We’ve Got a Problem.

In the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents, which means that more than one third of our nation’s youth are overweight or obese (CDC, 2015). This epidemic of childhood obesity comes with an array of tragic and familiar, consequences, both in the short and long term.

High cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease. Diabetes, cancer, stroke.

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The issue is urgent, not just for our youth, but for us as parents, as teachers, as caretakers and as trusted adults, to provide them guidance, support and environment for a healthier future. It’s clear that the children in our country deserve a better solution than what we’ve been giving them, and the time is now.

Of course, it is well known that good nutrition and physical activity are foundational for the healthy development and weight maintenance of children and teens. And being that our children and teens spend, on average, 7 hours of their day at school, we believe that schools have the power to have a positive impact on student health outcomes, particularly through the inclusion of exercise during P.E. and recess.

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Yoga as P.E.

As a part of the effort to get our schools and students moving, yoga provides one way of enriching the standard Physical Education curriculum to be at once more inclusive and more relevant to students of any age. Not only does yoga build upon basic tenants of physical fitness, such as muscle strength, bone strength and flexibility, but it does so in a way that is developmentally appropriate, accessible, and non-competitive for students of diverse capacities.

Even better?

Yoga Ed. actually goes beyond the traditional model of P.E. to enhance self-awareness, self-management and self-efficacy, helping students to build essential life skills and draw connections to their everyday life in a way that team sports may not. In other words, yoga helps students develop concrete tools that empower them to take charge of their own health, not just to excel on the field. They learn to observe their needs and their environment, and get intentional about how they feed, move, and respect their bodies for the long-term.

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Starting with the Basics

For any physical activity for children and teens to be successful in cultivating healthier outcomes, it must actually get students to actually be physically active. Yoga does this, and quite well. As a weight-bearing activity, yoga stimulates bone growth and development, and can lead to greater muscle strength, endurance and flexibility. In fact, researchers at the Los Angeles Charter College of Education found that students who participated in Yoga Ed. classes experienced significant gains in upper body strength over one year when compared to school district means (Slovacek, Tucker, & Pantoja, 2003). And although not all yoga is necessarily aerobic exercise, classes that do get students’ hearts pumping can help improve cardiovascular fitness. Research suggests that yoga can reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and mediate blood sugar (McCall, 2007), and a regular yoga practice has even demonstrated significant effects on the management of obesity (Rioux & Ritenbaugh, 2013).

Of course, the same could be argued for most activities in any given P.E. class, so how does yoga compare?

One study conducted at Sunset Beach Elementary School in Hawaii revealed that students who participated in the Yoga Ed. curriculum as an alternative to P.E. actually recorded an increase in the number of steps per minute compared to their peers in the traditional P.E. class. They were more active at school, and even more, yoga students demonstrated an increase in moderate to vigorous physical activity and a decrease in sedentary behavior and stress outside of class as well (Armenta et al, 2014). More movement, in school and out. We’d call that a good start.

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Above & Beyond

But yoga does so much more than get students’ bodies moving, and it actually helps to fulfill needs that a traditional P.E. curriculum typically does not. For one, in most team sports, the activities typically aren’t focused on developing a child’s individual development, sense of balance and space, and general coordination. While kids may learn very specific skill sets such as kicking or throwing, they don’t often come away with an improved sense of holistic body-awareness.

Peter Balding, a Physical Education teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii, realized that upon integrating Yoga Ed. into his classes, his students developed body strength and flexibility that served them in their development and in their everyday lives, outside of sports and outside of class. With so much time spent in class or in front of a computer, television or phone, many kids and teens miss out on developing that pivotal bodily awareness, and may not know their bodies well enough to really take control of their health.

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Yoga gives them that control, and does even more to promote their wellness through the development of key social, emotional, cognitive and academic life skills, such as attention and focus, decision-making, cooperation, stress management and empathy.

Through Yoga Ed. lesson plans, students are given time to be introspective, to slow down and be quiet within their bodies, while simultaneously being challenged to ask big questions and take more ownership of their thoughts, feelings and actions. In the end, this means students that are not just healthier, but more prepared to face future challenges with confidence and resilience.

Yoga, for Everyone

Even in light of these advantages, one of the more subtle benefits of integrating yoga into P.E. is that yoga is deeply non-competitive and sharply focused on meeting the needs of individuals where they are, without judgment and without expectation. This is hugely powerful, as many times it is the children and teens who need physical activity the most who find participating in physical activity to be the most difficult, the most overwhelming, and even the most shaming.

Finding a way to encourage students to move and exercise their bodies, to sweat and struggle and grow without embarrassment, or fear of “losing”, is essential to forging a path to a healthier future. In the process, students also have the chance to experience the incredible strength and potential of their bodies, no matter how much they weigh or how they look. (And beyond weight or health status, how many other children and teens suffer from insecurities they could use a break from?) Yoga carves out the space for these young people to get to know themselves, and even better, to love themselves, as well as to appreciate and respect the many different forms and shapes of their peers.

All According to Plan

Getting yoga incorporated into the P.E. curriculum doesn’t have to be daunting, especially because Yoga Ed. reinforces the National Standards for Physical Education and Health that are already in place, in the United States and abroad. Yoga doesn’t overturn the current system, it simply offers a fresh perspective on how students can improve their own fitness and experience exercise in a new way.

Let’s get our students moving toward health, but let’s do it mindfully, in a way that meets their needs as a whole, and treats them as more than a health statistic. With yoga as a part of our P.E. plan, we can start to do just that.

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References

Armenta, J., Flynn, L., Oropeza, M., Rotter, M., Takata, K., Amato, K.,…Nigg, C. (2014). Is yoga a viable alternative to Physical Education? Unpublished manuscript, The University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii.

CDC – National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2015). Childhood Obesity Facts. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/obesity/facts.htm

McCall, T. (2007). Yoga as medicine. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.

Rioux, J. & Ritenbaugh, C. (2013). Narrative review of yoga intervention clinical trials including weight-related outcomes. Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine, 19(3), 32-46.

Slovacek, S.P., Tucker, S.A., & Pantoja, L. (2003). Study of the Yoga Ed. program at the Accelerated School. Los Angeles, CA: Program Evaluation & Research Collaborative, Charter College of Education.