Practising mindfulness-based yoga can help young people, who are dealing with stressful situations like exposure to violence and family disruption, avoid turning to negative, risky behaviours, scientists say.
Researchers from the University of Cincinnati (UC) in the US looked at the link between stressful life events and an increase in substance abuse, risky sexual behaviours and delinquency in a diverse population of 18- to 24-year-old youths.
As part of a 10-year study, Jacinda Dariotis, public health researcher at UC, spent 12 months focusing on early life stressors as a predictor of risky sexual behaviour, substance abuse and delinquency for more than 125 at-risk youths.
Dariotis found a small number of the youths were already engaging in constructive coping behaviours on their own that will have positive outcomes later in life.
The study revealed that in spite of early life stressors, positive coping behaviours, either learned or self-generated, can actually have a protective effect.
"We found that many of these youths who had endured stressful life events and otherwise would have fallen into the risky behaviour trap could actually have positive outcomes later in life because they chose to join in prosocial physical activities, yoga or mindfulness meditation," said Dariotis.
"We took a holistic approach, looking at these issues from a social and biological perspective," she said.
Testosterone can be influential in dominance and aggressive behaviours, but if directed through prosocial behaviours like sports, yoga or healthy competition it can have very positive outcomes.
Dariotis found that at-risk youth who voluntarily spend their time reading books, playing sports or engaged in avoidance coping behaviours were twice as likely to avoid risky sexual behaviours or substance abuse.
An example of avoidance coping behaviours, she says, is not thinking about a bad event that had occurred and instead, thinking about what could be better.
Dariotis found youths who were unable to develop positive coping strategies were much more likely to turn to greater risk-taking behaviours that included unprotected sex or sex for money, substance abuse, violence and crime.
Participating in weekly mindful yoga intervention programmes as part of the study taught the youths how to take control of their breathing and their emotions and helped them develop healthier long-term coping skills.
"These findings highlight the importance of implementing positive coping strategies for at-risk youth particularly for reducing illicit drug use and risky sexual behaviour," said Dariotis.
"Mindfulness-based yoga programs designed to improve the ability to cope are needed at earlier ages in schools to help vulnerable youths channel their skills more effectively," she said.