Mindfulness and Yoga for Disadvantaged Urban Youth

Jun 11, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by

Tamar Mendelson, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program (2004-2006). Her research interests include the development of prevention and intervention strategies for reducing mental health problems, with a focus on underserved urban populations. This post is part of a series on the RWJF Health & Society Scholars program, running in conjunction with the program’s tenth anniversary. The RWJF Health & Society Scholars program is designed to build the nation’s capacity for research, leadership and policy change to address the multiple determinants of population health. Mendelson is a member of the program’s 2nd cohort.

Anyone who's ever spread a yoga mat across a floor will tell you that it's about more than flexibility. One of many benefits of yoga is that it helps those who practice it deal with stress in their lives. An emerging body of research points to the conclusion that yoga can have a stress-relieving effect.

One problem with the research base is that it's mostly focused on adults. But grown-ups aren’t the only ones who deal with stress in their lives. Children face it as well, and they often do it without the same resources—emotional, financial and otherwise—that adults have.

With that in mind, five years ago I began working with a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins and Penn State to explore what a yoga program might do for kids. We began working with the Holistic Life Foundation (HLF) in Baltimore, Md., a small nonprofit founded by brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their colleague Andres Gonzalez. HLF had been training urban youth in yoga for years; the goal of our research was to evaluate the feasibility of delivering their program in Baltimore City Schools and to assess preliminary intervention outcomes with fourth- and fifth-graders.

In evaluating the program, we focused particular attention on something called "mindfulness," the ability to sustain one’s attention. Yoga is not the only way to develop it, but it’s one good one. Research has shown that mindfulness-based approaches enhance self-regulatory abilities in adults, producing a range of benefits, including improvements in attention, well-being, and mental health, as well as reductions in stress and substance use.

We wondered if yoga might have a similar impact on children, and particularly on children living in high-stress, urban environments. Many of the kids in our study group lived in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods where they were exposed to stress, often on a daily basis. With that kind of pressure in their lives, it's no surprise that we see high rates of emotional and behavioral problems among them, or that they have a variety of other problems in schools and with substance abuse.

We began our research with a pilot randomized trial, studying the impact on 100 children in HLF’s program. Each yoga class lasted about 45 minutes, and classes were offered four times a week for 12 weeks. HLF’s instructors led the children through a series of yoga-based movements, training in breathing techniques, and a brief period of “guided attentional training” intended to help them relax and focus.

The pilot trial showed positive results for the children, significantly helping them with their responses to stress.

On the strength of that study, we're now expanding the research, with funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Our new randomized trial includes about 250 fifth- and sixth-graders, still in Baltimore, still working with HLF. Also, we’ll have a chance to follow the children through the start of their seventh- and eighth-grade years, allowing us to see what the longer-term benefits of the yoga program might be.

Such research has important implications for population health: Mindfulness training could be integrated into educational settings on a city, state, or national level, thus promoting health and mental health. Integrating mindfulness-based practices into educational settings could offer the potential to promote a more positive path for our children, something that would be particularly beneficial for disadvantaged urban youth like the kids in our studies.

But before that happens, further research is in order. If larger trials replicate the findings from our research, it'll be time to think about how to put mindfulness-based practices to work helping support children who face some of life's toughest challenges.

See an NBC News report on the HLF program.

See an NBC interview with Tamar Mendelson.

Learn more about the RWJF Heath & Society Scholars program.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.