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Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, Executive Functioning, and Stress: Exploring a Process Model in Adolescents

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The association of trait mindfulness with emotional well-being has been found to be mediated by executive functioning. However, there is little empirical evidence on this process in adolescents. Therefore, this study tested these associations using an adolescent sample participating in a physical education yoga class. This study extended previous research by also including self-compassion and state mindfulness in addition to trait mindfulness. A prospective design employed a pilot yoga curriculum in a high school physical education class. Adolescents (N = 20) completed assessments of trait mindfulness and self-compassion at baseline, state mindfulness experienced during yoga classes over the 12 week physical education yoga class, and six indices of executive functioning and stress at the end of the 12 weeks. Path analysis was used to test the process model found by Short with the extensions of self-compassion and state mindfulness. Self-compassion directly predicted problems with activity level impulse control and indirectly predicted stress. When self-compassion did not predict specific executive functioning indicators, state mindfulness experienced in yoga predicted stress. This study contributes preliminary evidence that suggests further research into the unique effects of trait and state mindfulness as well as self-compassion on adolescent cognitive and affective outcomes. Results support the use of contemplative practices, such as yoga, in adolescent physical education as a strategy to boost emotion regulation processes.
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International Journal of
PHYSICAL EDUCATION, FITNESS AND SPORTS
Vol. 8, Iss. 3 Year 2019 Int. J. Phys. E d. Fit. Spor ts , 32-41| 32
Received 02 June 2019
Accepted 26 August 2019
www.ijpefs.com
Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, Executive Functioning,
and Stress: Exploring a Process Model in Adolescents
Sarah Ullrich-French a *, Anne E. Cox a
a Washington State University, PO Box 641410, Pullman, WA 99164, USA
*Corresponding Author Email: sullrich@wsu.edu
Abstract: The association of trait mindfulness with emotional well-being has been found to be mediated by
executive functioning. However, there is little empirical evidence on this process in adolescents. Therefore, this
study tested these associations using an adolescent sample participating in a physical education yoga class. This
study extended previous research by also including self-compassion and state mindfulness in addition to trait
mindfulness. A prospective design employed a pilot yoga curriculum in a high school physical education class.
Adolescents (N = 20) completed assessments of trait mindfulness and self-compassion at baseline, state
mindfulness experienced during yoga classes over the 12 week physical education yoga class, and six indices of
executive functioning and stress at the end of the 12 weeks. Path analysis was used to test the process model
found by Short with the extensions of self-compassion and state mindfulness. Self-compassion directly predicted
problems with activity level impulse control and indirectly predicted stress. When self-compassion did not
predict specific executive functioning indicators, state mindfulness experienced in yoga predicted stress. This
study contributes preliminary evidence that suggests further research into the unique effects of trait and state
mindfulness as well as self-compassion on adolescent cognitive and affective outcomes. Results support the use of
contemplative practices, such as yoga, in adolescent physical education as a strategy to boost emotion regulation
processes.
Key Words: State Mindfulness, Physical Education, Psychological Resilience, Affect, Yoga
Sarah Ullrich-French is an Associate
Professor of Kinesiology at Washington
State University. She received her MS
and PhD in Kinesiology with an emphasis
on Sport and Exercise Psychology from
Purdue University. Dr. Ullrich-French is
an Associate Editor for Sport, Exercise,
and Performance Psychology. Her
research examines social-contextual
factors as well as intra-individual factors in motivational
processes for physical activity. Currently her work focuses on
the interface of mindfulness and self-compassion in body
image and physical activity motivation.
Anne Cox is an Associate Professor
of Kinesiology at Washington State
University. She received her MA
from the University of Virginia and
PhD from Purdue University in the
specialty of Sport and Exercise
Psychology. Dr. Coxcurrently serves
as the Secretary/Treasurer for the
North American Society for the
Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity. Her research
broadly addresses key determinants of physical activity
behavior. Her current area of emphasis investigates how
body image variables impact physical activity motivation
and behavior with an emphasis on the yoga context and the
role of mindfulness and self-compassion in positive physical
activity experiences. Dr. Cox has completed 200 hours of
yoga teacher training and currently teaches yoga.
