Yoga for Inner City Peace

Growing up can be hard to do no matter where you live, but for children living in urban areas with high crime and poverty rates it can be down right stressful.  These kids learn from an early age to remain ever alert, always ready to fight or flee. This type of stress can lead to decreased cognitive skills, depression, an inability to concentrate, and a host of emotional and behavioral issues.  Not to mention the effects of long-term stress on the body.  Yet, thanks to a growing awareness of the many health benefits of yoga, a nonprofit organization, and a team of dedicated scientists, some of these kids are learning how to find an oasis of peace within themselves.

Since 2002, the Holistic Life Foundation has offered a free after-school program that teaches yoga and meditation techniques to elementary students in an impoverished area of West Baltimore.  The program was started by brothers Ali and Atman Smith along with their college friend, Andy Gonzalez, as a way to give back to the neighborhood where the brothers grew up.  Staff and students have noticed the benefits of the program.  Students say they use the breathing techniques to help them concentrate in class, and let go of anger and frustration.  The principal reports finding students are better able and more willing to talk out their problems.

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If you have ever unrolled your yoga mat and had an immediate feeling of gratitude or sense of relief, most likely none of these findings surprise you.  Yet, despite what practicing yogis and yoginis know from personal experience, rigorous studies to establish a link between yoga and stress relief in children have not been done.

The lack of quantifiable evidence led researchers from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University to combine efforts and attempt to positively link yoga practice to stress reduction in urban youths.  Using the curriculum developed by the Holistic Life Foundation, they implemented a 12-week program at two elementary schools in Baltimore, using two other area schools as control groups.  Results from the pilot study were recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.  The researchers reported that in addition to seeing improvements in the students’ behavior and ability to concentrate, “students who did yoga were less likely to ruminate, the kind of brooding thoughts associated with depression and anxiety that can be a reaction to stress”.    

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The researchers are now applying for funding to implement the program in schools throughout Baltimore.  If approved, no matter what the scientific analysis shows, many of Baltimore’s inner city children will gain invaluable tools for navigating a stressful world.

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