I was throwing it right at you! Why didn’t you catch it? You’re supposed to catch the ball!” This was a typical experience for me in physical education – the most dreaded part of my school day. “Thanks a lot, Pavita! You made us lose!” The taunting would continue through the end of class, but it didn’t stop on the court or on the field. It followed me into the locker room, where I was teased for being a “late bloomer.” I became accustomed to the ridicule and the judgment, and the isolation from being the player that a team got “stuck with.” As someone with an anxiety disorder, PE was traumatic for me. I often faked sicknesses and injuries to avoid the agony. This experience was consistent across the 5 schools I attended growing up.
Compulsory physical education is a major characteristic of many American schools. Advocates for the PE requirement argue that the curriculum fosters good health, prevents against disease, promotes fitness, improves concentration and academic learning, and develops cooperation, teamwork, self-esteem, and sportsmanship skills (Le Marsuier & Corbin, 2006; New York State Education Department, 2012). However, several modern PE classes focus almost exclusively on competitive sports. If you were anything like me, you probably didn’t benefit from PE the way the advocates of the requirement might have hoped. Students who lack the skills and coordination to excel in competitive sports and who are not motivated to develop these skills are likely not getting the exercise that PE classes are intended to promote. Furthermore, students who are bullied because of their appearance and their athletic ability, like I was, might actually experience lower self-esteem as a result of PE. Finally, the type of “feedback” I was getting from my peers was not very sportsman-like, and the coaches didn’t seem to care.
For other academic subjects, students are given a choice of courses to fulfill their requirement on the basis of their skills and interests. So why shouldn’t this be the case with PE? Yoga and meditation have similar effects on individuals that traditional PE classes are supposed to have. One method of improving on many of the problems associated with traditional PE is to offer students the yoga and meditation classes as a means to fulfill the PE requirement.
Studies have shown that participation in yoga and meditation are associated with decreased risk of hypertension, diabetes, and stroke (Schneider, et al., 1995) and with improved immune function (Davidson, 2003). These activities are therefore influential in disease prevention, which is one of the goals of PE. Another goal of PE is to improve concentration and academic performance. Adolescents who practice yoga and meditation are less likely to miss school, to break rules, and to get suspended (Barnes, et al., 2003), thus increasing their chances of academic success. Yoga and meditation are also shown to improve social skills, behavioral problems, and academic performance in students with disabilities (Beauchemin, 2008), who are most likely to experience the negative aspects of traditional PE.
Yoga and meditation even have effects that go beyond the goals of traditional PE. Not only do students who practice yoga and meditation show improvements in self-esteem and self-regulation, but they are also more likely to report greater use of stress-coping skills (White, 2012). This is particularly important given that students today experience high levels of stress. In addition to academic pressures, students also experience peer and parental pressure, engage in extracurricular activities, and navigate different kinds of relationships. Yoga and meditation provide individuals with tangible skills to cope with stress. Students who do not have these skills might turn to more destructive behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, stress eating, or risky sexual activities.
Students are under enough pressure in their everyday lives. Why add to that pressure by subjecting them to PE classes that might not be appropriate for them? Students who love and thrive at competitive sports should by all means continue to participate in traditional PE. For those of us who do not, however, yoga and meditation classes offer a healthy alternative with similar benefits. When I finally switched to a school that offered yoga as a PE class, I felt so much less anxious than I had in earlier years. At present, there are several organizations that provide guidelines for implementing yoga and meditation programs in schools, including Yoga4Classrooms, the Kids Yoga Resource, and the School Yoga Project. Given that yoga and meditation in schools might be met with resistance, particularly from religious conservative parents, the implementation of such programs would only be successful if offered as an option to students alongside traditional PE. Teachers can also find simple ways to include yoga and meditation techniques in their everyday instruction, for example leading students in deep breathing exercises before an exam. The vast research on the benefits of yoga and meditation lend credence to the fact that their inclusion in schools would help students become more positive and productive members of society.
Barnes, V., Bauza, L.B., & Treiber, F.A. (2003). Impact of stress reduction on negative school behavior in adolescents. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 1(1), 1-7.
Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., & Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 65, 564-570.
Le Masurier, G. & Corbin, C.B. (2006). Top 10 reasons for quality physical education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 77(6), 44-53.
New York State Education Department. (2012, February 23). Physical education profile. nysed.gov. Retrieved April 17, 2013 from http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/pe/profile.html.
Schneider, R.H., Staggers, F., Alexander, C.N., Sheppard, W., Rainforth, M., Kondwani, K., Smith, S., King, C.G. (1995). A randomized controlled trial of stress reduction for hypertension in older African Americans. Hypertension, 26, 820-827.
White, L.S. (2012). Reducing stress in school-age girls through mindful yoga. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 26, 45-56.