I sometimes wonder how I would have turned out if I had actively started practicing yoga when I was in my teens, and specifically after being raped at the already-mixed up age of 14.
Perhaps, instead of stealing wine from my folks’ booze cupboard and bunking high school to drink it on the banks of the Eersterivier, or on the stoep of one of my dad’s engineering students’ digs, I would have tapped into my hurting heart me, and found a healthier way of making sense of my confused and supercharged emotions.
Perhaps I would have learnt how futile it is to compare my body shape / size / dimensions to my peers or the girls in the magazines or (these days) social media, to stop viewing myself as lacking, and making friends with myself – inside and out.
Perhaps I would have found the connection with others that I craved instead of isolating myself and numbing my loneliness with alcohol.
Perhaps I would have learnt earlier on what it means to really love yourself before you can love anyone else. That you can’t expect someone else to fill in your gaps or fix your broken pieces if you don’t even know what they are or how to find them.
Perhaps I would have held out for the super cool dude at school who I really fancied instead of settling for one with dirty nails and skanky flakes on his shirt collar. Maybe I would have put a higher price on myself, not selling myself short or thinking I wasn’t worth being adored and cherished.
Perhaps I would have realized earlier on the extent to which I had disassociated from my body, and perhaps I would have found the tools to self-soothe and work with my broken self and heal instead of trying to pretend there was nothing wrong.
Perhaps I would have avoided walking down that terrifying dark road of addiction after repeatedly teaching myself that it was possible to bypass uncomfortable feelings, and learned to sit with the discomfort instead, and grow from it, in the same way that a lotus grows out of the mud.
As that old song goes, ‘perhaps, perhaps, perhaps’.
What’s the point in wondering? I didn’t ‘find’ yoga until I was at varsity, even though it was always there in my life through my mum or my granny, who were yoginis through and through. And because of the various things that slowed me down in my process of self-discovery and my journey towards wholeness, you could say that I’m a seriously late bloomer, but better late than never, right?!
Nevertheless, it’s got me thinking about how strongly I feel that teenagers may benefit from getting into yoga sooner rather than later. I have a real soft spot for teenage girls, maybe because I was one and I know how hard it can be. I also happen to know a bunch of really cool teenage girls right now, daughters of my friends and family, who I am holding in my mind and my heart as I think about why I would like to start offering these classes in the third term this year.
Let me elaborate.
Scientific and experiential evidence proves many of yoga’s well established benefits. From physical to mental to spiritual, devoted yogis everywhere race to their mats to reap the rewards.
And now, recent research from the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics shows that even high-school students can cash in on the same benefits that older yogis do.
At the end of their ten week study, researchers found that high school students who participated in the yoga offering during PE class scored better on psychological tests screening for anxiety, depression, and mood imbalances than the teens that did not. The teens who participated in yoga reported fewer negative emotions than those who didn’t participate in yoga during the ten week study. Here are some more of the benefits that became apparent:
The physical benefits of yoga for teens are quite similar to the benefits of yoga for adults. In the end, yoga means union in Sanskrit, so it makes sense that many of the benefits would be the same.
Yoga builds strength, increases flexibility, lengthens the muscles, increases coordination and balance, builds core stability, and can help students’ posture rebound from a day hunched over a desk (or a smartphone).
As a teenager, there are heaps of distractions around — from what you’re going to wear to the party on Friday night, to the who-likes-who dramas — there are much more interesting things to think about than what a rain shadow is or calculating the size of an angle.
Yoga can help teens mentally refocus on the task at hand. By practicing living in the moment on the mat, teenagers can more fully concentrate on the present moment off the mat.
By practicing present moment living on the mat, high school students will have a better sense of their emotions. Yoga will enable them to connect with their deeper layers and understand more fully what they are feeling. By developing a better understanding of their emotions, teens can then more appropriately process them.
Emotional intelligence is a very powerful thing to learn at an early age.
In addition to connecting you with your emotions, yoga encourages self-love and self-acceptance. This benefit is especially powerful for teens struggling with body image. It’s a beautiful way to learn to love yourself and appreciate the body for what it is and what it can do, rather than what it looks like. It builds compassion for the self which then radiates to compassion for others.
Yoga’s mental benefits are fairly well documented, and as evidenced by the study mentioned above, teenagers who practice yoga show more positive moods, less anxiety and depression, and greatly enjoy asana practice (the physical practice of yoga).
With the stress and anxiety of exams, extra murals, tests, speeches and all of the other pressures that plague high school kids today, yoga can be a step in the right direction.
Yoga breeds connection. As mentioned previously, it means union in Sanskrit. By understanding that each and every single person is one, perhaps teens will learn to accept one another more fully, no matter their clique, social interests or popularity ranking.
Yoga is non-judgemental, and the more we practice, the more acceptance and less judgement we’ll have in our daily lives. Yoga will help teenagers become more compassionate for one another.
The crazy thing is that even as I type this, I know one of the hardest parts of getting a class for teens off the ground is going to be finding a time in their busy schedules to fit it into their week. Which, in a way, is just another reason of why it’s so necessary for these very special young people to slow things down a bit, and connect with what’s most important – themselves.
Even though it took me about one and a half decades after finishing high school before I finally started internalising all these lessons, at least I got there in the end. Better late than never, for sure, and actually I wouldn’t change a thing, because every single step of the process has brought me to where I am today, and today is good. I’m grateful for the learning and the healing that continues every single time I get on my mat. And I’m realizing that I have a growing passion for sharing this transformational and gentle practice with young girls just like I was, who could benefit from a soft place to fall and learning early to cultivate a lifelong tool of self-awareness.