At a San Francisco home for drug-addicted adolescent girls, yoga class is not optional. Ten minutes before teacher Natasha Zaslove begins her class on this damp January afternoon, most of the girls are gathered around a jukebox blaring an Alicia Keys tune, eager for the only exercise that is a regular part of their recovery program. A few of the girls need to be recruited from the TV room, where they are snuggled under some afghans. Zaslove makes no threats. She simply pokes her head into the room, smiles and says hello, and reminds the girls that it’s time for yoga.
As the sun descends in the sky, the girls begin with Suryanamaskar–one briskly paced Sun Salutation right after another. Zaslove keeps them constantly moving–lowering into Chaturanga Dandasana, swooping into Upward Dog, and jumping from Downward Dog to Uttanasana–but with intention, focused on the breath. The vigor of Sun Salutations took many of these girls by surprise at first. “I didn’t realize I would sweat during yoga or that it would be work,” says Tonya (not her real name). “I thought we would be asleep or chanting for half the class.”
Tonya, who stood at the front of the room with her arms crossed in front of her chest and her back to Zaslove for the first yoga class, is now one of Zaslove’s most eager students. “When I’m in yoga,” she says, “I’m only focused on yoga.” Her favorite part of class is Savasana (Corpse Pose), and she is not alone in this. When it comes time for relaxation, the girls lie down gratefully to relish the stillness. “I can sometimes feel the emotion welling up in the room during Savasana,” says Zaslove, who was once a prosecutor in juvenile court. “These girls have access to counselors, but the yoga gives them another medium to work things through.”
In fact, it seems that it’s rest they need more than anything–the concentrated movement of a vinyasa is just a way of getting them there. Tired enough already, one girl unfurls her sticky mat at the start of class, lies down with her eyes closed, and stays there until Zaslove asks everyone to come out of Savasana.
Adolescence can be exhausting. It’s a time, writes Mary Pipher in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Souls of Adolescent Girls (Putnam, 1994), when teens “put aside their authentic selves and…display only a small portion of their gifts.” Though Pipher is referring specifically to young women, the same could be said of young men. According to many who work with adolescents, Pipher included, the world that teens face today is exponentially more difficult than the world their parents faced as teens. School shootings. Gun violence. Date rape. Sexually transmitted diseases. Divorce. Adolescence, it seems, has become a kind of preterm adulthood, a time when kids face adult issues and concerns but with the emotional intelligence and coping skills of children–and with little societal support for making the transition.
One in 10 adolescents suffers from a debilitating mental health problem, of which anxiety disorders are the most common. According to a University of Maryland study published in January in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the number of adolescents being prescribed psychiatric medications more than doubled from 1987 to 1996. And from 1980 to 1997, the rate of suicide increased by 11 percent for 15- to 19-year-olds, and by 109 percent for those between the ages of 10 and 14.
Such statistics are frightening, but our tendency to regard adolescence with fear and to brand it as a time of struggle and alienation may be preventing us from seeing it as a time of sacred transition and spiritual possibility. It is during our teen years that we begin to explore and define our identity, to carve out a path for ourselves, to practice the skill of making life choices. During these tender years, we face challenges that often accompany us into adulthood–of self-acceptance, adjusting to change, and dealing with conflict. “Adolescents, above all else, are trying to define who they are, even though their parents, peers, and the media create strong stories about who they are supposed to be,” says Kim Tanzer, a Palo Alto, California, yoga teacher who works with teens.
More and more adolescents are doing yoga these days–in high schools, juvenile halls, churches, yoga studios, homes for pregnant girls, and even at Girl Scout meetings. The diversity of environments can present challenges for teachers, but the gift of yoga for adolescents is precisely that it helps them move beyond the differences that define and limit their experience of themselves.
Yoga is both an individual and a universal practice, a form of self-study and a mode of social education, as well as a stabilizing force in the presence of change. So it’s hard to imagine a teen who wouldn’t benefit from it. “Yoga awakens their most basic nature of being alive, of caring for their bodies and relaxing into the space of mental freedom,” says Christy Brock, a teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, who recently produced the DVD Yoga for Teens and created a Web-based network for yoga teachers who work with teens (www.yogaminded.com).
