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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

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 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.

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