1. Introduction
Lazarus and Folkman [1] conceptualize
psychological stress as an emotional response to
one’s appraisal of an imbalance between a stressor
and one’s perceived ability to cope with it. Perceived
pressure, unrealistic expectations, unfavorable
comparisons to others and fear of failure contribute
to appraisal processes that fuel psychological stress
DOI: 10.26524/ijpefs1934
RESEARCH ARTICLE
Sarah Ullrich-French, Anne E. Cox /2019
Vol. 8, Iss. 3, Year 2019 Int. J. Phys. E d. Fit. Spor ts , 32-41 | 33
for adolescents [2]. Thus understanding mechanisms
that impact the appraisal process is a critical step in
mitigating negative adolescent emotional
experiences. Mindfulness-based school interventions
have recently exploded in order to enhance
adolescent cognitive and emotional well-being [3-5].
Although the emerging evidence is promising it is
clear that we have much to learn about the processes
explaining how mindfulness serves this purpose
during adolescence [3- 6].
Mindfulness is defined as present-focused
attention with characteristics of nonjudgment and
openness to one’s experience [7, 8]. The processes
underlying the effects of mindfulness on stress are
not fully elucidated [e.g., 9], particularly with
adolescent samples. Mindfulness research with
adults demonstrates that mindfulness is associated
with neurocognitive self-regulation processes of
executive functions, attention, and memory [10].
Teper, Segal, & Inzlicht [11] proposed a model
suggesting that mindfulness activates self-regulation
processes through the present-moment awareness
and non-judgmental acceptance of emotional
experiences, thus providing cues which stimulate
executive functions in order to modulate emotional
well-being. Thus, mindfulness may reduce a negative
stress response by way of executive functions
moderating the appraisal process, to apply Lazarus
and Folkman’s perspective. This model theoretically
links mindfulness with emotional experiences, such
as stress, by way of executive functioning, a
neuropsychological construct representing skills
involved in forming, maintaining, and shifting mental
sets used in goal-directed behavior [12].
Short, Mazmanian, Oinonen, and Mushquash
[13] explored a model to evaluate whether the
relationship between trait mindfulness and
emotional well-being was mediated by executive
functioning and self-regulation using a two phase
study in young adults. In phase one, self-reported
dispositional mindfulness and neurocognitive
performance were assessed. Four weeks later, in
phase two, self-reported executive functioning, self-
regulation, and emotional well-being were assessed.
Results supported a model where self-reported trait
mindfulness at time one directly predicted time two
assessed self-reported executive functioning and self-
regulation, and indirectly predicted emotional well-
being. A recent study found inverse associations
between distress and trait mindfulness and executive
functioning in a cross sectional study with early
adolescents [14], however, there is limited evidence
of how these variables associate in adolescent
populations. In addition to trait mindfulness, there is
evidence that state or situational mindfulness has
independent associations with emotional well-being
[15-17]. However, there is no research examining
trait and state mindfulness side by side as potential
mechanisms for explaining stress in adolescents.
Self-compassion is another core mechanism
that may help explain adolescent emotional well-
being. Self-compassion involves a compassionate
stance towards one’s self in times of failure or
suffering through self-kindness, a sense of common
humanity, and mindfulness [18] and has received
initial support for adolescents’ adaptive regulation of
cognitions and emotions [19]. Although there is some
conceptual overlap with mindfulness, self-
compassion explains unique variance in emotional
well-being beyond mindfulness in adults [20, 21].
Though self-compassion strategies have been
included as part of mindfulness programming in
schools (see 22, 23) we only have limited evidence
linking aspects of self-compassion with adolescent
stress [19, 24, 25] and no empirical tests linking self-
compassion to adolescent executive functioning.
Given the similar functions underlying mindfulness
and self-compassion, executive functioning may also
serve to mediate the association between self-
compassion and emotional responses. Exploring
these processes is especially important given the
interest in contemplative programs, such as yoga, for
youth and limited empirical evidence.
The purpose of this study was to extend the
model supported by Short et al. [13] to an adolescent
sample and to include both trait and state
mindfulness as well as self-compassion to predict
stress by way of executive functioning. We tested our
proposed model (see Figure 1) with a pilot study
employing a 12-week yoga curriculum.
