Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community


Using yoga to combat the effects of childhood trauma

Children are learning yoga and mindfulness practices in a study to determine whether these strategies can help improve their schoolwork and behavior.


Can a simple regime of yoga and other mindfulness practices have cognitive benefits for children suffering from post-
traumatic stress disorder brought on by poverty and violence?

A team of scientists at Stanford is trying to find out.

The researchers are working with the Sonima Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to children’s wellness, in testing the hypothesis among 800 third- and fifth-graders at the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto.

During the four-year project, the students will participate in 45-minute wellness classes that will include yoga-based exercise, nutrition, coping skills and mindfulness instruction two to three days a week, said Victor Carrion, MD, director of the Early Life Stress Research Program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, who is leading the study.

“We believe that it will improve these children’s ability to pay attention in school and emotionally regulate themselves,” said Carrion, who is also a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Yoga can teach them to gain control over their bodies.”

Promising pilot program

Carrion led an eight-week yoga pilot program at the school district in 2012 and found that the third- and fourth-grade participants had lower social stress, were less likely to experience anxiety and depression, and developed better interpersonal relationships and self-esteem.

When a story about the pilot program was featured on a PBS NewsHour episode, representatives from the Sonima Foundation took note. The organization’s founders decided that they wanted to fund a full-fledged study led by Carrion.

“We thought this could be a really natural relationship,” said Russell Case, the Western region program director for the foundation, which has launched yoga-based health and wellness programs at schools across the country.

And while the foundation has done significant work in this area, Case said, “this is the most comprehensive study we’ve ever been involved in. As far as we know, no one has done this large a study for this length of time.”

Victor Carrion


Personal intervention

Ultimately, Stanford and the Sonima Foundation would like to determine whether this kind of intervention in a community can help traumatized children better regulate their emotions. He said they hope to see potential bullies learn self-control.

John Rettger, PhD, director of the Mindfulness Program within Carrion’s group, is a clinical researcher at the School of Medicine and a yoga instructor who is collaborating on the study. He said that he believes the results will show not only that students can better regulate stress using the curriculum but also that they will do better scholastically and have fewer disciplinary problems.

Rettger said that students are taught proper protocol for lining up and going to their mats, practice breathing and relaxation exercises, participate in a short discussion about topics that range from gratitude to happiness and then perform 20 to 25 minutes of yoga exercises that focus on breath-synchronized body movements.

“It’s pretty incredible what the kids are able to accomplish in a short amount of time,” he said.
To measure results, Carrion plans to study sleep and brain patterns of many of the students taking part in the study and examine their cortisol levels. Cortisol is a steroid hormone released by the body in response to stress that can be measured through saliva. Twice during each evaluation period students will be asked to provide samples. The evaluations will take place before the study, after a year and six months after that.

Body and mind

In addition, an apparatus will be installed in some of the students’ homes to record the physiological changes that occur during sleep.

“If children suffering from stress or anxiety don’t get enough sleep, it can make things worse,” Carrion said.

He said he expects that the wellness curriculum and regular yoga will help these children sleep and concentrate better. A lot of kids suffering from stress and anxiety have trouble focusing in the classroom.

“Yoga increases blood flow, which helps muscles relax,” Carrion said. “For many of these children there are triggers and cues. Physiologically, yoga helps them even out.”

The students, who began participating in the study in March, will be compared over three years with a control group of students in the Orchard School District in San Jose who have similar socioeconomic backgrounds but who won’t be taught the same curriculum. In 2018 the team will begin to analyze its results. 

Ravenswood superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff, PhD, said the Sonima Foundation includes funds for 14 yoga instructors to teach the curriculum to every grade in all seven of the district’s schools.

“I expect it to have a huge impact on our students’ academics,” she said. “I think their retention and focus will be higher and their behavioral problems will diminish. They’ll also learn self-discipline, self-control and how to use their energy in a positive way. This could make a difference in their lives.”

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