Yoga is often recommended to help teenagers manage stress and anxiety and promote well-being. But how does it work and how can parents persuade teens to give yoga a try? We asked Richard Welch (who teaches yoga for teenagers) for some advice.
What are the benefits of yoga for teenagers?
Learning yoga practices can be a game-changer in dealing with hormonal fluctuations and provide teens with lifetime tools for stress management.
When we put the body into the physical stress of a yoga posture, things happen: cortisol and adrenaline are released, muscles contract, the breath and heart quicken – it’s our body’s defence mechanism, ‘fight or flight.’ Now, if we slow the breath down, and smooth it out (the breath is the only function of the body that is both voluntary and involuntary), the reverse starts to happen and the tension subsides. After 5 breaths, the discomfort becomes ok. We find we can go deeper physically, retraining our tissues, recalibrating our sensory neurons. We are now in ‘rest and digest’ mode.
So, if we repeat this process time and time again in practice, the nervous system and the body ‘pattern’ this reaction so that when something upsets us, and our body tenses, things then happen differently than before. We recognise the signs, our breathing is modified – allowing ourselves space to react. We are calmer, more focussed, and able to assess situations rather than reacting to them.
Teens are dealing with body changes, peer pressure, social media, exam stress, family pressures etc whilst the prefrontal cortex is still maturing (where we make executive decisions). No wonder they are grumpy sometimes, there’s lots going on! What yoga will do is to help them take the first step towards learning how to respond intelligently and effectively to stressful situations by using the breath and conscious management of the stress response.
The “feel good” element is also important in yoga for teenagers. Rather than plowing through fast fitness-focused sequences, most teens respond well to taking time to feel the effects of a yoga posture – whether it’s a challenging arm balance or a calming twist.
Are there any simple yoga practices to help teens manage anxiety?
Breath techniques are certainly relevant for anxiety. Here are two that I like to teach to all of my students:
- ‘Box breathing’ as it is so effective, and you can do it without anyone noticing. Athletes and the special forces use this. A good technique to use before exams or public speaking. Come to a comfortable seated position. Simply count to 4 on the inhale, hold the breath for 4, count 4 on the exhale and hold at the end of the exhale for the same count. Visualise the sides of a box as you go. Make sure the count is comfortable. Go for 2 to 3 minutes.
- ‘Hot chocolate breath’ is good for visualisation and working the senses. Close your eyes and imagine you are holding a mug of delicious hot chocolate, warming your hands. Bring the cup just under your nose and take a long inhale through the nose, imagine smelling the delicious rich flavour of the chocolate. Gently breathe out through your lips, cooling the hot chocolate down as you imagine the steam being blown away from the mug, carry on for several breaths.
Try these out yourself and see how you feel after these practices. Whatever held your space and dominated your thoughts, will have moved on.
Mindful physical movement is also useful in yoga for teenagers. Moving the body through space with the breath. Sun salutations are a sequence of 12 postures, joined together with continuous movement between each posture under the control of the breath. This is a great way to lose yourself in mindful movement. And when you add some balance postures like ‘Tree’ or ‘Dancer’ or mat postures like ‘Child posture’ or a lying down twist, this builds into a nice sequence to work through. Great to do in the morning and a really good introduction to yoga physical practice.
Any ideas for convincing a reluctant teen to try yoga?
Yoga might not be what they think it is. I would say if they have difficulty in switching off, or are not comfortable with how they are developing, are carrying some anxiety or even frustration and anger, or lack of confidence, then yoga can help. It is a set of tools that you can use to improve your life, on your own, in your own space. Call it ‘technical wellbeing’ instead of yoga!
Then maybe, just try this exercise with them for a few minutes:
- Begin to be aware of the gentle inflow and outflow of air in your body. Relax your eyes, your shoulders, and let your tongue drop away from the roof of your mouth. Really notice the feeling of the breath, the physical experience of the breath in your body, the movement in your body and coolness in your nostrils on the inhale.
- See if you can imagine a small balloon in your belly. As you breathe in, imagine that balloon gently expanding. As you breathe out, allow the balloon to retract. Stay with this soft-belly breathing for a few breaths. Then, as you breathe in, say to yourself the word “Be”. As you breathe out, say to yourself the word, “Calm”.
- What do you notice as a result of your few moments of breath awareness?
This is really tapping the surface of yoga but something that resonates with teenagers.
Do you have any advice for parents of teens on getting through the stressful teenage years?
I reflect on my own experience with my daughter and son as teenagers: the worry, anger, despair and sense of failure as a parent. A good friend kept reminding me ‘they will find their way’ and this is the advice I give to people now. You will get through it, nothing is permanent. I appreciate this won’t help massively but if you continue to provide love and support then that alone is great and all you need to do. Situations will occur where you are on the receiving end of the anger and abuse and sarcasm. And we might take this personally and react in kind, further escalating. Yoga and meditation can also help us as parents to develop our control in such stressful situations.
When we meditate we bring out attention within ourselves. We cannot control the external events however we can control our emotional mind and how we manage the situation. It sounds a cliché but ‘take a breath’ and the act of bringing your own attention within, for a moment, might be enough to dampen the fuse.
I look back and it was a bumpy journey. But we did get through it and now I am a very proud dad, they did find their way.
I have been practising yoga for 20 years and teaching yoga for 4 years. My aim is to encourage more people, young and ‘not so young,’ to roll out a mat for the first time and embark on a journey that could change their lives. Find out more at www.richardsyoga.org