Sarah Ullrich-French, Anne E. Cox /2019
Vol. 8, Iss. 3, Year 2019 Int. J. Phys. E d. Fit. Spor ts , 32-41 | 34
Figure 1. Hypothesized Model
This model was relevant to test in this
context given that no mean changes were observed in
trait level mindfulness, self-compassion, or stress1.
Based on Short et al. we hypothesized that trait
mindfulness and self-compassion at time one would
negatively predict problems with executive
functioning directly and stress indirectly at time two.
Based on Brown Ryan [15], Kiken et al. [16], and
Weinstein et al. [17], we hypothesized that students’
average levels of state mindfulness experienced
during the yoga classes across the 12 weeks would
negatively predict stress directly.
2. Methods
2.1 Participants and Procedures
Participants (N = 20) were primarily Caucasian
(85.0%) and female (90%) and in 10th through 12th
grades (Mage = 16.45, SD = 1.0). Twenty-three
students participated in the yoga curriculum2 as part
of their physical education (PE) class (one student
joined late and was not included; another student
had developmental difficulties and one student did
not complete the final assessments). Each week of
the 12-week curriculum was led by a certified yoga
instructor (200-hour Anusara Yoga Teacher Training
certification program) and focused on a theme (e.g.,
self-compassion; overcoming obstacles) that was
integrated into two yoga sessions that week (1 50-
minute and 1 80-minute). Each yoga practice
included an introduction and centering exercise,
practice moving through and holding different asanas
(i.e., poses) and a closing and meditation exercise.
Students in this class typically elect this class to fulfill
their PE requirement, do not participation in school
sports, may have low interest in traditional physical
education, and are mostly female. The majority
(90%) of participants reported beginning to
beginning intermediate yoga experience. Participants
completed the measures of trait mindfulness and
self-compassion the week before beginning a 12-
week yoga program (time one) in their physical
education class. State mindfulness was assessed
immediately following one yoga class per week. At
the end of twelve weeks, participants completed the
measures of executive functioning and stress (time
two).
2. 2 Measures
Trait mindfulness was assessed using
Cardaciotto, Herbert, Forman, Moitra, & Farrow’s
[26] 20-item Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale. Two
subscales capture trait awareness (e.g., “I am aware
of what thoughts are passing through my mind”) and
acceptance (e.g., “There are things I try not to think
about”). Responses fall on a 5-point Likert scale of
never to very often, with higher scores on each scale
reflecting higher levels of mindful awareness or
acceptance. This measure has supporting evidence of
internal consistency reliability and validity [26].
Alpha reliability was low for both trait mindfulness
scales. Several items3 had low inter-item correlations.
With these items removed, reliability improved for
the awareness scale (α = .71) and the acceptance
scale (α = .69).
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Vol. 8, Iss. 3, Year 2019 Int. J. Phys. E d. Fit. Spor ts , 32-41 | 35
Self-compassion was assessed using Neff’s [27] Self-
Compassion Scale. The 26-item scale assesses three
positive (self-kindness, common humanity,
mindfulness) and three negative (self-judgement,
isolation, over-identification) dimensions underlying
self-compassion. Participants respond to how often
they experience a particular response to pain and
suffering (e.g., “I see my failings as part of the human
condition” – common humanity; “When I’m feeling
down I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that is
wrong” – over-identification) using a 5 point scale
ranging from almost never to almost always. A total
average score was calculated where higher scores
reflect higher self-compassion. Conceptual and
psychometric properties of the scale are supported,
including for adolescents [28, 29].
Stress was assessed using the Perceived
Stress Scale [30]. The PSS items tap into the
perceived level of stress experienced in the last week
(modified from last month to provide a more
proximal indicator of perceived stress; similar
modifications are not expected to decrease validity)
(e.g., In the last week, how often have you felt
difficulties were piling up so high that you could not
overcome them”). The PSS contains 14 items and is
scored on a 5 point scale with response options
ranging from never to very often. The PSS has
supporting evidence for psychometric properties
[30] and use in adolescent samples (e.g., 24).
