In a world ravaged by prejudice, injustice and glaring economic disparities, what difference could yoga or meditation possibly make? While it may be tempting to lapse into hopelessness or apathy in view of recent news events, it’s important to remember the transformative potential of these practices. The results of a recent study examining the effects of a school-based mindfulness and yoga intervention on mental health in urban youth speak to this potential.
Chronic stressors (e.g., poverty, discrimination, bullying) in urban youth can negatively impact brain development and health, placing these youth at risk for difficulties in regulating their thoughts and emotions, and responding to stress. Over time, these impairments contribute to chronic stress and related effects on mental and physical health, theorized to contribute to the higher proportion of chronic and lifestyle diseases among persons of color and lower-income populations.
Practices such as yoga and mindfulness, which cultivate present-moment attention and loving-kindness, may improve children’s resilience and capacity to respond to stress and difficult emotions. Over time, these resources may decrease the potential development of other, riskier stress management strategies, such as substance use or sexual promiscuity. Yoga and meditation have both been found beneficial in the management of stress. Yoga may confer additional benefits beyond meditation, given its integration of mindfulness with physical activity, the latter alone linked to improved mental and physical health among youth.
The present study examined the effects of a 12-week yoga intervention (four-times-per-week, 45 minutes per class) compared to a wait-list control group that received the intervention following study completion. The yoga intervention comprised asana, breathing techniques and guided mindfulness practices; included lecture content related to positive relationships, stress management and mind-body health; and was designed to be secular in nature. During “shavasana,” instructors offered a guided mindfulness practice, including meditation on the breath or sending positive energy to others.