Practicing yoga instead of taking a traditional physical education class can be an effective way for improving the mental health of high school students, according to a recent study published in the April Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics and co-led by a Harvard Medical School professor.
The study randomly divided 11th and 12th grade students in a suburban Massachusetts high school into yoga or regular physical education classes. At the beginning and the end of the semester, students completed questionnaires examining their levels of stress, resilience, anxiety, and anger management. The study found that these measures of emotional state tended to worsen among students taking a traditional physical education class, while the levels of those in the yoga group remained the same or improved slightly.
“If you’re looking at that comparison, between the control kids and the yoga kids, it would suggest yoga is preventative,” said Jessica J. Noggle, the study’s principal investigator and a research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The ability to moderate levels of stress and emotional responses is critical for students to learn at a young age, said Sat Bir S. Khalsa, one of the study’s researchers and an assistant professor at the Medical School
“Just like we need skills of English and skills of mathematics, we need skills of emotional regulation” Khalsa said. “I like to call this mind-body hygiene.”
Nicole J. Steiner, a researcher on the project, said that yoga can help students feel they have control, even when facing extreme stress and trauma,
“It’s really hard to focus on math, when you’re not sure how you’re going to get through the next day,” Steiner said.
After hearing the results of the study, students said that they were not surprised about the positive effects of practicing yoga.
“I’ve heard anecdotally from people who do yoga that it’s very helpful,” Justin K. Banerdt ’13 said. “Any sort of physical or meditative exercise is probably a good thing.”