If I had done yoga as a teen all my issues would have been sorted, right?
Hmmm. Possibly not.
What I do know is that it would have given me the tools to cope better with the pressures.
For me it was over-thinking things, revisiting past ‘failures’ and daydreaming of the future when all would be perfect.
And I was actually a pretty happy teenager!
Now it’s easy to see why adolescence, which stretches up to aged 24, is such an emotional rollercoaster.
This I know from personal experience but also from my training – and experiences – in teaching yoga to teens.
Right, brace yourself – some brain science coming up … (Time-pressed? Scroll down to ‘Benefits of doing yoga as a teen’).
Reactive and rational brain
There is a reason why as a teen emotions seem to play such a leading role in your life.
And that same reason is why as a parent your adolescent can seem impulsive and even reckless at times.
Meet the amygdala.
This almond-shaped part of the brain is its emotional centre. It is the place that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response to events.
This part dominates how information is processed in the teen years over its wiser sister, the prefrontal cortex (PFC).
The PFC (the bit behind the forehead) is the reasoning part that filters information coming from the amygdala and makes a rational response.
So, if you have a disagreement with someone this is how these two may respond –
Amygdala: triggers you to fly into a rage and storm off and sulk. This is the fast reaction route.
PFC: filters the information from the amygdala and makes a measured response based on experience. Slow route.
The PFC doesn’t fully develop until after adolescence (remember it lasts up to our mid 20s).
That’s a long wait, hey?
Ah, but this – and many other reasons – is why we have yoga for teens.
Yoga can help develop the (neural) connections between these two parts of the brain, improving focus and decision-making.
How? Through a process called myelination (the fat sheathing of the neurons) which helps the flow and speed of information in the brain.
Learning activities like yoga help to create new – and positive – pathways in the brain.
And what you do in adolescence and just before can become ‘hard-wired’ into the brain as it prunes unused circuits and strengthens those it uses.
Think how people can become fluent in a foreign language or musical instrument when they learn it before and during adolescence.
Dan Siegel, a leading psychiatrist and author looking at teen brains, believes yoga is beneficial in creating new brain pathways.
He says this is because yoga requires focus. The brain is especially flexible at this age too.
So, what are the brain or mind benefits of doing yoga as a teen?
Benefits of doing yoga as a teen
Mindful awareness – yoga teaches us how to be in the present moment without judgement. For example, by being aware of your feet in a pose or watching your thoughts without getting caught up in them. This helps with the brain integration discussed above.
Calmness – an obvious but a crucial one. I offer many tips for teenage anxiety in my classes. These include extending the out-breath to stay calm (the exhale stimulates the calming side of the nervous system). And guess what? This also helps the brain’s flow of information (as above).
Focus – you have mastered focusing your mind on learning a tricky posture or anchoring your attention to the body or breath. Then these skills can help your concentration off the yoga mat. You can use this in many scenarios including schoolwork and free up time for stuff you enjoy (but some enjoy assignments, apparently!).
Body confidence – the body also goes through so many changes in adolescence. Yoga helps to bring a sense of self acceptance. It helps us develop our proprioception skills. This means knowing where the body is in space (eg. how we can walk in the dark). Proprioception helps us to trust our body and be confident in our skin.
Flexible fun! – yoga improves flexibility and you can have fun along the way. I probably would have been a bit sniffy about partner yoga as a teen but many I teach love it. It develops trust too. Also, learning to laugh at yourself falling out of a posture is a great skill for life, I think!
Yet don’t just take my words for it. Listen to a teen yoga student:
Teen yoga student: ‘I appreciate myself and others now’
Yoga helped me to find myself and meet like-minded people. After I was ill with autoimmune encephalitis, a lot people would close the doors to me from opportunities because they were scared of what would happen.
I went into the yoga world and people welcomed me with open arms. They taught me how to appreciate myself and others … The biggest lesson yoga has taught me is to be present in the moment.
– Rebecca, London, aged 18
Take a teen class in London
Thanks to the Teen Yoga Foundation for the top image and Rebecca for the others. Learn about the charity’s ongoing research into the benefits of yoga to teens.