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Natural Awakenings Lehigh Valley

Saving Our Youth Teaching Yoga and Mindfulness Beyond the Mat

Dec 03, 2013 04:34PM ● By By Beth Davis

Yoga has long been well respected for its psychological benefits: regular practice can provide significant relief for those suffering from stress, depression, anxiety, ADHD, insomnia and even schizophrenia. With these benefits in mind, a growing number of local programs are bringing yoga to surprising new locations—public schools, prisons, juvenile detention centers and other community sites where young people can benefit most from the calming and therapeutic techniques of the practice.

Statistics show that lack of skills to deal with the stresses children are faced with can result in a higher high school dropout rate, substance abuse and juvenile violence. Although there is no single solution to these problems, ongoing research is showing that practice like meditation and yoga can help with modern day individual and societal issues.

Prabha Sinha, Founder and Administrator of Pratyush Sinha Foundation, is an avid supporter of yoga programs in schools and other facilities. “In today’s times of stress, isolation and negative influence on our kids, schools are just not centers of learning, but for some children, the most stable thing in their lives,” she says. “With that in mind, school administrators are beginning to see the value in teaching children not only academics, but also life skills.”

Through the Pratyush Sinha Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children in the U.S. and India, Sinha with the help of 7 dedicated local yoga teachers, provides yoga programs in three schools in the Allentown School District, as well as the Boys and Girls Club, ASPIRE, Buxmont Academy and The Caring Place—with more on the horizon. She says the foundation believes that besides education, we need to provide the at-risk youth with the tools that will make them confident, balanced and strong—and this can be done through an integrated yoga program.

“Adolescence is turbulent enough and with academic expectations and peer pressures, our youngsters are overloaded,” she explains. Fatigue, anger, depression and low self-esteem are unfortunate factors that play a big part in lives of many youngsters. This is where yoga comes in; a regular practice can lead kids into a well-balanced life. A program with breath work, meditation, spiritual and ethical teachings, along with physical practice, cultivate a positive perspective on life and develop lasting strategies for self-care. With an active parasympathetic nervous system, children’s ability to focus and learn improves.”

A 2003 study by California State University, Los Angeles, found that yoga improved students’ behavior, physical health and academic performance, as well as attitudes toward themselves. According to Yoga in Schools, a nonprofit organization that advocates for and funds yoga programming, yoga in schools yield the following results:

  • An increase in students’ physical strength, flexibility, balance and relaxation.
  • Improved individual student capacities for focusing, concentration and retention of new information.
  • Positive impact on students’ social and psychological development as expressed in higher self-esteem (confidence, efficacy) and body awareness.
  • Increased ease in classroom management for both students and teachers.
  • Greater management of life stressors for both students and teachers.

The good news is that a growing number of yoga instructors and teachers have made this their life mission and are tirelessly working to make yoga available to at-risk youth. In the Lehigh Valley, two nonprofit organizations, the aforementioned Pratyush Sinha Foundation and Shanthi Project are helping youngsters achieve their full potential through yoga.

Based in Northampton County, Shanthi Project is comprised of 15 yoga teachers, a seven-member board of directors and an executive director. The nonprofit provides weekly on-site yoga and meditation classes at Northampton County Prison, Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center (NCJJC) and Boys & Girls Club Easton’s after-school and summer camp programs. In 2012 and 201313, Shanthi Project also taught yoga as part of “Club Night” at Children’s Home Easton and in the after-school “Mutt-i-grees” program at Cheston Elementary School. In the past year, Shanthi Project has reached over 350 students.

The primary goal of their integrated mind-body program is to increase fitness and foster self-understanding through yoga and meditation. “Specifically, we recognize that the vast majority of our incarcerated, and many of our at-risk students in our community-based classes are victims of childhood maltreatment and unresolved trauma,” says Denise Veres, founder and executive director. She explains that this includes single and repeated incidences of abuse, neglect, abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination and/or exposure to violence or danger at home and in their neighborhoods. Shanthi Project has made it a priority to provide their teaching staff with specialized trauma-informed yoga training that is designed for those students who are in chronic distress from unresolved trauma.

Veres says that it’s well documented that the overwhelming majority of inmates and juvenile offenders are victims of repeated childhood and adolescent trauma. Left unresolved, trauma can impact development and difficulty with self-regulating, which in turn can lead to violent, reactive and reckless behavior, substance abuse, and ultimately, incarceration. Previously, this post-trauma conduct was viewed as a behavioral issue. It is now medically and therapeutically accepted that residual trauma lives in the body. Somatic, or body-based interventions such as yoga, allow the trauma survivor to integrate body with mind through controlled movement and breathing, as well as mindfulness meditation.

For more than three years, Shanthi Project’s positive outcomes teaching yoga in the rehab and treatment units of Northampton County Prison and Juvenile Justice Center has been demonstrated quantitatively and anecdotally.

Shanthi Project original research from a 2010 pilot study at NCJJC is consistent with other research outcomes showing that yoga programs help participants reduce stress, improve impulse control and reactivity, and gain greater control of emotions, including anger and hostility. In fact, in a qualitative follow-up, 80 percent of these students said they felt “at peace” or “peaceful” when practicing yoga and/or meditation, 78 percent said that yoga and meditation helps with their “stress,” “negativity,” and “peace of mind,” and 94 percent indicated that their decision making process was better because of their yoga and meditation practice.

In September 2013, Shanthi Project entered into a research collaboration with Dr. Mark Sciutto, Professor of Psychology at Muhlenberg College, and clinical psychologist, to develop validated measurement tools for stress/anxiety, emotional resiliency, and self-control for Shanthi Project yoga students in NCP and NCJJC. Beginning in January 2014, these quantitative measurement tools will be used to track outcomes of the yoga programs. 

Averaging between just $2 and $4 per student per class in professional fees and in-kind donations, Veres says results of the low-cost program include increased self-control and resiliency, reduced stress, and reactive behaviors, and ultimately, prevention of primary incarceration and recidivism.

For many young people, yoga and meditation programs offer the rare and life-changing opportunity to find calm and comfort within. Initial feelings of hopelessness and despair later give way to a sense of empowerment, an affirmation of their personal potential and a deeper respect for themselves and other people. It simply gives them hope for a brighter tomorrow.

For more information, visit or call 704-608-5558 or visit or call 610-737-8006.  

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