How did you get into teaching for teens and why is it important to you?
The first job I got after university was working on an inpatient adolescent substance abuse unit. At the time I thought it was random luck that I ended up there, but for the next 20 years working with adolescents continued to be my primary focus. As a clinical psychologist I’ve worked with teens and their families in many settings: inpatient psychiatric units, day treatment programs, a residential facility, group homes, homeless and battered women’s shelters, a secondary school, an after-hours A&E, medical inpatient units, and in outpatient psychiatric services. It has been my pleasure and purpose to create a safe space for teens to speak what’s really on their minds, and to help them make sense of the conflicting feelings that are part of figuring out who they are and how to be themselves in the context of family, school, peer group, and their own self-perceptions.
The first yoga classes I taught were to adolescents in a research study at a Children’s Hospital. So as a clinician and a yoga teacher, I started with teens. I really like jumping into the deep end! The study was evaluating the effectiveness of yoga to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and somatization. The results showed that 8 weeks of yoga practice reduced self-reported symptoms of all 3 (depression, anxiety, and somatization); it improved fitness, and reduced self-reported stress. Encouraged by these findings, I began seeing teens individually for yoga therapy by integrating what I knew about adolescents, psychology, and yoga. I also started group classes for adolescents in the psychiatric day treatment and eating disorders programs.
I was encouraged and supported along this path by a visionary woman who obtained philanthropic support to build a creative arts therapy team of art, music, dance and yoga therapists at the hospital. The team expanded and my colleague offered yoga on the inpatient and some outpatient medical units, to kids in the autism program, on the inpatient psychiatric units, and in the medical day treatment program. On my medical consults I noticed the almost universally positive response of teens to seeing me for yoga therapy, in contrast to the mixed response I sometimes got when I introduced myself as a psychologist. The medically ill youth, even when struggling with anxiety and depression, would tell me they were “really sick” and it’s “not just in my head,” when I said I was a psychologist, but I never once heard that protest when I announced I was there to do yoga with them. That is one of the things I love about offering yoga to teens – they want it! The perception of yoga as airy/fairy that we may still hear from some is not a common perception among the youth of today. To them is it is cool and new and they are open to trying it.
Teaching yoga to teens is important to me because they need what it has to give. Novelty seeking and risk taking are essential tasks of adolescents as they move out into the world and yoga practice is a great new world to give them to explore. It provides a much-needed vehicle for self-reflection and self-awareness in our outward looking culture. The practices give them an outlet to move after sitting and revising all day, which they urgently need. Already in adolescence many of them have tight hamstrings that pull on their low backs, and neck and shoulder pain from staring at screens, carrying heavy books, etc. Their bodies are changing shape externally and hormones are shifting internally, so they need also a way to become positively re-embodied. They need to feel their bodies as strong, healthy, and adaptive rather than something they judge solely by appearance.
Adolescents have to learn to cope with mounting pressure to perform (do well in exams, get into a good school, find a job, etc.) and the stress that comes with it. It useful when they are first learning how to do this to give them positive coping tools, such as breathing practices, visualisation techniques, mindfulness and meditation, rather than leaving them to struggle on their own or develop maladaptive outlets, e.g., excess drinking or drug taking, sexual promiscuity, cutting, angry outbursts, social withdrawal, etc. To handle all of this they need more sleep than they usually get so it’s imperative that they learn to how rest frequently and deeply.
Adolescents have to leave the nest so it’s necessary that they form good new social relationships to support them in place of family ones. First time love and friendships formed in this period can be intense as they take the big step with them as their partners into greater independence. Teaching them to respect themselves, set appropriate boundaries, and speak their truth are useful strategies for negotiating new relationships. Yoga classes where they learn to make choices right for them, where they are asked and must give permission to be touched in adjustments, and they are encouraged to follow their own path can help them practice these vitals skills.
Teens tend to be idealistic and it is their age-appropriate task to identify a purpose worth investing themselves in. Everything around and inside them says, “Go!” and yet they need to figure out how to get calm and clear and rest in the midst of it all. Yoga is the perfect antidote to adolescence. The skills they learn can help them become more capable of doing what is asked of them and making good life choices. The sooner they learn can learn, the better.
Tell us more about yoga for teenagers. What are the aims of yoga for teens?
Whatever the age of the student, yoga practice aims to improve quality of life and optimise potential. There are myriad ways this is operationalised but the bottom line is that the practices are designed to enable us to be our best possible Selves. My yoga therapy teacher, Gary Kraftsow says that yoga practice can be developmental, rehabilitative, or for maintenance purposes, but the goal is always to make the most of what we have within the context of our lives and conditions. Adolescents are in the developmental stage; every part of them from their bones and the shape of their bodies, to the neural connections between parts of the brain are growing and forming connections that will persist the rest of their lives. Yoga practice can help them form more positive, functional, and adaptive connections.
The aims in teen yoga are the same as yoga for adults, what is adapted are the methods of instruction. Classes need to be taught in a cognitive style, and with language and pacing able to engage teens. The poses need to be adapted to their growing bodies. Teens are often very self-conscious, so adjustments need to be given sensitively if at all. Many teens have experienced trauma and all are still adjusting to being sexual beings, so there are multiple reasons to be mindful as a teacher about when and how you touch and adjust them in class.
Yoga is a rare physical activity outlet that is non-competitive, which makes it a healthy contrast for sporty teens and a sanctuary for non-sporty teens. Providing a safe place to explore their physicality in a gently challenging and encouraging manner can empower teens to feel more capable and confident in other areas of their lives as well. Teaching them how to both challenge themselves and calm themselves could have life long benefit in terms of their ability to cope with the stressors of life. I have found that as much as they like to play and move, they really love savasana with lots of props and a little slice of peace.
My goal in teaching a yoga classes to teens is not mastery of poses, although that has its benefits. My primary goal is give them the experience of moving and being in their bodies and minds in an empowering and affirming way that they enjoy and want to keep doing.
Lisa has been teaching yoga to teens since 2004. In addition to her many years of experience working with adolescents, Lisa has received specialist yoga training to teach teens through Yoga Ed in the US and Teen Yoga UK. This is the first teen yoga class offered through The Life Centre. Lisa started teaching it in 2013 in response to a parent request for a place that her daughter could practice with her peers. Since it’s inception, teens from 7 different London secondary schools have joined the class. It’s starts again soon. Contact Lisa for more information
Lisa is first author on a review of adolescent yoga research paper that also gives recommendations about how adapt yoga classes for teens. Free access to the full paper
Read more about Yoga for Teens.