It's Cool to Be Grounded
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.