What Is Yoga? What Is Yoga Calm?
Yoga, Yoga, Yoga!
Yoga seems to be everywhere these days — from celebrity interviews and magazine covers to workplace classes. Even McDonald's — yes, McDonald's! — has offered instructional DVDs with some of its meals. This exploding popularity of yoga in the West is no accident. Its stress-reduction and health-promotion benefits are widely recognized by health care practitioners and laypeople alike as a seemingly perfect antidote to our demanding modern lifestyles.
But beyond a good hamstring stretch and respite from the world, what exactly is yoga? An online search or perusal of your local bookstore will reveal an astonishing array of practices, beliefs, and philosophies. While a bit overwhelming to the novice, this diversity of expression is one of the keys to yoga's longevity and effectiveness. It is a living tradition that has evolved and adapted over thousands of years to meet human needs.
At the heart of this tradition is the desire to be healthy and whole, to integrate the various aspects of our human nature. In fact, the very meaning of the Sanskrit word for yoga is "to yoke or unite." This is commonly translated as the integration or harmonizing of the body, mind, and spirit, and as a comprehensive approach to well-being, yoga typically includes systematic training in five basic areas:
Breathing — to relax and rejuvenate the body and mind through the development of healthy breathing patterns and techniques that increase energy and release tension
Exercise — to regulate the nervous system, develop strength, improve circulation, release tension, and increase flexibility through the practice of physical poses
Meditation and Positive Thinking — to develop focus, gain self-control, and cultivate inner peace
Lifestyle — to grow aware of the effects of the choices we make and learn to choose wisely, knowing that all we do and experience contributes to our overall health
Relaxation — to calm the emotions and nervous system, integrate, and give the body a chance to recharge
No one knows exactly when yoga began, but it certainly predates written history. In the Indus Valley, stone carvings dating back 3,500 years or more depict figures in yoga positions. This puts its origins even further back than the beginnings of Hinduism — a fact that puts to rest the common misconception that yoga is rooted in Hinduism. On the contrary, Hinduism's religious structures evolved much later and incorporated some yogic practices. Since then, many other religions and organizations have also incorporated practices and ideas related to yoga. But yoga itself is not a religion.
Yoga probably arrived in the United States in the late 1800s, but it did not become widely known until the 1960s, as part of the youth culture's growing interest in the East. As more became known about the beneficial effects of yoga as a means of stress management and improving health and well-being, the practice gained more acceptance and respect. Since the 1990s, it has absolutely exploded in popularity. Today, approximately 16.5 million Americans are taking classes in Hatha yoga — the branch of yoga that combines physical poses, or asanas, with breathing techniques, or pranayama. These classes meet in a wide variety of settings including yoga studios, health clubs, businesses, churches, physical therapy clinics, and hospitals.
An estimated 2,000 studies of the health benefits of yoga have been conducted since the 1920s, with much of this research taking place over the past fifteen years. Arguably, it was Dean Ornish's landmark 1983 study that spurred Western medicine's adoption of yoga within the realm of what's commonly called "complementary medicine." The Ornish study showed that yoga training plus dietary changes were associated with a fourteen-point drop in serum cholesterol levels and greater heart efficiency in just three weeks' time. Such studies — and many others that have supported and built upon Ornish's work — have encouraged physicians to recommend yoga practice not just for patients at risk of heart disease, but for those with back pain, arthritis, depression, and other chronic conditions.
"Today, approximately 16.5 million people are taking classes in Hatha yoga."
Yoga Brought into the Schools
Before the 1990s, most yoga training and practices in the West were adult-oriented, emphasizing physical poses, mental relaxation and meditation techniques, and some breathing techniques. The relatively few children's yoga classes that existed then were typically outside the school environment and focused on simple physical poses and games. But due to a convergence of forces around the turn of the 21st century, this began to change.
As awareness of the health benefits of yoga grew among adults, it was only a matter of time before educators and children's health providers would apply it to the needs of youth. As mentioned above, American schools and families today face daunting challenges: low academic achievement; increasing rates of autism, depression, anxiety, asthma, and obesity; unfunded mandates to increase scores on standardized tests in regular and special education; reductions in state and federal education budgets; loss of physical education, sports, music, dance, and art programs; and big-budget advertising by multinational companies selling high-fat, high-calorie foods. Schools also deal with attention-challenges, violence, and a decline in parent involvement.
