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22 May 2000
Yoga, Meditation Help Teen Sex Offenders
by George Atkinson

David Derezotes, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Work, says the relaxation techniques taught through yoga, meditation and breathing exercises reduced stress, anxiety and sexual impulses among a group of teen sex offenders he observed over a two-year period. His observations will appear in an upcoming issue of Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal.

The 14 boys, five of whom stayed with the program the entire two years, were clients at an Intermountain West human service agency at which yoga and meditation were used during treatment. They were between the ages of 15 and 18.

Adolescents, Derezotes writes, commit a sizeable number of sex crimes -- up to 20 percent of all rapes in the country and up to one-half of all child sexual abuse. "Early intervention with adolescent sex offenders is important because they are likely to continue to molest as they age," he writes, citing previous research. "At least one-half of adult sex offenders began offending in their own adolescence or earlier."

In responding to increasing rates of adolescent sex offenders, there are now more than 650 inpatient and outpatient treatment centers in the United States that offer some sort of sex offender program. There are about a dozen adolescent treatment centers in Utah, but only a handful that specialize in sex offenses.

Most treatment programs for teens usually teach the offenders to replace their inappropriate sexual fantasies with more acceptable ones involving consensual sex among peers, to avoid situations which may lead to the offending behavior, and to find alternative activities that can be stimulating but do not harm anyone.

But Derezotes, a licensed clinical social worker, found that teaching these teenagers relaxation techniques also had a profound affect on their behaviors and attitudes.

"It boils down to, let's look at people as holistic beings who have a body, mind and spirit connection," Derezotes says. "Most traditions in the world recognize that there is a spiritual component to being human. Ignoring that in treatment may be contributing more to the problem than to the cure. That's what these kids seem to be telling us."

The youngsters spent several hours each week performing yoga movements, deep breathing exercises and meditating with an instructor.

Most of the boys enjoyed the training and all of them reported benefit from using the exercises outside class to help with their control problems, Derezotes writes. They had an improved ability to relax and reduce anxiety levels, and were better able to recognize their thoughts and feelings. Significantly, none of the boys relapsed with sexual offenses during the time of the study.

The techniques, the boys noted, helped them control their anger impulses -- impulses which often led to abuse. One said, "Controlling my breathing gives me real control over my mind, not superficial control ... I am definitely less likely to offend now, as I have more control and less anger than before."

Another added: "I can replace unwanted thoughts much more easily now. I try not to control my feelings, just feel them. Otherwise, they can get stuffed and come out some other way, as abuse."

One of the trainers working with the boys said she noticed an increase in the self-esteem of those who continued in the program for several months. The boys had improved posture, held their heads up, and spontaneously used the breathing exercises outside class to help with stressful situations. "She believed that the program would help the general population of teens in public schools cope with stress," Derezotes writes.

Since the small sample size limited the generalization of the findings, Derezotes believes similar yoga and meditation programs should be duplicated and tested at other treatment sites with larger populations. But the techniques also should be considered for the general school-age population, he adds.

"I think content like this could be taught in school for everybody," he says. "All young people could have opportunities to learn how to relax and develop their mind-body-spirit connection."

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