The benefits of Yoga in schools
Eva Coddington of Sevenoaks School presents the case for the active practice of Yoga in schools as time very well spent.
Even before a global pandemic impacted on our lives, there was a growing sense in education that the school leavers of today are often ill-equipped to enter life outside the school gates in terms of managing their own wellbeing. With the arrival of Covid-19, the worry for the mental wellbeing of our teenagers has rightfully moved to the forefront of educators’ awareness. One underexplored area of equipping young people with practical techniques and skills to address their physical and mental wellbeing is the ancient system of Yoga.
What is Yoga?
Common perceptions of Yoga range from “sitting in a circle chanting om” to “a bit of stretching”. Traditionally, a Yoga practitioner should engage with eight different aspects of Yoga training (as defined in the term Ashtanga, or the eight limbs of yoga). Attending a Yoga class today will largely embrace only two key elements of ancient Yoga philosophy, the focus on the breath and the idea of consciously, and in tune with that breath, putting the body into specific shapes. The postures are designed to challenge the body for flexibility, strength, and balance. The aim of working the body through these postures is ultimately to quieten the mind – or as the founding father of Ashtanga, Patanjali, put it: Yogaś citta vṛitti nirodhaḥ: The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga (Satchidananda, 2012).
Yoga in a school setting
There are numerous specialisations a Yoga teacher may bring to a class, such as Yoga for athletes, restorative Yoga, or Yoga for anxiety. Most Yoga classes today are structured along a combination of standing poses, seated poses, reclined poses and what is broadly termed as “relaxation” but can be anything from breath exercises to guided meditation. The instructions of moving on an “inhale” or “exhale” are designed to place the body into positions with awareness, whilst focusing the mind on the breath thus eliminating distractions from the outside world.
At a basic level, spending an hour or two a week in a Yoga class can give students the opportunity to switch off from the rest of the school day, to focus on the present, and to calm the mind away from an often-heightened state of anxiety over exams, assessments, and deadlines.
Yoga and mental wellbeing
More studies are now being undertaken to investigate the effect Yoga has on stress, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD and other areas of mental health. A vast amount of academic literature is available, but a very simple explanation as to the benefits of Yoga for the lay person can be found in what the modern Yoga student experiences as conscious deep breathing. By practising postures with breath instruction, students are encouraged to deepen and slow down their breathing thus tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest system moving the practitioner away from the sympathetic nervous system and the heightened state of fight-or-flight so many of us operate in as a matter of course.
A parasympathetic response lowers breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, and increases blood flow to the intestines and vital organs (Woodyard, 2011). The same caveat applies to Yoga and mental health concerns as it does to Yoga and injuries: Yoga will never be a cure for either of these, but evidence clearly suggests that Yoga can provide techniques to improve self-regulation and general wellbeing.
Yoga and academic performance
Executive function refers to working memory, emotional control, organisation, problem solving etc., all skills required in a classroom setting and potentially attributing to enhanced academic success (Hagins & Rundle, 2016). The part of the brain responsible for executive function is the prefrontal cortex, and it works in co-ordination with the limbic system. If the limbic system is overactive, the prefrontal cortex, our cognitive function, is unable to make good decisions. Or, in simplistic terms if we are stressed, we cannot think straight. An implicit hypothesis therefore might be that improved regulation of the limbic system should result in improved executive function and, by extension, academic performance. Studies looking at Yoga and academic performance are still rare, and the conclusions from those carried out appear inconclusive. Whilst some have found significant effects (Kauts & Sharma, 2009), others reported mixed results (Smith et al, 2014).
Either way, even if the practice of Yoga currently cannot be linked conclusively to academic performance, it stands to reason that a pupil with tools to relax and regulate their mental wellbeing will perform better overall.
Eva Coddington is Head of German and teaches Yoga at Sevenoaks school.
Feature Image by: dimitrisvetsikas1969 on Pixabay
Hagins, M., & Rundle, A. (2016). Yoga improves academic performance in urban high school students compared to physical education: A randomized controlled trial. Mind, Brain, and Education, 10(2), 105–116.
Kauts A, Sharma N. Effect of yoga on academic performance in relation to stress. Int J Yoga. 2009;2(1):39-43.
Satchindananda, S. (2012) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Revised Edition. Integral Yoga Publications, Satchindananda Ashram-Yogaville. Buckingham, Virginia.
Smith. B.H. and Mendelson, T (2014) Special issue on yoga and mindfulness interventions in schools, Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 7:3, 137-139.
Woodyard, C. (2011) Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International Journal of Yoga, 4 (2), pp.49-54.
More information about this study together with other articles can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning at Sevenoaks School: https://www.sevenoaksschool.org/teachinglearning/research/innovate/