These factors, and the mainstreaming of students with various physical and behavioral disabilities into the classroom, have increased the responsibilities of teachers to provide not only academic training, but also special-needs adaptations, physical fitness training, and emotional support services. In some cases, teachers may even function as frontline social workers. The resulting stress for teachers and students alike is taking its toll. According to a 2002 Washington Post report, "Even without the pressures of a violent crisis, teachers complain that their jobs, while rewarding, are getting harder because of too few resources, too much paperwork, crowded classrooms, students with emotional problems, low pay and high-stakes standardized tests."
As these forces converged with public awareness of both the physical and mental health benefits of yoga, teachers, administrators, social workers, and psychologists began to apply some of the more common principles and practices of yoga to address the challenges of educating children today. That these efforts have been successful is borne out by numerous research studies from around the globe, including a noteworthy 2007 study from Purdue University. Looking at K-5 student outcomes at six U.S. and Canadian schools that had incorporated the Yoga Kids Tools for Schools program, the research team found significant positive effects on the children's academic achievement, personal attributes, relationships, and general health. Other key recent research is summarized below.
It is reported that today in the United States alone, thousands of teachers have been introduced to school-based yoga and hundreds of schools are implementing programs, with positive, and in some cases, remarkable results. While all programs emphasize the physical and mental integration that is the hallmark of yoga for schools — and most include emotional components — Yoga Calm's approach is unique. With its emphasis on social and emotional skill development, teachers support students in reducing the stress in their lives and managing emotions. Our discussions with educators reveal that teaching stress management and social/emotional skills is a key missing link in today's education system. What's more, addressing these two areas helps support students outside of school, by giving them the strategies and tools they need to deal successfully with the many pressures in their lives.
Children and Stress
We are not born knowing how to deal with stress, especially the psychological kind. Rather, this is a skill we learn, most commonly by observing others. And considering that stress-related illnesses have been America's number one health problem over the past twenty years, it's obvious that we can do better.
But just what are we talking about when we talk about stress?
Most simply, stress is a medical term for a wide range of strong external stimuli, both physiological and psychological, that can cause a physiological response. First described by Hans Selye in the journal Nature in 1936, a stressor is anything in the outside world that can knock you off balance, and the sheer variety of stressors in children's lives today has certainly accomplished this. Many of these are listed in the Children's Stress Inventory, reprinted below, which you may find helpful in understanding a child's particular stress situation.
From The Center For Applied Research in Education, Inc. 1986.
Check any of the following events that have occurred in the child's life in the past twelve months and add up the total mean values. The total score can be used to predict his/her chance of suffering serious illness within the next two years. For example, a total score that is less than 150 means that the child may have only a 37 percent chance of becoming ill. A score between 150-300 increases the chance of getting sick to 51 percent. A score over 300 increases the odds of getting sick to 80 percent.
Physiologist Walter Canon coined the phrase fight or flight to describe the basic stress response, emphasizing its positive adaptive aspects in physical survival situations — such as being chased by a wild and hungry animal. Under this kind of acute stress, the human body undergoes a number of key changes. The sympathetic nervous system activates the release of stress hormones and neurotransmitters that prime the heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, immune system, and skin to deal quickly with the threat. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. Breathing speeds up and the spleen releases red and white blood cells, facilitating greater oxygen intake and transport through the body. Blood is diverted from the skin to support the heart and other muscles, while also reducing the amount of blood that may be lost in the event of injury. Short-term memory, concentration, inhibition, and rational thought are suppressed, as are all nonessential physiological activities (e.g., digestion, cell growth). All this lets you focus completely on the task at hand — repelling or fleeing from the threat. Meanwhile, long-term memory stores the experience for future reference and thus, long-term survival.
Once you're out of harm's way, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, reversing the process, allowing the body to rest, recover, and regain energy.
Though most of us will never need to deal with a charging lion, bear, or other wild animal as our distant ancestors regularly did, our fight-or-flight response is just as useful with modern physical threats such as jumping out of the way of a speeding car. Unfortunately, it's not so appropriate for psychological and social stressors. If someone is criticizing you, or you have a big test coming up, you usually can't run or fight. Instead, most of us sit passively while our blood pressure rises, stomach tightens, breathing speeds and grows shallow, and adrenaline surges. When there is no way to act upon or discharge all of that sudden energy, it is the stress response that turns on us.
