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It's Cool to Be Grounded

More and more teens are finding out that the calming, centering practice of yoga can help them find self-acceptance and confidence.

By Colleen Morton Busch

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.

Reviving Adolescence

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.

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