Many are quick to tsk-tsk “kids these days” for nonstop smartphoning and a self-centered attitude. But this most-diverse generation, with nontraditional views on everything from gender identity to power structures, is more conscientious than you might think—and that’s especially true for these five up-and-coming yoga teachers (most of whom started practicing before they hit double digits). Get ready to be inspired.
Tabay Atkins: Showing us how to follow your dharma, as the country’s youngest yoga teacher
By Meghan Rabbitt
- Age: 14
- Lives in Maui, Hawaii
- My yoga role model is my mom, because she beat cancer.
- My biggest accomplishment so far is graduating high school at age 14.
- My favorite teaching moment was when I led a yoga class with Tao Porchon-Lynch, the oldest living yoga teacher. She told me, “Keep doing what you’re doing, and stay true to you.”
- In the year 2030, I’ll be teaching, traveling the world, and sharing my love of yoga and veganism with as many people as I can.
- Yoga is for everyone.
- Yoga isn’t about getting into the “best” pose.
- I wish more yogis would realize the amazing benefits of a plant-based diet.
- The promise I make to myself every day is to be the best version of myself that I can be.
It was a total fluke that six-year-old Tabay Atkins found himself with a stack of coloring books in the corner of a San Clemente, California yoga studio. His mom, Sahel Anvarinejad, had just finished treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and showed up there for what she thought was a tea date with Carolyn Long, a friend of a friend who’d sent countless texts and emails with supportive and inspiring messages during her cancer treatment. Long had asked Anvarinejad to meet her at her studio without exactly clarifying that they’d be doing more than having tea.
“I had only been cancer-free for two weeks, and when I walked into the studio that night, I was so skeptical of yoga,” says Anvarinejad. “I wanted to run out. But something told me to stay.”
Long had a plan—albeit a slightly sneaky one. What were the chances that Anvarinejad would suggest meeting on the exact day and time that her studio’s yoga teacher training was starting? Didn’t that mean she was meant to join the training—to learn how yoga might be a part of her post-cancer healing journey?
Anvarinejad felt resistant. She’d never even done yoga before, and now she was going to join a teacher training? But Long was persistent. So, Anvarinejad signed up—if a little reluctantly. Before the second class, she tried to bail because she didn’t have childcare for her young son. “Bring him!” Long told her emphatically. Which is how Atkins ended up in yoga class with that stack of coloring books.
Except Atkins did more watching than coloring that day. The next, serving as a prop helper for the trainees, he delivered bolsters and blocks to their mats as needed. Then, Atkins started trying some of the postures from the sidelines, too.
See also Is Yoga Teacher Training For You?
“A few days a week, I would practice with my mom,” says Atkins, now 14. “She’d ask me to remind her how to do the poses, and I would show her. An amazing transition happened from the beginning to the end of my mom’s training—there was this super-change in her. Before yoga, she’d been sad and scared and so low on energy and mobility because of the intensive chemo. After the yoga training, she was happy again—back to her old self, but better.”
“You Can Find Your Dharma at Any Age”
While most second graders might simply be psyched to have their mom back to normal, Atkins wanted more: He wanted to get certified to teach, too.
“I wanted to help other people the way yoga helped my mom,” he says. “There were so many people in the hospital bed next to her who didn’t even know about yoga. I thought if I could share this amazing practice, others could find the same kind of healing and happiness, too.”
A Teacher is Born
During her training, Anvarinejad often thought about how grateful she was that her son was being introduced to yoga—and how much she could’ve used the practice when she was a child. Because of all of the stress kids face at school, with friends, and at home, she decided that the perfect way to get her teaching legs under her would be to volunteer at her son’s school.
She taught during gym classes and after school, and soon parents started asking for private lessons and summer yoga camps for their children. Within a year, Anvarinejad opened the first kids’ yoga studio in Orange County—and Atkins was right by her side, a self-proclaimed “helper” at age eight.
“My mom started getting various certificates to specialize in kids’ yoga—like how to teach kids on the spectrum, teaching tweens and teens, and even restorative yoga—and I joined her for all of those,” Atkins says. He was seven when he got his first yoga certificate, to teach autistic kids, and a few years later, he found himself helping his mom lead a class at a school for autistic children in San Francisco.