Executive functioning was assessed with the
self-report form of the Delis Rating of Executive
Functions (D-REF) [31], a rating scale of reported
behavioral problems for 11-18 year-olds. There are
36 items asking the individual to rate the frequency
of behaviors in the last 6 months on a 4-point scale
ranging from seldom or never to daily. These items
are used to calculate six scores or indices of executive
function. Three scores represent dysfunction relative
to 1) behavior (“I say things I wish I hadn’t”), 2)
emotion (“I try to control my anger but I just can’t”),
and 3) cognition (“I have a difficult time putting my
thoughts down in writing”). There are also three
clinically derived scores representing dysfunction of
1) attention & working memory (“I get confused
when I have two or more things to do at the same
time”), 2) activity level impulse control (“I just can’t
help doing things that I’m told not to do”), and 3)
compliance & anger management (“I get really upset
when people interfere with what I’m doing”). The six
indices are presented as T scores, age and gender
adjusted, with values of 50 representing the norm
sample average. Evidence supports reliability,
content, construct, and concurrent validity [31].
Internal consistency reliability information was not
available for scores obtained through the DREF
online interface.
State mindfulness experienced during the
yoga classes was assessed immediately following
class each week using the State Mindfulness Scale for
Physical Activity (SMS-PA) [32]. The SMS-PA has six
items each capturing mindfulness of mental (e.g., “I
was aware of different emotions that arose in me”)
and physical objects (e.g., “I felt present in my body”)
during a specific experience. Responses to how much
each item was experienced fall on a 5-point scale
ranging from not at all to very much. All 12 items
were averaged with higher scores representing
higher mindfulness during the yoga class. Weekly
scores were averaged across the twelve weeks to
represent average state mindfulness experienced in
the yoga class. Initial evidence supports the internal
consistency reliability, factorial, and construct
validity using adult samples [32] and with youth
samples as young as 10 years-old [33]. Alpha
reliability was good across assessments (αrange= .76 -
.97) and when averaged across time points (αaverage =
.90).
2. 3 Data Analysis
Data screening for missing values and
normality was conducted and descriptive statistics
were calculated. Hypothesized mediational models
were tested with path models using Mplus 7. Time
one scores of mindfulness (i.e., trait acceptance, and
awareness) and self-compassion were entered into
the model directly predicting executive functioning at
time two and indirectly predicting stress at time two
through executive functioning as per Short et al. [13].
Average state mindfulness during the yoga classes
across the 12 weeks was also entered as a direct
predictor of stress at the end of the 12 weeks (see
Figure 1). Six separate models were run to test each
Sarah Ullrich-French, Anne E. Cox /2019
Vol. 8, Iss. 3, Year 2019 Int. J. Phys. E d. Fit. Spor ts , 32-41 | 36
of the six indices of executive functioning. To obtain
95% confidence intervals, we conducted
bootstrapping specifying 5000 samples to reduce
standardized error bias and for type I error
correction (see [34]). Completely standardized path
coefficients were reported along with absolute and
incremental model fit indices [35]. Given the
exploratory nature of our study and small sample
size, we report exact p values, confidence intervals
and effect sizes for broad interpretation as reliance
on significance levels is limiting. Confidence intervals
that do not cross 0.00 were interpreted as reliable.
Effect sizes were interpreted as minimal (.04),
moderate (.25), and strong (.64).
3. Results
There was negligible missing data (.02%) and
Little’s MCAR test was non-significant (χ2= 40.34
(47), p = .74), therefore Expectation Maximization
imputation was used on all constructs except
executive functioning indices (.01% missing but not
imputed as recommended [31] and state mindfulness
(used all available weekly state scores to create
average state scores, average of 8.6 of 11 scores
available). Data screening showed variables to be
approximately normal. See Table 1 for descriptive
statistics.
In all the path models the acceptance and
awareness trait mindfulness subscales did not
significantly predict any of the indices of executive
functioning. We therefore removed these subscales
and proceeded to test the six mediation models with
only self-compassion and state mindfulness. All
models provided good fit and explained 17% to 46%
of the variance in stress (see Table 2). Self-
compassion significantly predicted behavioral
functioning and activity level impulse control, with a
significant indirect effect to stress through activity
level impulse control.
Table 1. Means, Standard Deviations, Internal Consistency Reliability, and Bivariate Correlations.