“There is always the pressure, no matter how good your self-esteem is, to be more beautiful and thinner,” says Makendra Silverman, an 18-year-old high school student in Ashland, Oregon, who started yoga at age 16 when her cross-country-track coach introduced her to it. Perhaps at no other time in our lives are we as invested in what others think of us as in our teenage years, when the painful habits of comparing ourselves with others and responding to peer pressure take hold. “I try not to let what people think bug me, but I do,” says 13-year-old Devin Clancy, a student in Holiday Johnson’s Standing on Your Own Two Feet teen yoga program in Portland, Oregon. “I don’t care what people who don’t know me think, but my friends are another story.”
The instability of a teenager’s self-image is a normal developmental stage, though it can make the average teenager seem crazy to an adult, notes Pipher in Reviving Ophelia. In fact, there may be a biological explanation for the inability of teens and adults to see eye-to-eye. A research team led by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital has documented a significant difference between the teen brain and the adult brain. In the team’s study, teens who were asked to identify emotions on faces on a computer screen activated the amygdala, the part of the brain that mediates fear and gut reactions, more often than the frontal lobe, which governs reason. As teens mature and their perceptions become based more on reason than on feeling, the brain activity in such a task shifts to the frontal lobe.
This malleability of self-image and weakness of reason can be a liability. “Teens are just beginning to find out who they are, and they will try many things–some risky–to find out,” says Mary Lynn Fitton, creator of the Art of Yoga Project, which collected yoga-inspired writings, paintings, and photographs by young women around the world to be published as a book (see www.yogagirlgallery.com). Exploring and testing boundaries, adolescents often start experimenting with sex and drugs long before they have the confidence and judgment to do so safely and responsibly. Some develop addictions or make fatal mistakes while under the influence; others find themselves pregnant before their 16th birthday. Johnson herself was a teenage mother, an experience that fuels her mission to help young women “develop the self-confidence and courage they need so desperately.” Because teens care most about what other teens think, both Johnson and Fitton actively recruit their adolescent students to become peer mentors and teach yoga to other teens.
Yoga can strengthen character by challenging teens to trust themselves and to stay present through difficulty. As author and teen teacher Thia Luby points out in Yoga for Teens (Clear Light, 2000), yoga has been used for centuries “to build character and compassion and is a basis for learning unconditional love of oneself and others.” Not surprisingly, many teens report that yoga endows them with patience and tolerance, which helps them get along with their families. It can also help them hear their inherent inner wisdom above the loud voices of their peers.
“Yoga’s something you can’t be good or bad at. Everyone’s got their own way of doing it,” says 13-year-old Diane Grewe, who is new to Johnson’s Wednesday-evening class. As for Silverman, yoga has helped her face high school’s inevitable cliques and popularity contests with “slight amusement” rather than frustration. “When I practice yoga,” she says, “I feel whole. I feel nothing is beyond my reach.”
An Age of Anxiety
The summer before starting high school, when Risa was 13, she went on a family vacation to Peru and lost a lot of weight, ostensibly because she didn’t like the food. When she returned from vacation and started her freshman year, her dramatic weight loss got a lot of positive attention from her peers. Then Risa stopped eating altogether. Just a few weeks into her freshman year, she was admitted to Stanford University’s residential clinic for eating disorders and confined to bed for six weeks, until she was no longer at risk for heart failure.
Anorexia is about more than a desire to be thin. Those being treated for it, and their loved ones, learn that underneath the external goal of weight loss, anorexics are often desperate to gain some measure of control in what feels like a chaotic and unpredictable world. Not coincidentally, 86 percent of anorexics develop the disease before they are out of their teens.
Risa, who turned 14 while lying in a hospital bed, says that girls with eating disorders feel split into two separate people: “the girl who wants to get better and the really anorexic, obsessive-compulsive, frail little girl who gets stronger every time you don’t eat, every time your pants get baggier, every time someone says you look thin.” The irony, she observes, is that although her anorexia made her feel willful and disciplined, it “was actually running me.” In fact, recent research suggests a correlation between eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). According to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, 20 to 40 percent of children with OCD develop one or more eating disorders.