The principal warned Atkins that the kids he was about to teach were prone to violence and shouldn’t make physical contact with him or one another. But when Atkins started speaking to his peers, they were calm and captivated. When he led the students through a partner exercise—and they happily leaned on each other as they held Tree Pose—the principal and the teachers in the room started crying. “They couldn’t believe what was happening,” Atkins says. “But I did. I thought, This just goes to show you all how capable they really are.”
See also Yoga for Autism
After that experience, Atkins was officially sold on teaching yoga; it was another pivotal moment that propelled him forward on his teaching journey. When he was 10, he completed a 16-day, 200-hour yoga teacher training and officially became the youngest yoga teacher in America.
During Atkins’s training, it was Anvarinejad’s turn to sit in the corner of the studio and fetch props and snacks for the students. “It was amazing to watch Tabay go through the teacher training experience himself, and so much fun watching him surprise everyone—including his teacher!—with his knowledge of the practice and true interest in learning more,” she says. Immediately after he graduated, Atkins started teaching at the studio his mom owned, and offering donation-based classes, with all proceeds going to organizations that support kids with cancer.
See also How Yoga Is Helping Kids with Cancer
How to Live With No Regrets
Every morning, Atkins wakes up and does a short flow with his mom—typically some Sun Salutations and a few favorite poses, like Tree Pose and Crow Pose. They each name what they’re grateful for, too—a practice Atkins credits with reminding him of the transformative power of yoga and the honor in sharing its benefits with others.
“It’s so amazing to see students walk into my classes looking exhausted and leave feeling energized and more alive,” he says. “But what I’ve realized is that it’s one thing to share the practice and another to live it.” Enter his commitment to eating vegan—a concrete way he says he puts the principle of ahimsa (nonviolence) into practice. It’s one way Atkins says he lives his favorite mantra: Think good thoughts, speak kind words, feel love, be love, and give love.
“In this world right now, we all need to do more of this,” he says. “There’s not enough love going around.”
But if you know where to look for love—and stay open to the moments when it might spontaneously appear—you’ll find it, Atkins says. To wit: the kismet that was his mom—and him—finding yoga.
Atkins says he often thinks about how life might have unfolded differently had his mom not suggested she meet Long just when yoga teacher training was starting. He considers how different her path post-cancer might have looked and how the course of his childhood likely would have taken very different turns. “It’s all proof that everything happens—or doesn’t happen—for a reason,” Atkins says. “By living with this mindset, I won’t regret anything.”
That’s not to say Atkins is watching life unfold as it will; he’s pursuing opportunities to spread the power of yoga far and wide. “I think the future is so bright for my generation,” he says. “We’re educating ourselves and our parents. We’re walking our own paths and doing things differently. We’re trying to shake things up by coming together to talk about things like how our choices affect our environment.”
“I see yoga helping us continue to do this in even bigger and better ways—and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.”
Ashley Domingo: Using Technology to Create Yoga Experiences for Gamers
By Bria Tavakoli
- Age: 23
- Lives in Portland, Oregon
- My yoga role model is my teacher Rosie Acosta. She is the most real person I know, but at the same time, the most mystical.
- My biggest accomplishment so far is completing my 500-hour training and teaching in the space where I first started my journey.
- My favorite teaching moment was when a close friend told me she experienced an emotional release in one of the first classes I taught.
- In the year 2030, I’ll be creatively fulfilled and able to help my loved ones with whatever they need.
- Yoga is being here, now.
- Yoga isn’t only about embodying love and light; it is the acceptance of the opposites as well.
- I wish more yogis would realize you don’t have to be the whole shebang—vegan, wearing Alo leggings on Instagram, drinking a smoothie for breakfast every morning—to be a “yogi.” If you have a body and you can breathe, you can be a yogi.
- The promise I make to myself every day is what I call No Zero Days: Every day I do something to move toward being the person I want to be. Some days I’ll move a mile, some days I’ll move an inch. Some days I’ll have time to do a 90-minute practice; some days I might just lie with my legs up the wall for a few minutes as my asana practice for the day. It doesn’t matter how big the move—as long as it’s not a zero.
