Yoga, Mindfulness and Urban Youth

urban yoga class
Photo by Urban Yoga Foundation

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.

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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.

Fifty-one fourth and fifth-grade students were randomized to the yoga intervention, and 46 students to the control group. Following the intervention, the researchers found that maladaptive responses to social stress (a measure associated with heart-rate reactivity and linked to over-sensitization of the physiological stress response system) were improved among the yoga participants, but not the control group. This finding suggests that the practice of yoga may support healthy child development and potentially buffer the effects of chronic stress on poor mental and physical health.
While these findings are promising, they are not an excuse to shirk addressing the systemic environmental contributors to chronic stress experienced by urban youth. However, in concert with efforts to address systemic cultural disparities and barriers to safe, supportive environments for all children, the results of this study do suggest that yoga and mindfulness-based strategies may reduce suffering and improve youth’s ability to cope.

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