NewsEducation / June 9, 2014

Indy Schoolkids Focus on Yoga

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Andrea Muraskin
Indy Schoolkids Focus on Yoga

On a May afternoon at School 34 in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Indianapolis, children sit on mats arranged in a circle, as teacher Vicki Townsend guides them through breathing exercises. As yoga class gets underway, the students cycle from pose to pose, moving from the floor, to their knees, to standing, and back. The class is much like yoga for adults, with a few kid-friendly tweaks.  Some students meow for cat pose and bark for downward dog, and everyone darts their tongues in and out for cobra pose. 

Townsend comes here once a week to lead a 45-minute yoga session, sponsored by the Mighty Lotus Foundation. A local non- profit, Mighty Lotus also runs a yoga class at IPS School 19, and is one of several organizations around the country that focus on bringing yoga to youth.

Why yoga for kids? “It's to help them cultivate mindfulness and coping mechanisms to deal with the stress that they deal with as kids,” says Mighty Lotus president Alyssa Pfennig, “and to learn, planting seeds so that when they grow they have something to go back to.”

To put it simply, mindfulness means concentrating your attention on one thing in the present moment.  Ten-year-old Shannon uses yoga to stay mindfull during homework-time. “Whenever I'm doing my homework and I’m getting really frustrated, and not knowing what the answer is,” she says, “I always do child's pose” - kneeling with the head towards the floor - “to help me relax and focus.”

Austin, also ten, says he gets “mad and hyper” quickly because of his ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). But he says techniques he learned in yoga class are helping him better manage his reactions. For example, says Austin, when someone tells the teacher on him in class, he now uses a breathing technique called “breath of fire” to stay calm.

Austin is one of a handful of children in the group who have ADHD, according to Deana Perry, a teacher at School 34 who supervises yoga class.  “Overall, there's been an improvement with their ability to concentrate and to attend to the tasks of yoga,” she says of the students with ADHD diagnoses. “Before they were finished, thirty minutes into it. Now they can do the full forty-five and are able to keep up with their peers.”

Some research appears to support Perry’s observations.

In the largest study to date, researchers in India followed 80 boys and girls with ADHD as they took yoga and meditation classes twice a week for six weeks. Assessments by parents and teachers found significant improvements in the children’s social and academic performance.  But the evidence is inconclusive: so far there have been no large-scale studies, and no research looking at the effectiveness of yoga as a substitute for common ADHD drugs.

In the general population, correlations have been found between yoga and increases in neurotransmitters like serotonin, related to good mood, and acetylcholine, which is linked to relaxation; and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.

At School 34, the yoga students have figured out that yoga can help anyone relax and focus in times of stress. Deana Perry says they convinced their classmates to do tree pose - a widely recognizable pose done standing on one foot - before taking the ISTEP exam this spring.  “It just sort of went around the school, in grades three through six,” Perry says. “Before they started ISTEP they would do the tree pose before they left the classroom to go into the computer lab, to sort of calm their nerves.”

Mighty Lotus will return to School 34 in the fall. The organization will be active at two summer camps, and plans to expand the program to more local schools.

Links for more information:
“Yoga on our minds: a systematic review of yoga for neuropsychiatric disorders”

“Clinical Applications of Yoga for the Pediatric Population: A Systematic Review”

More research at the New York-based non-profit Bent on Learning.