Ashley Domingo skipped college in favor of yoga teacher training and real-world job experience. Today, she’s creating a virtual yoga program for gamers who suffer from stress, anxiety, and depression.
Growing up, Ashley Domingo was a good student and a creative free spirit with a love of crystals and tarot cards. As a teenager weary of the criticism she was receiving from her hip-hop dance teachers, she started exploring yoga on her own through YouTube and other apps. That was the easy part. The not-so-easy part was choosing to forgo college, despite good grades and sky-high family expectations.
“My mom was salutatorian of her high school and went back to the Philippines to give a talk about the importance of education,” says Domingo, who teaches yoga at her office and informally to friends. So embarking on yoga teacher training instead of attending a university was certainly off brand for her family, with whom her relationship was tumultuous. She felt like a disappointment to her parents, she says, who didn’t understand what she wanted to do with her life. Five years later, she credits yoga with helping create a shift in perspectives—both hers and her family’s.
Love at First Savasana
At 19, Domingo took a full-time job working in insurance, where she started taking weekly beginner yoga classes at her office.
“After that first Savasana, I was hooked,” she says. So she set out to find a studio where she could explore her curiosity and deepen her practice. One teacher, she recalls, read poetry out loud at the end of her class. “It felt so safe and open,” says Domingo. “It was so different from the fear and judgment I faced in dance class.” It was that warm feeling of acceptance that nudged her to become a teacher. “I wanted to create that environment, because I knew how much it was helping me with courage and clearing self-doubt.”
She went on to do just that. After completing her 200-hour training in 2018, she began teaching the very same class where she’d once found such comfort and relief from workday stress.
Top of Her Game
Last year, news of a high-profile player’s suicide rocked the online video-gaming community, in which Domingo had been a participant since 2010. (A 2017 review of 50 observational studies published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that depression and anxiety were particularly prominent among gamers.) Domingo recognized that her online peers needed “the tools to remember their self-worth and value outside of the persona they show online,” she says. In response, she’s creating a month-long virtual yoga and meditation program for gamers, complete with meditations, asana, and instructional videos on topics ranging from the importance of rest to how yoga can improve focus. She hopes to launch the series, dubbed “Bringing Peace to the Keyboard Warrior,” this year.
“I know a lot of my friends are very hard on themselves, and I can give them more tools—and guide them through some exercises that can help. With patience,” she adds, “You can do things you didn’t know you could.” And she’s speaking from experience. At last, she says, “I feel like I’m in the right place, and I trust that.”
Maris Degener: Setting an example for how to work through anxiety, depression, and eating disorders
As told to Meghan Rabbitt
- Age: 21
- Lives in Santa Cruz, California
- My yoga role model is Susanna Barkataki, for her commitment to using yoga’s teachings as a vessel for social change.
- My biggest accomplishment so far is saying “yes” to recovering from my eating disorder.
- My favorite teaching moment is whenever I feel like I’ve created a safe container for students to be their own teachers.
- In the year 2030, I’ll be doing the best I can with what I’ve learned thus far.
- Yoga is unity.
- Yoga isn’t a competition.
- I wish more people would realize that this practice is a way to connect to healing and compassion, not to “fix” you or make you feel unworthy.
- My Favorite Mantra I can do hard things.
- Words of wisdom I live by “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- The promise I make to myself every day Try your best and do it with compassion.
I’d been out of the hospital for just a few days, on bed rest at home, but still skeptical of why I’d needed to be hospitalized in the first place. I was 13 years old, and even though the doctors and nurses showed me my weak vitals on the machines surrounding my bed during my three-week stay, I still couldn’t grasp how sick I was—how much damage I’d done to my body by not eating. So, after I’d been discharged, despite my strict bed-rest orders, I decided to do a pushup. I wanted to prove I was strong.
I climbed out of my bed and came to my knees on the carpet beside my night table. How hard could this be? I thought. I slowly placed my hands on the ground beneath my shoulders and inched my feet back to get into Plank Pose. I dropped to my knees, immediately realizing I couldn’t support my own body weight in Plank, let alone lower myself to the ground and then lift myself back up. In that moment, it clicked: Mental illness isn’t an attention-seeking game; it’s a matter of life and death. I knew I had hurt myself, and it was time for me to heal.
