Reblogged: Why teach yoga to Thugs?

This post originally appeared here. Meaghan Johnson, former QSY owner, worked with Shannon Braden a social worker and a QSY student on this great initiative

I’ve been asked this question. Not these “exact’ words, but it certainly felt that way when I was asked to ‘provide a rationale’ as to why we use yoga as part of our programs at inREACH, a street gang prevention program in Waterloo Region. Here’s the rationale I gave… which also seems to be backed up by a lot of good solid evidence.

All of the youth we work with at inREACH have deficits in the area of emotion regulation. In its most problematic form this may result in anger and aggression which can cause them to come into conflict with the law; less obviously, but just as seriously, many of the same youth suffer from chronic anxiety and depression. Additionally, many of the youth turn to heavy substance use as the only tool at their disposal to manage powerful feelings. In order for youth to reduce their drug use and manage their emotions well enough to enable them to make good choices when problem solving, they must learn self-calming techniques.

Yoga teaches relaxation and breathing techniques which youth are able to use in a variety of settings as strategies to regulate their stress-response system. By decreasing their level of physiological arousal (heart rate, blood pressure) youth are able to increase their capacity to stay calm in stressful situations and thus make better choices about their behaviour. Evidence suggests that yoga can reduce maladaptive nervous system arousal, thus making it easier for youth to strengthen healthy coping strategies and reduce their dependence on substances to maintain emotional equilibrium.  As a result of its efficacy, yoga is increasingly being offered in accredited children’s mental health treatment centres such as Lutherwood in Waterloo, in custody facilities such as Roy McMurtry Youth Centre in Bramptom, and in community-based gang prevention programs, such as Breaking the Cycle in Rexdale.

One of the best parts of working on the inREACH project has been the opportunity to collaborate with local service providers, businesses and community residents to expose the young people we work with to experiences that they would not otherwise have access to. The results have sometimes been surprising. For example, last winter we began working with Meaghan Johnson at Queen Street Yogato teach yoga and mindfulness to one of our groups for young people at-risk for gang activity.

The youth we work with have responded very well to the experience. We found that by beginning our groups with yoga and mindfulness excercises they were more grounded and focused for the psycho-educational material that followed. Many learned that they could use breathing as a strategy in stressful situations, while others continued to practice yoga on their own time. Beyond the tools they may have taken from it, however, all were able to experience what, to me, is the most powerful aspect of yoga – accepting and honouring who you are, in your body, at this particular moment in time, without judgment. 

Now, I could have provided a purely economic rationale for teaching yoga to “thugs”. Something along the lines of…
Yoga – 1 teacher @ $100/hour x 6 sessions/5 youth = $600.00 ($120 per youth )
Incarceration – 5 youth @ $350/day x 5/days = $8,750 ($1,750per youth)
… and let the math speak for itself.

However, wouldn’t you rather see a young person who can understand the connection between emotional triggers and behaviour, self-regulate emotions with consciousness, make healthy decisions and learn body awareness techniques that can be used for a lifetime?

I know I would. I believe our community would be a safer place if more of our young people had the opportunity for this kind of experience.

Additional resources & research reviews:


Shanna Braden is a social worker at Lutherwood who works for inREACH, a collaborative project of local community partners to prevent gang activity in the Region of Waterloo.

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