1
3
4
5
Mean
SD
Possible Range
1 Self Compassion
2.55
0.69
1-5
2 Acceptance^
.24
1.57
0.42
1-5
3 Awareness^
.58*
2.94
0.43
1-5
4 State Mindfulness
.17
.16
2.74
0.56
1-5
5 Stress
-.29
.08
-.37
2.34
0.56
1-5
6 BF
-.42
-.11
-.30
.46*
57.75
8.15
20-80
7 EMF
-.19
-.06
-.11
.42
57.65
8.28
20-80
8 CF
-.20
.08
-.16
.28
59.70
8.22
20-80
9 AWM
-.24
.09
-.06
.24
59.45
8.31
20-80
10 AIC
-.35
.06
-.20
.64**
57.61
6.93
20-80
11 CAM
-.14
.02
-.05
.22
56.63
8.35
20-80
α 1
.93
.71
.90
.81
Notes. ^Trait mindfulness subscales; BF = behavior functioning, EMF = emotional functioning, CF = cognitive
functioning, AWM = attention & working memory, AIC = activity level & impulse control, CAM = compliance
& anger management. * p < .05 **p < .01.
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Vol. 8, Iss. 3, Year 2019 Int. J. Phys. E d. Fit. Spor ts , 32-41| 37
Table 2. Mediation Path Analysis Result
Mediator
Direct Effects
(95% CI)
Indirect
Effect
(95 % CI)
Model Fit
R2
Executive
Functioning
Indices
self-
compassion
to mediator
mediator to
stress
state
mindfulness
to stress
self-
compassion
χ2(2)
p
RMSEA
SRMR
CFI
Mediator
Stress
Behavioral
-.42, p=.02
(-.72 to -.12)
.39, p=.09
(.01 to .76)
-.27, p=.19
(-.59 to .06)
-.16, p=.17
(-.36 to .03)
1.59
.45
.00
.08
1.00
.18
.23
Emotional
-.19, p=.28
(-.48 to .09)
39, p=.09
(.01 to .77)
-.34, p=.04
(-.60 to- .07)
-.08, p=.34
(-.20 to .06)
0.87
.65
.00
.05
1.00
.04
.27
Cognitive
-.20, p=.39
(-.56 to .17)
.23, p=.32
(-.16 to.62)
-.34, p=.05
(-.62 to - .06)
-.05, p=.58
(-.18 to .09)
1.29
.53
.00
.06
1.00
.04
.17
AWM
-.24, p=.25
(-.59 to .10)
.22, p=.26
(.10 to .55)
-.36, p=.03
(-.63 to - .09)
-.05, p=.46
(-.18 to .07)
0.83
.66
.00
.05
1.00
.06
.19
AIC
-.43, p=.02
(-.74 to -.13)
.64, p=.00
(.31 to .96)
-.19, p=.30
(-.50 to .11)
-.28, p=.05
(-.50 to -.05)
1.44
.49
.00
.10
1.00
.19
.46
CAM
-.14, p=.52
(-.48 to .21)
.20, p=.38
(-.19 to.59)
-.36, p=.04
(-.64 to -.09)
-.03, p=.67
(-.14 to .08)
1.05
.59
.00
.05
1.00
.02
.18
Notes. AWM = attention & working memory, AIC = activity level & impulse control, CAM = compliance & anger management.
Sarah Ullrich-French, Anne E. Cox /2019
Vol. 8, Iss. 3, Year 2019 Int. J. Phys. E d. Fit. Spor ts , 32-41| 38
All paths predicting executive functioning
were negative. These results reflect minimal to
moderate effect sizes (R2 = .18, .19).The average
experience of state mindfulness during the 12 weeks
of yoga classes predicted stress in all models except
for behavioral functioning and activity level impulse
control, demonstrating a robust negative association
with stress even with executive functioning included
in the model. The effect sizes predicting stress were
moderate (R2 = .17 - .46).
4. Discussion
This study extended the literature with an
initial exploration of state and trait mindfulness as
well as self-compassion in predicting adolescent
executive functioning and stress. Contemplative
interventions with youth are popular, yet we know
relatively little about the processes underpinning
mindfulness and compassion. Preliminary support
for the hypothesized role of executive functioning in
explaining the relationship between self-compassion
and stress was found in the prediction of behavioral
functioning and activity level impulse control, with a
significant indirect effect to stress through activity
level impulse control. These results are consistent
with Short et al [13] who also supported a model
with self-reported dysfunction in executive
functioning mediating the association of trait level
psychological resilience (i.e., mindfulness) and
negative emotional well-being (i.e., negative affect).