Hello, Yoga? It’s Me, Maris
When I was in the hospital, the doctors and nurses told me how important it would be for me to get my strength back without strenuous exercise. Yoga was a logical choice, and when I noticed a new studio had opened near my hometown—and they were hosting free classes on Sunday mornings—I asked my mom if I could give it a try.
I got there embarrassingly early and ended up talking to Jenni Wendell, the studio owner and the teacher that morning, before class. I’ll never forget how seen I felt by Jenni, which definitely took the edge off how absolutely overwhelmed I felt before and during that first class. I was getting back in touch with my body and learning what it was like to be present. There was a lot going on, like trying to move into the various postures and learn the different Sanskrit words. I was lost in the chaos of it all, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by that fact. Yoga gave me permission to not have it all figured out. And Jenni met me exactly where I was.
There was so much to learn and no finish line. There was no competition or prompt for comparison. I realize now how lucky I was to fall into a studio where these beautiful tenets of yoga were emphasized.
After that first class, Jenni gifted me a yoga mat. It was her way of making sure I knew that my presence really mattered. Jenni cared if I came back—and not just in a business sense but in a way that felt to me like this person genuinely cared that I showed up. What I know now is that when you’re dealing with depression and anxiety—and I grappled with both, starting at such a young age—you don’t believe that people care if you’re around. The fact that Jenni, a stranger, was caring for me felt revolutionary.
Let the Healing Begin
I feel like my hospitalization and first chapter of my anorexia recovery were focused on the physical, which mostly involved making sure I was eating enough calories and getting back to a healthy weight. When I found yoga, I wasn’t in a precarious place with my health. Still, that first yoga class was really challenging.
In many ways, yoga felt like a fresh start, which was so nice after what I’d been through. I became a devoted student, going to multiple classes a week, and after a few months, I got a job at the studio’s front desk. One day, Jenni told me she was working on putting together the studio’s yoga teacher training, and she offered me a scholarship to join. I was in awe of the practice and my teachers, but I thought Jenni was crazy—I thought there was no way someone my age could teach yoga. Jenni described that she was designing the training to be more like a study group, where we’d learn about the philosophy of yoga and how to integrate it into our lives, in addition to how to teach. Now, I see that Jenni wanted me to join the training to help me integrate yoga into my life beyond the 75 minutes I was on that mat she’d given me.
When I taught my first class in that training, Jenni said she’d never seen me look so joyful. Something changed in me; all I wanted to do was pass on what had been given to me.
My teachers emphasized that the job of the yoga teacher is to pass on what you’re learning, which means the best teachers are the best students. This gave me permission to be a vessel for the practice to come through; the way my teachers instilled that kind of humility in me cleared the way for my voice to emerge.
I reflected on the teachers who’d had the most impact on my journey. The common thread? Their willingness to be vulnerable with me. They were human—always willing to come to my level and say something like, “Oh, I’ve experienced that, too.” They held space for me and didn’t try to “fix” me. And in being their authentic, beautiful selves, they inspired me to do the same.
My Story—on the Big Screen
When a filmmaker from my hometown who knew about my struggle with anorexia approached me about being in a documentary she wanted to make about eating disorders, all I saw were red flags. I’ve seen so many films about eating disorders and have been disappointed and unnecessarily triggered by them. Most of the documentaries romanticize skinny bodies. Some would leave me feeling like there was no hope for full recovery. Worse, many actually served as a guidebook to fuel my disease. (That woman ate only X amount of calories? I should eat less.)
“Yoga Helped Me Remember Who I Am—and Dream about Who I Want to Be”
I shared all of this with the filmmaker, and she really listened to my points and promised me that we’d create something different. I told her I didn’t want to talk about my weight or diet or show any pictures from the time I was sick. I wanted to get to something deeper—with a focus on my catalyst for healing, which was finding my practice. I thought of my yoga teachers’ vulnerability—and the strength that shone through thanks to it—and I aimed to show up with the same kind of truth they’ve always showed me. In I Am Maris, we talk about my journey, yes. But what we really tried to do is urge people to find their thing—the thing that speaks to their version of healing.
