WHAT DOES AHIMSA MEAN WHEN WE FEEL BETRAYED?
(in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain tradition) respect for all living things and avoidance of violence towards others.
Ahimsa – this beautiful word, at the back of our minds, as yogis, what does it mean, in practical terms? Doing, thinking no harm, love in action.
Working with people is not always easy. Working in partnership can be tricky, so when I had built up trust and confidence in my assistant and colleague over a year, entrusting her to work with me on my unique training programme, it came as a shock when she told me that she was now going to run the programme of the same name at the same venue that we were running it together, but this time on her own.
I must admit to feeling betrayed, humiliated and angry.
But, how to act?
My emotions were far from forgiving and compassionate, they were sad, angry and aggressive.
Yogini colleagues say “harness the Kali in you, be the fierce feminine! Remember Krishna urging Arjuna to act out his dharma!”
My teachers say “be calm, there must be some misunderstanding, be loving and kind and compassionate..”
I ask myself, what is true?
What is right?
What is ahimsa?
What is ahimsa towards myself ?
And I ask myself – what would you do?
ADOLESCENCE: THE ESSENCE OF LIFE, THROUGH YOGA
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.
(all names are changed to protect the privacy of the young people)
FROM CHAOS TO JOYFUL ACCEPTANCE
How many times have you heard your students say I wish I had come to this earlier?
Imagine coming to yoga when your hormones are chaotic, when you want to feel sexy, good and strong yet your world feels so alien? Imagine coming to yoga as a teen? The brain is at its most productive stage since toddlerhood, pruning and creating new neural pathways, resilience and emotional regulation as well as Prefrontal cortex development are burgeoning.
So many primary schools offer yoga as a fun, play exercise and it is being embraced fully.. And then, when the exams come along and anxiety, lack of self esteem, body changes and hormone imbalances throw you out of kilter, where is it?
Mindfulness is flooding into schools, promising better focus, emotional regulation, relaxation and delivering for the most part.
But, what about that antsy feeling, needing to move the body out of its unnatural 6 hours or more of sitting a day and using our muscles and our body to regulate our mind. As the Romans said ” “mens sana in corpore sano”.
( Healthy mind in healthy body). In medical terms this is called the “bottom up approach”, this means when we use our body in certain ways it has an effect on our mind. Going for a run, we feel elated and pain relief. Lying down and closing our eyes can stop the racing mind, taking a few deep breaths halts anxiety in its path.
So in TeenYoga we offer a training that looks at how we can apply yoga therapeutically to directly mitigate the huge emotional and physical turmoil that the teen is going through. Through yoga We are creating useful and supportive neural pathways in the brain, increasing awareness and decreasing traumatic reactions.
With methods developed through both scientific enquiry and inspired directly by Heather Masons work for The Minded Insitute combined with the result of years of trial and error in the classroom, we can lead this age group through a gentle shift in perception from chaos into joyful acceptance.
With use of mindfulness tools, yoga philosophy and theory we can help the teen cope with the enormous pressures and expectations from both school and parents. We can educate them as to what is going on in their bodies and how yoga Can help them. Most of all, we make it cool, challenging and fun, maybe even a little anarchic as an antidote to academic rigour.
Having taught yoga in secondary schools since 2005 and languages on and off since 1993 it is clear that there is a specific way of approaching the group which works better than others. Also, every group is unique.
The relationship between yoga teacher and student is itself a therapeutic one, no judgment, no feedback to parents or other teachers, it has the potential to be a potent and inspiring partnership for both teacher and pupil.
I would like to share some of my most surprising experiences as a TeenYoga teacher;
15 year old Charlie had a fit body and was tall and handsome, he acted precociously and always came by himself.
He would always come early and stay late after class almost missing his next session. He did the asana well, was focused and enjoyed them a great deal. He would ask for specific asanas at the beginning of class. Sometimes fights would break out in class between him and the other boys. As his practise developed, his attitude to his peers changed and softened and slowly the fights stopped. He had done ballet and martial arts, so yoga followed on from his past physical activities perfectly. He would come with specific issues and work with his body using yoga as a therapy as well as explore his own strengths and weaknesses. Charlie will always have a special place in my heart. Charlie had mild autism and through yoga managed to find a way to codify and understand his emotions as well as regulate his outbursts. I learnt a lot about yoga for teens through him. Sadly, he could not get to my yoga studio to continue as we both lived remotely in villages and he did not drive yet, but I do not doubt, he will turn up to my class at some time in the future.
Once I had a group of 15, 15-year old boys who had been sent to do yoga against their will. Through experimentation, chatting and joking I found they did street dance. That was when I noticed the similarities between the two and started from there.
Dave and Chris could do headstand with out hand support, they could do sidecrows and forearm stand was easy… So we played! To see what these boys were capable of was truly amazing both to them and to me and the relaxation at the end became a ritual. They came away loving yoga.
Then there were the countless groups of girls who turned it into a therapy session, where we chatted about boys and bodies and they wanted to hear about yoga and again yoga nidra became the key, the key to letting go of the body, the key to recognising something else more beautiful and more nourishing beyond words. Then slowly the asanas became part of the practise, enjoying the body rather than shunning it and empowering it through arm balances, supporting each other in partner postures … Literally feeling the trust and the beauty of the group together.
The most potent memory I have is of a bespectacled young chap full of quiet confidence beaming at me in the corridor and stopping me, saying “I have you to thank for all my A stars! ” I am ashamed to say I couldn’t remember his name, he was one of these young men who sits in the back and does as he is told, but apparently the breathing exercises and asana that I had taught them for focus and concentration had stuck with him and he had used them throughout his exam period and noticed the difference!
So when people ask me what is teenyoga, I would say it is listening with your eyes, your ears and your heart and responding completely to what is needed in that moment (thanks Gopala of rainbow kids for this exquisite description ).. It is Not necessarily about following a format or a pre planned idea but instead working towards strengthening my intuition as a teacher in service of others and the intuition of the teens in knowing what they need in any given moment.
With the ongoing, thorough and deep understanding i now have of the development of the teen brain, with socio biological and psychological factors as well as anatomical and physiological development as cornerstones, I now free flow. Sure, there are specific routines, rules and content that I always include but beyond that and included in that is the special, intimate, unspoken and vulnerable connection you can have with the teens, which fosters trust, self belief and raised self esteem at best or at least exposes them to practices which they can use later in their lives when they are more open to it. Yoga is a life skill and in my opinion could easily encompass PSHE and PE for these precious individuals at the dawn of adulthood and in whom our future is entrusted.