Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts about the renewed importance of engaging student voice after the uprising. Read the first post.
If your only image of yoga involves White women in Lululemon garb, then you don’t know the Baltimore-based non-profit Holistic Life Foundation (HLF). Most often, you’ll find HLF founders Ali Smith, Atman Smith, and Andres Gonzalez teaching yoga to African-American youth in a public school gym. Most of these students are exposed to significant trauma—fallout from growing up in poverty-stricken urban neighborhoods.
Remember the “frying pan” anti-drug campaign of the late 1980s? An egg cracked into a pan sizzles and fries. The slogan: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” What about your brain on trauma? Picture a red-light alarm blaring over and over. It doesn’t stop when the emergency is over.
Humans are built to handle stress. Environmental challenges flip on a “fight or flight” survival instinct that mobilizes us for action. But some threats—traumas—are too dangerous, or go on too long, to be comfortably absorbed: loved ones’ deaths, long-term abuse, community violence.
Without adequate emotional supports, trauma exposure can impair the stress response system, keeping the alarm switched ON. Consequences include perpetual vigilance and hyper-arousal, as well as emotional numbness. Children are particularly vulnerable, since their brains and bodies are still developing.
Many children in low-resourced urban communities live with the constant noise of this inner alarm. It interferes with learning, memory and thoughtful decision-making, and it increases risk for mental and physical health problems over the life course. Can yoga and mindfulness help quiet this noise and strengthen children’s innate resilience, enhancing long-term wellbeing?
In 2007, soon after joining the faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, I partnered with HLF as a researcher to study effects of their yoga and mindfulness curriculum on students.
HLF teaches a range of practices, including yoga-based poses, breathing techniques and guided exercises in focused attention. Research with adults suggests these “mindful” practices—which involve present-moment awareness of breath and body—activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for inhibiting the stress response and promoting restoration.
Students absorb not only these practices but also the way they are taught. Instructors model respect and compassion. Poses and breath work are practiced repeatedly, building muscle memory and emotional comfort. Students lead portions of each class, promoting leadership. Instructors and students discuss using mindful practices to deal with school pressures, family conflict and other stressors. Student voice—highlighted in Karen Webber’s recent post—is encouraged, and the practices prompt students to identify their own internal experiences.
In a randomized pilot study my colleagues and I conducted with four Baltimore City schools, middle school students in HLF’s yoga program showed improved stress management, compared with students assigned to a no-yoga condition. Emerging research on other school-based programs also suggests mindful practices can be beneficial for attention, stress management and mood.
When we asked students about their experience in HLF’s program in a more recent study, they talked about changes in their ability to manage stress and difficult emotions. Some students referred to the program as “the land of peace” or “the calm down program.” One student described the experience as, “…peaceful. And relaxing. It teaches you everything about how to have a really great life.” Teachers noted that students who would “blow up” or “tended to have a very short fuse” were “calm in a similar situation…they handled it a lot better. A lot calmer.”
I brought several middle school teachers to observe HLF teach. One teacher was surprised to see “Darren” leading the other students in practice. She told me “Darren” was shy and stuttered when he spoke in her class. In this setting, he spoke clearly and confidently.
Science lags behind practice in the area of school-based mindfulness and yoga, particularly with trauma-exposed youth. We need additional, larger-scale, rigorous trials to know to what extent, and how, the practices may help students. But preliminary evidence is encouraging, suggesting mindful practices may be a beneficial part of trauma-informed schools that nurture positive growth in our most vulnerable youth.