New research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health investigated the consequences of yoga and mindfulness practice on the mental health of middle school students. The findings indicate that students between the ages of 11-14 may see improvement in anxiety and depression symptoms after engaging in regular yoga and mindfulness practice. But these improvements were not statistically significant compared to a control group.
The middle school years have never been an easy developmental stage. Physical and cognitive changes are happening quickly as they move toward and into adolescence. These changes transform how children think about the world and their relationships with their parents. The confusion and pressure of growing up leaves the middle schooler particularly vulnerable to mental illness.
Current middle schoolers are also experiencing the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, which impacted their social development, disrupted family life, and increased worry for the future.
Mental health can affect one’s capacity to lead a thriving adult life. As a result, many public schools are developing programs to teach students practices that will improve and protect their mental health. Practices like mindfulness and yoga are intervention strategies ideal for public schools due to their low cost and ease of implementation.
Prior research has demonstrated the benefits of yoga and mindfulness for elementary and high school students. However, Alessandra Bazzano and colleagues felt the literature needs robust research supporting the use of these interventions at the middle school (ages 11-14) stage.
Bazzano and team partnered with an urban public middle school in New Orleans, Louisiana, and a local non-profit specializing in providing schools with yoga and mindfulness practitioners at no cost. Students were divided into eight groups based on their school schedules. Four groups, with a total of 42 students, received yoga and mindfulness training, and four groups (44 students) served as the control.
Students in the control groups would also receive training after the study was concluded. Students in the intervention group were exposed to an eight-week research-supported structured curriculum called Yoga Ed. A typical Yoga Ed lesson included breathing exercises, yoga poses, instruction, and relaxation. Throughout the lessons, practitioners emphasized how yoga and breathing can increase mindfulness, which can be used as a stress reduction tool.
Before and after the yoga mindfulness training, students took two assessments to examine their mental health. First, participant students filled out the Patient Health Questionnaire revised for adolescents (PHQA) and the Screen for Child Anxiety-Related Disorders (SCARED). The PHQA measures depression symptoms, and the SCARED is for anxiety.
Analyzing the results, it was revealed that those students receiving the Yoga Ed curriculum, did experience a decrease in anxiety and depression symptoms. These changes during the 8-week session were not considered statistically significant compared to the control students. However, when the data was statistically projected into the future, a significant decrease in anxiety was identified. Secondarily both groups would see decreases in depression scores over time, but those in the experimental condition would experience a much more significant increase.
Bazzano and colleagues acknowledged some limitations. First, their sample size was relatively small, making firm conclusions risky. Second, the study may be difficult to replicate in the real world as school districts in other locations may not have access to outside yoga teachers trained in Yoga Ed.
Despite these concerns, the research team feels their efforts contribute to the body of work supporting these kinds of interventions for students. They concluded, “By intervening earlier in adolescence, through universal social and emotional care programs such as school-based [yoga and mindfulness programs], youth may become better equipped with coping skills and techniques to combat stress and mitigate negative emotional states to protect future health and developmental trajectory.”
“The inability of the study results to establish a significant impact of [yoga and mindfulness programs] on symptoms may be attributable to constraints of real-world application of the intervention,” the researchers added. “Future research on effects of yoga and mindfulness programs in youth are warranted, particularly in light of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; however, larger scale studies would be required to robustly assess the long-term effect of school-based yoga and mindfulness programs.”
The study, “Effect of yoga and mindfulness intervention on symptoms of anxiety and depression in young adolescents attending middle school: A pragmatic community-based cluster randomized controlled trial in a racially diverse urban setting” was authored by Alessandra Bazzano, Yaoyao Sun, Temitope Akintimehin, Jeanette Gustat, Denise Barrera and Cody Roi.