Yoga and Executive Function: A Combination for Student Success


Lately yoga has been paired with everything from goats to beer, but the most natural pairing may wellKripalu Lauren Saunders yoga.jpg be yoga and students. For a fun activity that has no specific goal, yoga can certainly pack a punch when it comes to helping with self-management skills. How could a non-competitive exercise help students to sharpen their Executive Function skills? Practicing yoga not only helps develop confidence and focus, it also enhances the calm, reflective abilities that support higher level thinking skills.

Steps, Planning, and Following Directions

Is planning a necessary skill for a yoga student? Absolutely. Aside from setting aside time to practice poses and remembering to set up equipment before starting, yoga is an exercise that promotes quietude, clarity, and individual strength through completing difficult poses and sequences. Group sports are wonderful for camaraderie and learning to work with a team, yet solo pursuits such as yoga have benefits as well. Often students can spend a lot of time in groups, in class, and with friends but at the end of the day, they need to be able to quiet themselves and focus on their own. Yoga develops these very skills.

In a yoga class, a student could develop the strength and concentration to hold themselves in a headstand upside down for a minute or more. In addition to the confidence built after completing such a challenging task, students develop direction-following skills during the several steps to correctly set up this type of difficult pose. They learn to tune in to others as they learn from the instructor, as well as listening to their own internal experience as they complete the postures.

Developing Self-Awareness

In yoga, students quietly investigate and monitor their own bodies and minds to successfully execute poses, particularly in the balancing postures. Likewise, applying one's Executive Function skills often require calmness and an accurate evaluation of one’s abilities. A self-aware student may ask herself questions such as: Can I really get a quality paper done in one hour? Would an afterschool session with a teacher be the most helpful way for me to prepare for that test? Should I work on my calculus problems first, while I'm most alert? Through practicing yoga, students develop self-awareness that can lead to accurate self-evaluation in other areas of their lives. Students learn to listen to their breath and their internal realities, and benefit from an accurate understanding of their strengths, challenges, and areas for growth.

Quieting and Strengthening the Mind

Studies show exercise helps cognitive function in young people and adults. Many yoga classes encourage students at the beginning of class to set an intention for their time on the mat. While it could be simple, like “feeling calm,” an intention is similar to a goal. Practicing setting intentions can actually affect the quality of one’s practice and can focus how a student approaches the different challenges of yoga, like balancing or strengthening poses. Students can broaden these lessons to school and life skills - making their mind up to get all their homework done, or self-advocate in a class, or remain calm through a test.

Resources for the Busy Student

Yoga classes and samples are widely available online. For a fun, youth-oriented approach, students can see samples of poses and postures, and get a sense of what yoga can offer from South Boston Yoga’s Youtube ChannelEsther Eckhart is a long-time yoga teacher and offers an extensive resource online with easy-to-follow classes and samples. Try her 60 minute Yin Yoga class, for a calming easy start.

Please see this page for comprehensive information about Executive Function in Elementary students.

What are the Executive Function skills that typically emerge from elementary school through adulthood? Download our colorful infographic to learn more.

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About the Author

Lauren Saunders

Lauren Saunders is an Executive Function Coach with a Masters in Education and over ten years of experience helping students overcome challenges to succeed at their goals. She has a background as a college writing tutor and as a secondary classroom teacher for Social Studies and English courses. Lauren enjoys learning and writing about contemplative practices for students. She completed a 200 hour Yoga Training in 2011 and has been a yoga and meditation practitioner since 1998. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, son, and daughter.

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