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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

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 (

Under Pressure

"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.

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