When I hear from people who’ve watched the film, what seems to have resonated the most is the power of vulnerability. I feel closest to people when they’re vulnerable with me first. In making this documentary, I got to be that friend—the one who opens up so that others can, too. And if I have given even one person permission to share their story or reflect on their own experience, I feel like the gift is mine. You never know what your journey—or even just your presence—might mean to someone.
Maryam Abdul: Teaching yoga and being a doula has helped her heal her community
- Age: 23
- Lives in Los Angeles, California
- My yoga role model is @Yogi_Goddess Phyllicia Bonanno on Instagram. She’s an unapologetically black yogi who shows that there is representation in the community for black women doing this practice.
- My biggest accomplishment so far is preparing and launching private yoga and birth doula businesses.
- My favorite teaching moment is when my students or friends say they feel better, more open, and calmer from the yoga.
- In the year 2030, I’ll be hosting yoga retreats, opening a yoga and wellness studio and a birth center in the Watts/South Central LA community—plus a juice bar. I want such things to be accessible to members of my community.
- Yoga is your own journey with your body and mind.
- Yoga isn’t supposed to only be this super-beautiful, on-the-beach, Handstands-and-splits practice.
- I wish more yogis would realize we have the freedom to be as creative with our yoga as we want to be, and we can explore more parts of ourselves. Be very gentle with yourself in that exploration. We don’t need to be hard on ourselves.
Just a few years ago, Maryam Abdul was a sophomore in college, feeling disconnected, depressed, and anxious. “I had no sense of purpose. I felt lost and confused. Like I didn’t belong,” she says. What led her to become a serious yoga student was the motivation to reclaim her body after a sexual assault: “I lost myself— I was a shadow. I didn’t have anything to lean on, because I had let everything that was good for me go.” That included elements of her Islamic faith, which she says paved the way for her to eventually find yoga.
Almost four years after the assault that rocked her foundation, Abdul is rooted in a solid, clear sense of purpose and mission: to assist underserved communities, specifically the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts where she grew up— a place she calls a food desert with few outlets for yoga and wellness activities.
Last year, at age 23, Abdul began training to become a yoga teacher and a doula almost simultaneously. Similar to midwives, doulas provide mental, physical, and emotional support to mothers during pregnancy, delivery, and even miscarriages, and help their clients navigate a health care system that disproportionately fails black women. Abdul’s passion and curiosity had led her to study the medical industry’s early-20th-century effort to control, pathologize, and institutionalize black midwives—which has negatively affected birth complications among black mothers. Armed with this information, she enrolled in a local doula training program.
“We see a huge disparity in black maternal death and infant mortality,” she says. “Meanwhile, stress is literally killing black mothers. I use yoga and meditation with my doula clients to cultivate peace and calm—with an intention to combat the statistics. I want my people to live, and live well. And that’s why I do what I do.” —BT
See also Healing Life’s Traumas with Yoga
Natalie Asatryan: Bringing yoga to kids so she can change the world
- Age: 15
- Lives in Los Angeles, California
- My yoga role model is 101-year-old Tao Porchon-Lynch, who proves yoga can be practiced at any age.
- My biggest accomplishment so far is raising money for charities by teaching donation-based yoga classes.
- My favorite teaching moment was when I led my high school’s football team through a yoga class. -In the year 2030, I’ll be a yoga teacher, student of yoga, and doing whatever I can to make the world a better place.
- Yoga is the unity of the mind, body, and soul. It’s an internal and external experience at the same time.
- Yoga isn’t about striving to be perfect.
- I wish more people would realize how important it is to share yoga with the younger generation, because it would make humanity better.
- My favorite mantra is Om, because the buzzing of the “m” is the eternal sound of God that lives within you in every breath. How cool is that?
- Words of wisdom I live by Be kind—but also courageous.
- The promise I make to myself every day I’m going to do my best with what I’m given today, and whatever else happens, happens.
