In a few months, The John Howard Society of North Island (John Howard) in Campbell River will be the final test site for a pilot evaluation project by Yoga Outreach, funded by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Cohorts of around seven teen girls and five boys already spend six months receiving counselling on substance use, healthy relationships, and emotional wellbeing through John Howard’s Oasis and Headstart programs in Campbell River. Now they will see if adding trauma-informed yoga to the curriculum helps the most vulnerable participants maintain health.
Since 2017, Yoga Outreach and evaluator McCreary Centre have been assessing results of trauma-informed yoga classes at PLEA Community Services in Surrey and at Phoenix Centre in Kamloops. Boys and girls in full-time mandated recovery programs learn meditation, breathing techniques, and body awareness. Carefully trained volunteer teachers invite students to adapt exercises according to their bodies and moods.
“Offering choices is essential for creating an environment where youth who have experienced abuse or neglect feel safe enough to let go of old habits in favour of unfamiliar coping strategies,” says Delanie Dyck, Executive Director for Yoga Outreach.
Evaluators have now decided to extend this two-year project by six months to allow for Campbell River’s participation. Wendy Richardson, Executive Director of John Howard, explained that youth in John Howard’s programs fit into several under-studied groups – teen, involved in the justice system, and showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Youth from traumatic backgrounds tend to have less developed coping strategies. They struggle to regulate emotions and to delay gratification – significant obstacles to overcoming addiction,” Richardson said.
There is growing research to show that yoga, which focuses on bodily responses, is more helpful to adults with PTSD than traditional talk therapies alone. But there is very little research on teens in youth justice programs or those with a high chance of becoming involved in the youth justice system because of homelessness, substance use, and mental health problems. One study estimates that most teens in youth justice programs have undiagnosed PTSD, and this severely reduces their chances of benefitting from typical rehabilitation programs.
This study is one of the first of its kind in North America to look for evidence that teaching these skills through yoga can help teens from traumatic backgrounds avoid substance relapse and further conflict with the law. If results are positive, the DOJ may include mindfulness-based programming in more youth justice programs and youth custody facilities. Discoveries will also assist other yoga and mental health professionals in building more effective supports for vulnerable teens.
Campbell River’s participation will depend on finding committed volunteers to take the trauma-informed yoga training from March 1 to 3, and then teach two hours per month for six months (or longer). For credible results from the project, all volunteer teachers must complete The Yoga Outreach Core Training™. The course is also open to other movement or yoga instructors and health professionals who wish to add trauma-informed principles to their offerings.