Andy Gonzales is shown working with Enijah White. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
Once the domain of New Agers and suburban moms, yoga has become firmly planted in Baltimore's inner city, and now researchers believe the ancient practice may help elementary school students cope with the stress of growing up in impoverished, violent neighborhoods.
Researchers and lay people alike think yoga may help adults reduce stress. The popularity of the practice has surged, and it's used as therapy for cancer patients and battered women, and as a treatment for back pain and depression.
But even as schools get in on the trend, the effect of the practice on children has not been subject to rigorous study, say researchers at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. Even less understood is whether yoga can help youths struggling with the stress of urban life.
"Living in an inner-city environment with high crime and high violence, there are just so many kids here who have chronic stress," said Tamar Mendelson, an assistant professor in the department of mental health at Bloomberg and the study's lead researcher. "We wanted to really study this and see if this can be helpful for kids exposed to chronic stress and if we can give them some tools for coping."
They found a 12-week yoga program targeting 97 fourth- and fifth-graders in two Baltimore elementary schools made a difference in students' overall behavior and their ability to concentrate. They found 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. The findings, which focused on a pilot program that took place in 2008, were published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. One program is still active, and researchers are now applying for federal funding to expand the effort into schools across the city.
Researchers identified four schools, offered four 45-minute yoga classes each week to students at two of them, and used the other two schools as the control group. They gave students questionnaires before and after the study period and followed up with interviews with students and teachers. Schools included in the study were Westside, Samuel F.B. Morse, Alexander Hamilton and North Bend elementaries.
While the study was small and the findings self-reported, researchers believe the findings hold promise.
"Kids in urban environments always have their antennas up for being wary of danger," said Mark Greenberg, director of the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University, which does research on promoting healthy development in children. He worked with Hopkins on the study.
"Even though they may act tough, they are often very anxious and nervous about it," he said. "[Yoga] gives them a space, and a place where they can let that down and understand their own private experience. They don't need to be wary and careful all the time; they can learn to explore their inner lives."
Ka'ron Fletcher, 11, said he found yoga challenging when he began classes last fall, but now finds himself using the deep-breathing techniques when he's struggling to concentrate during science class.
"It's easy," he said of yoga. "I just close my eyes and think about the sunrise. I can block all that other stuff out."
The damaging effects of stress on kids
Without a way to manage it, stress can harm the body, particularly for children, Greenberg said. Recent studies have linked high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, to depression and poor performance in school. Greenberg's research suggests a link between growing up in poverty and stress in a young child. In a study published in the journal Child Development, he found that children as young as 3 growing up in rural poverty with high stress levels had decreased cognitive abilities.
Stress disrupts a child's ability to concentrate, he said. "They are not able to harness their thinking skills because they are preoccupied."
Still, large well-designed studies showing a relationship between yoga and reduced stress are lacking, said Karen Sherman, a principal investigator with the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, who has studied yoga's impact on chronic back pain.
"Not all studies show that yoga improves the cortisol profile, but some do," she said. "And from a subjective perspective, many people comment on the relaxing, stress-reducing benefits of yoga. I think that this is the reason that people seek it out."
While many studies on yoga are limited, there is "intriguing evidence" that it can have a host of health benefits, she said.
To test their theories, Hopkins researchers used a curriculum designed by the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit founded in 2002 by brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their college buddy, Andy Gonzalez. Upon graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, "the traveling yogis" as they called themselves, returned to their poor West Baltimore neighborhood looking for a way to give back.