Natalie Asatryan was five years old when she learned how to really breathe. She was in her first yoga class—at a local studio filled with other kindergarteners—and the teacher told them to imagine that they were hot-air balloons and had to light a fire in their hearts and breathe deeply in order to fly. “Then, when we’d lay in Savasana, the teacher would tell us to be as loose as noodles, and if our muscles weren’t tense when she picked up our legs and gave them a wiggle, we’d get a sticker,” says Asatryan, now 15.
“My Generation Is Going to Run the World Soon. The More of Us Who Do Yoga, the Better”
At age 12, Asatryan would go on to become the youngest girl to become a 200-hour certified yoga teacher. How did that happen? We asked her to give us the backstory.
Yoga Journal: OK, so when did you get the idea that you wanted to become a yoga teacher?
Natalie Asatryan: When I was seven, I started going to a new school and most of my friends didn’t know what yoga was. The ones who did were like, “Isn’t that for old people?” At that time, I was going to yoga classes with my mom— but I wanted my friends to love it and think it was cool. I thought, If I become a yoga teacher, I can teach them yoga and show them it’s cool. I told my mom I wanted to be a teacher, and she was like, “You can be anything you want to be!” And I said, “No, you don’t understand; I want to teach now.”
YJ: But you waited three years to go through a yoga teacher training?
NA: Not quite. My mom looked for yoga teacher trainings I could join, but most studios said I had to be 18. Every time she’d tell me another studio said no, I’d say, “You just haven’t talked to the right person.” This went on for three years. When I was 12, my mom talked to Shana Meyerson at YOGAthletica, who was willing to meet. We met at a café, and right there, she decided I was ready.
YJ: What was your training like?
NA: It was so much harder than I ever imagined. It was very condensed—14 days, 12-hour days—and the second-youngest trainee was 26 years old. During training, I realized how much more there is to yoga beyond asana. Actually, the philosophy turned out to be my favorite part.
YJ: Have you ever gotten any attitude or side-eyes from students when they see how young you are?
NA: I’ve been teaching for over two years now, and most people have been so accepting. Sure, they may say, “Wow, you’re only 15!” And I’ve definitely taught people who seemed skeptical of my abilities—at least at first. But overall, everyone’s been really great. And I really love teaching other young people, too. Kids are instantly accepting when I’m teaching.
YJ: It seems like yoga is something more kids could really use. Being a kid these days is tough, isn’t it?
NA: You know, I always say that grownups underestimate the power of kids. People say, “Oh, they’re kids, they don’t know.” But we’re going to be running the world in just a few years—and if we’re going to do that, we need some encouragement. We’re human beings who experience stress! I’m not saying yoga gets rid of it, but it helps you learn to take a minute, breathe deeply, and remember that whatever you’re stressed about probably happened in the past and that the best thing you can do is learn from it and move on.
YJ: It sounds like you have some personal experience with this.
NA: Yes! Take today, for example. I wasn’t ready for a test and I was so frustrated. I could’ve sat there at my desk freaking that I didn’t know all of the answers. But here’s what I did: I took a deep breath and silently told myself that I’d try to do the best I could with what I could remember. If I hadn’t been practicing yoga since I was five, I probably would’ve reacted differently, repeating something like “I’m gonna fail!” instead of “It’s OK—this is what it is, and it’s fine!”
I also rely on my yoga training before auditions. I’m a huge theater nerd and perform in a lot of plays. Right before almost every audition, I freak out. Then, I remind myself that whatever happens will happen—and if I don’t get into a show, I must not have been meant to be in that show. It helps me breathe through my nerves.
YJ: Do you think your generation gets a bad rap?
NA: You know, we are the first generation born with the Internet and social media being ubiquitous, and many people throw that in our faces. Yes, too much social media is no good. But I think a lot of my peers are using social media for so much good. And we care about our world, which is on fire. At my school, if someone is caught using a plastic straw, everyone is like, “OMG what are you doing?!” I think my generation is working hard to save the world we live in. We all have our eyes wide open, and we are trying to do something about the injustices we see. When you realize what’s happening in the world, you want to help. —MR
It’s easy to forget how stressful being a kid can be because, well, #adulting. Natalie Asatryan is here to remind you that kids go through stuff, too—which is why she’s on a mission to share yoga with as many young people as possible.
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