It’s hard enough to live in a body that is undergoing puberty. Many teens also have to deal with big changes in their parents’ lives–divorce, remarriage, or frequent moves. Matt Harris, 19, suffered from anxiety so profound that he couldn’t even walk into a restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, before yoga helped him cope. There are some practitioners in the field of adolescent anxiety disorders concerned that because adults are habituated to a high degree of anxiety, they may be “normalizing” an unhealthy level of anxiety in their children. “A significant number of kids really do have distressing, impairing anxiety,” says John Piacentini, director of the UCLA Child OCD, Anxiety, and Tic Disorders Program.
Whether or not teens suffer from disabling anxiety, yoga and meditation can help them feel grounded and centered while the world spins around them. When a recent study at the Medical College of Georgia set out to show that meditation could lower high blood pressure in teens, the results confirmed the researchers’ physiological theories, but they also indicated that meditation benefited teens in many other areas of their lives–positively influencing their ability to concentrate at school, for example, and decreasing absenteeism and behavior problems. Students also reported that meditation helped them to better handle interpersonal relationships, get sounder sleep, reduce stress, alleviate headaches, and increase their energy.
Yoga teachers like the Los Angeles-based Seane Corn are convinced by their experience teaching teens that the practice can help adolescents deal more skillfully with an unbalanced and sometimes unsafe world. Corn teaches yoga at Children of the Night, a nonprofit organization in Van Nuys, California, dedicated to helping teenage prostitutes; she also offers private sessions to girls who suffer from OCD, eating disorders, and self-esteem issues.
Corn observes that across sociocultural and racial lines,the kids she works with “don’t know how to define themselves. They are inundated with information, but there is crucial info that’s missing. They are ‘supposed’ to be sexy, smart, and confident, but they can’t reconcile who they are ‘supposed’ to be with who they really are.” Corn, who struggled with OCD herself in her teenage years, sees OCD as an acute manifestation of an understandable attempt by teens to run their own lives. “Their obsessions are a way of getting focus; it makes them feel they’re in control,” she says. “But yoga teaches them how to recognize anxiety in the moment and challenge the obsessive behavior. They learn to stay in their bodies and breathe deeply–and trust that if they stay long enough, the anxiety feeling will change.”
Risa nicknamed the anorexic inside her “Annie” so that she might talk back when Annie was telling her not to eat. She now reflects back on her time in the hospital with gratitude for her health and what her illness taught her: “We need to nourish our bodies–with food, with discipline, but also with freedom.” She regularly accompanies her mother to yoga class as part of her newfound commitment to appreciate the little things and keep the connection between her mind and her body clear.
When Corn initially started teaching yoga at Children of the Night, she was forbidden from touching the students for fear of triggering traumatic body memories. Eventually, Corn got the organization’s leadership to agree that she could touch her students if she first asked for and received their permission to do so. Now the students line up to get hugged before and after class. Given the choice, they choose love.
One 13-year-old girl Corn worked with created her own self-soothing meditation as part of her healing process. First, she imagines a hollow purple tree decorated with her favorite things. Then, one by one, she invites those she loves into the tree. Only when her first guest leaves does she invite the next loved one in. “In her imagination,” marvels Corn, “she’s arranged it so that she has the power to invite them in and ask them to leave. She initiates everything.”
When Miguel Gonzales was 15 years old, he was sent to juvenile hall in New York state for armed robbery, joining the ranks of more than 100,000 delinquent American teens. Gonzales spent the next five years doing time for various offenses ranging from robbery to assault. Now 21 years old and a proud father of a son, Elijah, he is a youth advocate at the Lineage Project, a New York-based organization that brings meditation and yoga to incarcerated and at-risk youth.
Any parent of a teenager can tell you that adolescents test the boundaries of authority; it’s just part of the process of growing up. Teens who lack supervision, who have been neglected by their parents, or who are disadvantaged due to societal and racial prejudices are often at special risk for having trouble with the rules of society and thus running afoul of the law. “Mr. Extravagant was my nickname,” Gonzales recalls. “Since I wanted everyone to respect and know me, I would rob people and spend my money on pot or alcohol to share. It made me feel big and rich, but I was chasing something.”
