07/31/2013 05:38 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

Ancient Practices Offer Teens Tools to Cope

To help students navigate the rough terrain of adolescence and improve their behavior in school, dozens of New York City high schools have turned to meditation and yoga.

Humanities Preparatory Academy, a high school in Manhattan, started training its faculty with help from the Lineage Project, which teaches what they call mindfulness skills. Then the classes expanded to the students.

"The social workers love it and we're seeing results," said Jeannie Ferrari, Humanities Prep. principal and an avid yogi herself. "The program offers our students real tools. They experience increased patience and self control."

According to Beth Navon, executive director of Lineage Project, many students in her classes have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or other anxieties sparked by unstable environments. In response, the classes offer group reflection, meditation and bodywork such as yoga and Tai-Chi. Also, they have fun.

"These are children who've never been able to play," Navon said. "There's been too much loss, too much weight on their shoulders."

Jennifer Ford helped start the group Bent on Learning to help all children handle the pressures of life.

"Students are continually asked to pay attention," she said. "Yet they are not taught how to pay attention."

Clinical research has begun to validate the anecdotal evidence. The first controlled trial of a school-based mindfulness and yoga intervention for urban youth took place in 2010. John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Prevention Research Center of Pennsylvania State University partnered with the Baltimore-based Holistic Life Foundation to examine the influence of a 12-week mindfulness intervention. The participants were mostly African-American youth living in low-income neighborhoods with high levels of violence. The trial indicated that the mindfulness program effectively reduced problematic involuntary responses including rumination, intrusive thoughts, emotional arousal and impulsive action.

Bent on Learning's website also cites multiple research studies on the benefits of yoga on children.

"It's important to understand that this is not a fad," Navon said. "These techniques are time-tested and unchanging."

Randy Fernando, the executive director of Mindful Schools in Oakland, California, said there is no definitive count of the mindfulness and yoga programs in schools. But his national training group alone has affected about 70,000 students, he said.

On a brisk October morning, Bart van Melik taught a class at Humanities Prep. Students arrived in the drafty auditorium for their first-period class. Some yawned and sighed as they straggled down the aisles in their hoodies and oversized jeans.

Van Melik invited the students to the yoga mats on the stage. After a silent meditation, the lesson began with an exploration of ways each student dealt with anger.

"Think about a time you were angry with yourself or someone else. How did that anger eventually go away?" Van Melik asked. He passed a meditation bell around the room to help punctuate each student's turn.

"I make a joke of everything," one girl said. She struck the bell with the mallet and passed it on.

The next boy said, "Unless you physically hurt me, I don't care."

Another girl explained how she recently avoided a physical confrontation on a crowded subway. "I closed my eyes and focused on the beat of the music."

After the discussion, Van Melik led the group through Chi Gong movements designed to release anger. The session concluded with yoga postures that increased focus and balance.

"Some people talk of enlightened beings, but I prefer to think of enlightened moments," Van Melik said. "These moments when you are awake. They are not foreign to us. Our mission, when kids are facing difficulties, is to show them it is possible for everyone to connect with moments of enlightenment."

Some of Van Melik's students recalled their initial reservations about yoga when their Lineage Project class began.

"At first I was annoyed. I didn't want to be here and I thought it was a waste of time," said one student. "But I haven't gone off on anyone physically since I took the class."

Beside her, the girl's friend nodded in agreement. "I used to think it was just hippie stuff," she said. "But ever since I took this class I feel so relaxed. It just opens up my mind and for the rest of the day I feel better."

Another boy chimed in. "On Saturdays, all I used to do was watch TV," he said. "Now when I'm at home, I turn off the TV and do a little yoga."

This article was first published in Schoolbook of WNYC.

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