply put, mindfulness is the act of watching what is happening. It’s a level of awareness that leads to the present moment. Yoga is becoming mindful of the body, breath and the mind itself; then, experiencing the interconnectivity of these aspects of being. Students who can see stress coming, regulate their breathing to calm their bodies and respond to the situation with awareness can excel even in subjects they normally do not enjoy. That’s because stress can block our brilliance. When we understand how to cope with stress, we can experience disequilibrium without losing ourselves to it.
Of course not everyone is on board the yoga in schools train. Some folks still view yoga in schools as a frivolous waste of time, or unaffordable luxury. Hopefully by creating more context around the implications of yoga for learners, school communities can more fully embrace the practice for the invaluable benefits it offers.