Emerging empirical evidence linking self-compassion
with the emotional well-being of adolescents [19, 24]
coupled with the moderate effect sizes in our results
indicate that self-compassion as a resilience factor in
adolescents is worthy of more rigorous exploration.
Impulse control has been linked with
managing emotional responses with short-term
emotional relief over longer-term goal directed
emotional well-being [36]. Self-compassion may
reduce problems with impulse control and associated
behavior regulation problems by allowing one to
experience suffering in a gentle way and reducing the
need to avoid negative emotional experiences
through behavioral responses, such as speaking
before thinking. Even with a limited sample size, we
were able to detect these associations, with minimal
to moderate effect sizes supporting our
conceptualization of how self-compassion can impact
psychological and behavioral manifestations of well-
being.
Both trait, or dispositional levels of
psychological variables, such as self-compassion, and
state level experiences may be important to consider
when examining the effects of contemplative
interventions and is supported by work with adults
demonstrating the independent effects of state and
trait mindfulness (e.g., 15). Thus, interventions that
foster state mindfulness and self-compassion may
reduce stress responses, regardless of students’
dispositional tendencies in mindfulness. Even in
cases where students’ dispositional tendencies do
not change, as was the case in this study, these state-
level experiences may effect change in well-being.
These results reflect recent systematic reviews of the
mindfulness literature which suggest that more than
half of mindfulness interventions do not demonstrate
significant self-reported mindfulness change [37] and
that assessment of mindfulness practice is a
significant predictor of emotional well-being [38, 17].
Further work using more rigorous experimental
research designs could shed more light on the
relative importance of changes in dispositions versus
state experiences during contemplative-based
interventions. Further, although we aligned our
model with the procedures of Short et al [13], true
mediation should be tested with executive
functioning assessed prior to stress [39].
The trait mindfulness subscales (acceptance,
awareness) did not significantly predict any of the
indices of executive functioning. It is unclear if this
was due to marginal reliability of these scales which
have limited use with adolescent samples and/or low
power. The Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale was used
in this study as it conceptually aligned with the
suggested mechanisms for the effectiveness of
mindfulness through scales of both acceptance and
awareness [11], however, validation with adolescent
samples is needed. Research with adults has
sometimes demonstrated the stronger role of self-
compassion relative to mindfulness when predicting
emotional well-being [20, 21], which could explain
this finding. Further research is necessary to test the
Sarah Ullrich-French, Anne E. Cox /2019
Vol. 8, Iss. 3, Year 2019 Int. J. Phys. E d. Fit. Spor ts , 32-41 | 39
hypothesized model with trait mindfulness, executive
functioning and stress in larger, more representative
adolescent samples.
Our results should be considered as
preliminary and viewed within limitations of sample
and design. Future studies can build from this
preliminary evidence by examining larger, more
diverse samples with the use of more rigorous
experimental research designs to detail the unique
effects of trait mindfulness, self-compassion, and
state mindfulness in adolescent emotion regulation
processes. The representation of executive
functioning also deserves attention as there are a
broad array of approaches to study executive
functioning. Further research exploring more
rigorous assessment of executive functioning is
needed as well as both behavioral and self-reported
assessments [40].
5. Conclusions
This study explored the association of
mindfulness and self-compassion with executive
functioning and stress in adolescents. By including
self-compassion in this study we extended Short et
al.’s findings to a construct that is both conceptually
and empirically distinct from mindfulness. There is
also recent interest in the role of mindful states, for
example in reducing rumination, supporting further
exploration of state mindfulness. This study also
provides promising evidence supporting further
examination of the role of state mindfulness and self-
compassion in reducing adolescent stress, areas of
study with minimal empirical research evidence, but
high popularity and enthusiasm for implementation.
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Funding
This study was not funded by any grant
Acknowledgements
We would like to thank Amy Cole and Peter Anderson for their assistance with collecting data for
this study. We would also like to thank Kristine Petterson for her contributions to the conceptualization of,
and teaching, the yoga class and Tara Briggs for her collaboration with us in this project through the
Pullman High School physical education program.
Conflict of interest
None of the authors have any conflicts of interest to declare.
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