Today, for the first time, three (of the 12) 14 year olds spontaneously and seriously burst into a unified Om, so loud and so surprising, I felt it in my whole body. I felt the stones and mortar of the venerable Catholic College tremor with surprise and judgment, but the kids were full of yoga and full of the joy of exploring the power of their bodies and minds, they had no idea of the revolution, they had taken part in. Afterwards, instead of the customary giggling and nervousness, followed a numinous silence. The stillness and profound acceptance landed softly on us all in the common room today.
The awe and respect I felt in that moment, is repeated every time they open their eyes after relaxation, savasana, pranayama or meditation, their open gaze falls on mine in compassion and wonder and reminds me why I am here.
Its been almost exactly ten years since I started teaching yoga to teens. (I had taught other subjects before). That was a very different experience.
Faced with a room full of grumpy, hormonal, unwilling teens on yoga mats, I just wanted to run away.
But instead I stood firm. I had no escape, eyes full of ennui, staring blankly at me through the half-light. Staring straight through me. I was tense, nervous, what will they think? How do I look? Why don’t they love yoga like I do? They could see every thought, every weakness, every hesitation in me. I felt naked, vulnerable, ashamed at my lack of conviction and confidence.
SO, I ask myself on this anniversary, what is the purpose, what is the draw of this work that I do? Why do I teach yoga to teens?
It has become my passion, three or four times a day, I face groups of teens, trepidation has given way to awe and confidence. I teach 100 kids a week asana, pranayama, philosophy, meditation, yoga nidra.
With two teenage boys of my own, I am constantly dismayed by their lifestyle and how it compares to mine at that age, brought up in a Swedish system, non-competitive, relaxed and progressive. I reflect on their vulnerability, the shame, the not so well hidden issues, dramas, emotional roller coaster of their lives, only exacerbated by constant pressure of exams, comparison and competition.
I reflect on how yoga is the antidote to all of this. How yoga promotes relaxation, repair and reflection.
Privately, I feel like an anarchist. The yoga revolutionary, quietly coming into schools through the back door, ostensibly offering relaxation and de-stress sessions, but actually offering a new life, a new dawn of compassion, an experience of flow and self love. When we sit quietly with our bodies, stretching, listening, being still and mindful, an acceptance arises, of all that is, the feelings, sensations, emotions, thoughts and the body. When the acceptance arises, the love arises and the anxiety subsides.
The openness and shameless exploration of their bodies and minds, reveals the murky corners of my own, their vulnerability in their deep and sad questions, the released shame in their bodies reveals and heals my own. As a yoga teacher and therapist I feel drawn to make whole what is broken in others, just as I do in myself.
Yoga has a way of opening us up, further and deeper than we realize and in this revelation lies the healing, in the opening, the light shines softly on the darker corners of our lives and our bodies and in doing so, heals.
Jasmine said today, “why do I see ghosts when I sleep? I have sleep paralysis and see demons at night, can yoga help me with this?” Sophie “I get panic attacks and faint, no one knows why. Can yoga help?”, Flora says “My parents are divorcing, I get so stressed and sad when I hear them arguing, is there anything yoga can do to help?” I wish I could say “Yes, of course!” instead I say “maybe”. And inside I think quietly, the offering, the sharing, the honouring will probably heal and the yoga will always heal, miraculously and quietly.
These young people are not unique, every child I have taught has had a question, a quiet wondering, or an urgent request, that has not yet found an outlet or a listener. As part of our TeenYoga programme, we listen, we open up the room to feelings, sensations and emotions, which allow these questions to come tumbling out, not because we as teachers have the answers, but because we believe wholeheartedly that they in fact have the capacity to heal themselves, and yoga will help them do that. Just to have a safe environment to be heard in, is an important thing. Few kids will make the effort to go and see a counselor or a therapist, there are still stigma attached, and regular class sizes are large and the classroom situation is not conducive to opening up and being vulnerable, but yoga is.
I wonder at how our education system has not furnished our children with mechanisms to cope with daily life, to make us more resilient to life’s knocks and bruises, but instead attempts to create memory machines, never good enough, never clever enough, shot out towards an uncertain future.
The essence of this age-group, is their very ability to be present to the tricky emotions and to be brave and positive in the face of tremendous pressure, both social, biological and psychological. The essence of adolescence (as Dr Dan Siegel says so eloquently) is exactly what, as adults, we yearn for- the aliveness, the courage and the presence, which brings meaning to our lives. Mindfulness and yoga enhances and attunes to this, helping them along the path of self-discovery and self-love, away from the constant onslaught of competition and comparison and towards relaxation, rest and realization.
That is why I work with teens.
Also published in Elephant Journal
(all names are changed to protect the privacy of the young people)