Though some moderate stress can be positive, if the stress goes on too long the stage is set for physical illness. As Robert Sapolsky shows in his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, although stressors — even massive or chronic ones — don't automatically lead to illness, they do increase the risk of disease. Health risks include compromised immune system function, inhibited growth and even death of brain cells in the hippocampus; osteoporosis; cardiovascular disease; neck, shoulder, and back pain; rheumatoid arthritis; asthma; depression; and diabetes. In children, emotional and physical development may be impaired. And unhealthy ways of reacting to and interacting with the world may become entrenched.
How stress affects an individual depends upon the person's genetic makeup, experience with stress, and how he or she has learned to cope with it. Children under acute or chronic stress may exhibit any of a wide variety of symptoms, many of which are readily observable by parents, teachers, counselors, physicians, and others who regularly interact with children.
These signs of stress, as summarized from Ready ...Set ...R.E.L.A.X. by Jeffrey S. Allen and Roger J. Klein, include:
Stomach problems, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, heartburn
Aches and pains
Muscle jerks or tics
No appetite, constant eating, or a full feeling without having eaten
Shortness of breath
Dry mouth or throat
Uncontrollable crying or inability to cry
General anxiety or tenseness
Dizziness and weakness
Propensity to accidents
Feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope, wanting to run away
Jumpiness, propensity to startle easily
Always feeling rejected
Not having friends
Not finishing homework
"The implications of long-term stress are even greater for children, as emotional and body development can be retarded, and unhealthy ways of inter-reacting with the world become entrenched."
Obviously, these symptoms of stress should prompt inquiry and possible action to alleviate their causes. If left unattended, they can become impediments to learning, create additional challenges in classroom management, and set the stage for long-term health problems. However, no matter what the source, all children will benefit from learning how to handle their stress in positive, proactive ways — to become stress-hardy.
According to Sapolsky, there are a number of behaviors we can rely on to manage stress in our lives — from positive thinking techniques to finding outlets through which to channel frustrations or receive emotional and social support. But the key determinant in successful stress management, he notes — as do other stress researchers — is creating a sense of control. "Change the way even a rat perceives its world," Sapolsky writes, "and you dramatically alter the likelihood of its getting a disease. These ideas are no mere truisms. They are powerful, potentially liberating forces to be harnessed. As a physiologist who has studied stress for many years, I clearly see that the physiology of the system is often no more decisive than the psychology."
Achieving a sense of control, however, can be difficult for children, as so many of their life activities are dictated by others. Thus it's especially important to give them training in what they are able to control — things like how they breathe, what they think, and what they do. These and other stress management recommendations — and how they have informed the development of Yoga Calm — are shown in the graphic below.
From its roots in a therapeutic context, Yoga Calm's tools were developed to directly and comprehensively address the threats to children's health by teaching lifelong stress management and social/emotional skills. This new approach is effective with a wide range of children, and adults too — further expanding yoga's definition of "union" — and is now playing a catalytic role in the continuing evolution of school-based yoga interventions.
What Makes Yoga Calm Unique?
Yoga Calm is an innovative child education method that integrates fitness, social/emotional, and cognitive learning into five- to forty-minute activities and processes. Its principle-based approach is effective with a broad range of ages, populations, and abilities, and in a wide variety of teaching environments. It includes more than sixty specially designed classroom and therapeutic activities — including yoga-based movement, nervous system regulation techniques, social/emotional skill development, and relaxation and storytelling activities — that provide multiple benefits for educators, parents, and children alike. These benefits include the ability to relax, nurture, and regulate emotions; increased physical fitness, self-confidence, and self-esteem; improved concentration and imagination skills, subject retention, and test scores; enhanced communication, trust, empathy, teamwork, and leadership skills; and the development of healthy life choices.
Yoga Calm's genesis dates to 2002, in the behavior classroom of a rural Oregon elementary school. Since then, schoolteachers, counselors, nurses, and occupational therapists from around the world now use its techniques. Our students have since observed that Yoga Calm helps prepare children for learning and that all types of children are using its skills to handle conflict, identify and express emotions, and manage impulses. Furthermore, these professionals have found that teaching wellness practices like Yoga Calm has reduced their own personal and work-related stress.
Significantly, the program also is adaptable for use in other therapeutic settings, such as children's treatment centers and clinics. One of these is the thirty-year-old Children's Program in Portland, Oregon, which has successfully collaborated with Yoga Calm to provide training for children and teens struggling with ADHD, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.