Tawanna Kane, executive director of the Lineage Project, observes that many of the children she works with “are filled with so much suffering that it overwhelms their ability to make clear choices or connect with the consequences of their choices.” But Soren Gordhamer, the project’s creator and author of a book about meditation for teens, Just Say Om! (Adams Media, 2001), detects a silver lining: “In many ways, youth in more challenging situations are more receptive to the possibility and power of awakening.”
When faced with disciplinary problems in teens, adults often react punitively, by clamping down to control behavior and claiming to be the final arbiter of right and wrong. But Gordhamer takes a more yogic approach: “So much of the effort with teens seems to be focused on changing or correcting them. What comes across is that there’s something wrong with them, an idea they will usually fiercely resist.” Rather than correcting and critiquing, the teachers at the Lineage Project aim to help teens look more deeply at “what is true for them.” Explains Gonzales, who co-teaches Lineage’s yoga and meditation classes, “Kids may seem hostile, but responding by just getting firmer is a big mistake.”
Mixed messages about drugs, as well as the fact that they are illicit, make them incredibly alluring to the teenage sensibility, in which experimentation and exploration are highly valued. What drives kids to abuse drugs is no different from what motivates adults with addictions: When life is too painful or intense, a high can take the edge off. While Gordhamer doesn’t condone drug use, he doesn’t condemn the users. “When kids talk about what it is like to be on drugs,” he notes, “they often say, ‘My body is relaxed, and my mind is not worried about anything.’ When I tell them that this is what spiritual seekers through the ages have sought, they can’t believe it. They no longer have to think they are bad or problematic just because they have this desire. In fact, they are expressing a desire for something very profound.”
Most teens who get into one type of trouble or another are reacting to thwarted desires–for money, respect, safety, or love. “They sense something greater than themselves that is not being acknowledged,” says Krishna Kaur, founder of Yoga for Youth, an L.A.-based national juvenile outreach program. Indeed, Jamie (not her real name), a 17-year-old resident of the same San Francisco halfway house as Tonya, says she did drugs “because I didn’t care about myself. I didn’t believe anybody cared about me.”
Gonzales is living proof that yoga and mindfulness can reach deeply into the hearts of disenchanted youths and help them find a freedom greater than they had dreamed possible. “I had a lot of problems, and they diminished when I was practicing,” he says. “Of course they still existed, but I didn’t feel like I had to cling to them.” Jamie acknowledges that a tendency toward addiction may be a permanent part of her character, “but if addiction is how you live, you can at least be addicted to something positive, like yoga. When I do yoga, I don’t have the need to use. My body tells me what I need, and I am learning how to listen.”
The term “at risk” usually refers to disadvantaged children, who are prone to dropping into delinquency, but it might well apply to all teenagers, fundamentally unstable, vulnerable, and impressionable. And yet, where there is risk, there is possibility. Knowing that adolescence is a time when kids form the attitudes and habits that will shape their adulthood, we can endeavor to reach out to teens with yoga–not to eliminate all risk (an impossible task), but rather to cultivate the positive risks that define a conscious life, like loving and trusting one another.
This can be hard to do. Teenagers don’t easily trust adults, and for adults, “teens are often hard to read–they can appear aloof and dramatic and be pierced all over,” as Mary Lynn Fitton says. “However, we need to remember how scary it was to be a teen. They are even more confused and afraid than those of us working with them.” Like Fitton, Kane believes that we, as adults, should look to our own youth, “in all its glorious awkwardness, to begin to understand where young adults are coming from.”
Without a doubt, remembering our own youth once we have passed through the turmoil of adolescence and steadied ourselves in adulthood can help us understand young people. But an even better bridge may be found in recognizing our enduring awkwardness as adults and practicing our belief as students of yoga that we are never finished learning–and that the beginner has much to teach us, if we’re willing to listen.
“As a teacher of teens,” says Gordhamer, “I need to care about them more than I care about them doing yoga or meditation. If I care about them doing the practices more than as people, then I’m just another salesman in their life, one other person not to be trusted. But if the focus is on what is real, what is true, what is sustaining, then what comes across is the challenge to live a whole life. To me, this is the challenge teens are looking for.”
Colleen Morton Busch is a senior editor at Yoga Journal.