Teen yoga: how it benefits your brain

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.

Teen yoga student

Positive pathways

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

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.

Why teens (+ all) still need yoga in a mindful world

Teen yoga - boy and girl

Mindfulness has eased its way into modern life, from cleaning your teeth before work to strolling along a beach on holiday.

Children can learn to mindfully eat a raisin (or even a chunk of chocolate – ssh!) for their mental wellbeing.

Stressed out execs have an excuse to return to their childhood crayons to mindfully colour-in a drawing.

Even MPs are minding themselves in Parliament, though you may think ‘more work is needed’ on seeing Prime Minister’s questions.

So if mindfulness is so great (and it is), then why do yoga? And why introduce the practice into schools where mindfulness is spreading further?

Experts debated this at the Instill 2016 conference on education, yoga and wellbeing held in London this month.

What’s the difference between mindfulness and yoga?

Mindfulness came to prominence in 1979 when US emeritus professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme.

He says: ‘Mindfulness practice means we commit fully in each moment to be present.’

Yoga’s exact age is less clear but it is widely thought to date back 5,000 years. It includes posture practice, breath work, meditation and personal guidance/observances relating to qualities such as non-competitiveness and non-violence.

The sage Patanjali, who wrote the formative Yoga Sutras, said:

‘Yoga is a stilling of the fluctuations of the mind’ (or in Sanskrit: Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah).

Teenyoga arms

But they still sound kind of similar?

Sat Bir Khalsa thinks so too. Dr Khalsa is assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a leading researcher in yoga therapy. He says traditional yoga, without a doubt, incorporates mindfulness.

He told the Instill conference, organised by the Teen Yoga Foundation, that the techniques of meditation are almost identical to mindfulness. ‘You focus your attention in a relaxed manner and mind wandering goes,’ he said.

Why bother with yoga at all?

Because people who just practice mindfulness have missed a trick – to engage the body. Dr Khalsa says the body contributes to cognitive functioning.

This view is supported by many including US leading neuroscientist and child psychiatrist Dan Siegel who believes the focus involved in mindful movement – or yoga – helps to integrate the brain and enable reasoned decision making.

While Dr Khalsa says the benefits of yoga include –

• improved respiratory function, coordination and balance
• ability to self-regulate emotions
• mindfulness or awareness
• Giving life purpose.

Teen yoga wheels

But can’t schoolchildren just do gymnastics?

It’s not the same, says Heather Mason, founder of the Minded Institute. She is leading a call to get yoga on the school curriculum – with over 400 letters sent to MPs urging them to support an early day motion on this. She has presented on this issue to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Indian Traditional Sciences.

The yoga therapist told Instill that mindfulness is an inherent part of yoga, as otherwise postures are just stretching (or gymnastics). She added that controlled breathing and movement helps students to sit in meditation. This allows more prefrontal cortex activation (the reasoning part of the brain).

So, mindfulness or yoga?

Both have their place. Yoga covers mindfulness too though. Or as Ingunn Hagen, a professor of psychology in Norway, offered to the debate: ‘Why focus on just our head? We are doing enough of that in our universities.’

Take mindful action

Write a letter to your MP supporting the call to get yoga in the school curriculum and the NHS.

Interested in teen yoga? I am an accredited teen yoga teacher – email me via ‘connect’ below for class details. Or find a teen yoga teacher via Teen Yoga, the UK’s fully accredited teen yoga and mindfulness training course.

Find out more about the Teen Yoga Foundation.

With thanks to Teen Yoga for the images.