While she was incarcerated in Central California, she started to learn yoga. It became an outlet for her anger and an antidote to the deep insecurity she felt. Before she got into a fight, she reminded herself to take a deep breath. And she loved the way she felt when she stretched into “Warrior II” pose. “It made me feel very strong,” she said.
A new report by the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law School shows that yoga programmes can be particularly effective at helping girls who are incarcerated cope with the effects of the trauma that many have experienced.
Research shows yoga and mindfulness can promote healthier relationships, increase concentration, and improve self-esteem and physical health.
Childhood trauma is prevalent among teens in the juvenile justice system, but girls experience trauma at particularly high rates. Nearly twice as many incarcerated girls as boys report past physical abuse – 42 percent to 22 percent – according to research cited in the report. And 35 percent of girls report past sexual abuse, compared with eight percent of boys.
Research shows that traumatic experiences have a more profound effect on girls’ mental health. More than three-quarters of girls show signs of at least one mental health diagnosis, compared to two-thirds of boys.
Emerging brain research, described in the report, illustrates a neurological basis for some of the differences in how girls and boys experience trauma. Estrogen activates a larger field of neurons in female brains, causing girls to experience stress factors in more precise detail. And unlike boys, girls who experience trauma show diminished surface area in the part of the brain that links bodily sensations to emotions.
Yoga can promote healing in a way that talk therapy or another cognitively based therapy cannot, experts say.
“Literally focusing on feeling where your body is and what it’s doing can lead to healing the mind as well. You are trying to repair the mind-body connection,” an expert said.
A growing body of research supports positive physical and psychological effects of yoga. Training is being introduced in US schools as well as detention centres to treat the trauma and stress that youth and adults living in poverty experience.