Yoga and other mindfulness practices have been the subject of an increasing amount of research as they have become more popular in the West. For example, science now supports many of the benefits traditionally associated with yoga practice, including decreased stress and increased physical and emotional wellness. Recent advances in neuroscience confirm that contemplative practices, such as yoga and mindfulness meditation, can change the physical structure of the brain, effectively training it to work in more positive and productive ways.
Yoga & Mindfulness Increases Attention
Yoga practice has traditionally been associated with an increased capacity for sustaining attention. One of the eight limbs of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga system, dharana, is dedicated to concentration, and aspects of breathwork and movement support it. This has been an interesting area of study for researchers, who are beginning to confirm this traditional knowledge. In one study, students who practiced mindful breathing reported that they were better able to focus, relax, reduce anxiety before taking a test, make better decisions when in conflict, and redirect their attention when off task (Napoli, Drech, and Holley 2005). A 2004 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found a reduction in restlessness, impulsivity, and inattentiveness specifically in boys with ADHD after 20 weeks of weekly yoga sessions (Jensen and Kenny 2004). In a 2011 study, Adele Diamond, a leader in the field of cognitive neuroscience, found that yoga (particularly an approach that addressed both physical practice and social and emotional development) was among practices that improved executive function in four-to twelve-year-olds. “Executive function” refers to the “set of cognitive functions involved in the top-down control of behavior” (Diamond and Lee 2011). It is what allows us to regulate our behavior, make good decisions, control our impulses, and selectively apply our attention.
Studies on mindfulness and meditation have also shown promising results in both children and adults. Several years’ worth of very interesting work led by Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson has shown that meditators, even beginners, had increased activation in regions of their brains needed for controlling attention. One of their most recent studies has additionally shown that extremely experienced meditators had less brain activation while also performing attention-related tasks better, attesting that meditation actually made paying attention easier for the brain (Slagter, Davidson, and Lutz 2011). While this work was done on adults, other studies on children support similar ideas. In 2010, Randye Semple, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California, found that participants in a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program for children had reduced attention problems and that these improvements were maintained for at least three months following the intervention (Semple et al. 2010).
Preliminary research on mindfulness introduced in a school setting suggests that the practice is particularly beneficial for children with executive function difficulties, with students showing increased executive function, specifically working memory, as well as planning and organizational skills (Flook et al. 2010) and inhibitory control (a measure of attention) (Oberle et al. 2012). In a review of current research, Kelly McGonigal (2012), a teacher of psychology, yoga, and meditation at Stanford University, discusses how concentration meditation “makes you better at focusing on something specific while ignoring distractions” and “can make you more capable of noticing what is happening around you.”
Creating Greater Emotional Balance Through Yoga & Mindfulness
Improved attention and emotional balance are intimately connected to one another. One of the benefits of yoga that practitioners often notice early on in their experience is a decreased reactivity to frustrating stimuli and an increased sense of perspective and overall well-being. The path of yoga is meant to be a way to reduce the suffering created by our own minds, and bringing balance to our emotions is an integral part of this process.
Several recent studies have supported these traditional teachings. In 2009, the Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine published a pilot study of fourth-and fifth-grade students in New York who attended an after-school yoga class once a week for 12 weeks. After just 12 yoga sessions, the children who participated showed increased well-being and enhanced self-worth, and fewer negative behaviors were reported in response to stress (Berger, Silver, and Stein 2009). Another study of young adults found a reduction in symptoms among people with mild depression after just five weeks of yoga practice (Woolery et al. 2004).
Other research looking at more specific aspects of the practice has shown positive impact on emotional balance as well. Among teens and young adults, focused breathing has been shown to increase tolerance for remaining in contact with unpredictable negative stimuli (Arch and Craske 2006), and focusing attention and awareness on a single point (as in the practice of dharana) has been found to promote a relaxation response (Roeser and Peck 2009). Mindfulness meditation intervention has been shown to have a positive impact on problematic responses to stress in children including rumination, intrusive thoughts, and emotional arousal (Mendelson et al. 2010).
Adult Studies With Implications for Kids
As more researchers become interested in the impact of yoga and meditation, the findings have become increasingly more complex and interesting. A 2009 study led by Eileen Luders from the UCLA School of Medicine showed that meditators had more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for attention, emotional regulation, and mental flexibility. More recent work out of UCLA has found an increase in gyrification, or folding of the cortex, in meditators. These folds are thought to allow the brain to process information more effectively. This study (Luders et al. 2012) found a direct link between number of years of meditation and amount of folding. Another 2012 study (Froeliger, Garland, and McClernon) looked at a yoga practices, including movement, breathwork, and meditation. It found that practitioners had more gray matter in frontal, limbic, temporal, occipital, and cerebellar regions of the brain, and that increased gray matter was positively correlated with duration of the yoga practice. This same study found that yoga practitioners reported significantly fewer cognitive failures (such as forgetting where something was left, getting distracted, having trouble making decisions, etc.).
Recent work done by Philippe Goldin, a research scientist in the psychology department at Stanford University, has shown that mindfulness meditation can actually change the way the brain responds to negative thoughts, and that practitioners show a decrease in gray matter density in the amygdala (Goldin, Ramel, and Gross 2009). In the same 2012 article mentioned earlier, Kelly McGonigal notes that “previous research had revealed that trauma and chronic stress can enlarge the amygdala and make it more reactive and more connected to other areas of the brain, leading to greater stress and anxiety. This study is one of the first documented cases showing change occurring in the opposite direction—with the brain instead becoming less reactive and more resilient.” While these researchers have been looking at the impact of meditation on the brains of adults (and more research is needed to fully understand the impact of these practices on the developing minds of children), the findings are significant, compelling, and extremely encouraging.
From Little Flower Yoga for Kids by Jennifer Cohen Harper. Reprinted with permission by New Harbinger Publications, Inc.