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How Yoga Has Changed Teenagers' Behaviour

Charlotta Martinus
Jul 11, 2019 10:51:58 AM

“Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will steer our life and we will call it fate“  - Carl Jung

Many teachers and parents sigh and roll their eyes when the teenager grunts and stomps. Bad behaviour! Bad attitude! Disengaged! 

The desire to manage behaviour and create an optimal learning environment is every teacher’s first aim, without it, learning cannot take place.

In yoga, as in many pedagogical circles, we subscribe to Carl Roger’s (father of modern psychology) axiom of “unconditional positive regard”. There is a belief that when we see the divine/light/goodness in the person in front of us, they will shift and change accordingly. (The greeting Namaste is an example of this – we strive to see the godly nature of everyone at all times). This ties in nicely with the psychology concept of labelling, when we label a pupil as clever, intelligent or the opposite, stupid or slow – they tend to respond to the label.

Adolescence is now understood to be a highly sensitive time of physical, neurological, emotional and social transition and development.  This is a time where support, empathy and understanding are of the utmost importance in order for the adolescent to thrive. (see Dr Sarah Blakemore’s  work ‘The Learning Brain’) However, instead they are all too often met with ridicule and rejection. (Harry Enfield’s Kevin being one example) The issue facing school teachers today is they themselves feel under pressure, in an increasingly assessment driven environment, where their autonomy is often compromised. This results in stress, low self esteem and low morale of the teachers. School has become one of the most stressful environments, “man handing on misery to man”. (Philip Larkin)

From 16 to 18, kids are primed for stressful life-defining exam periods throughout the year. Continually assessed, this academic pressure is the first layer, overlaid by extreme peer pressure to conform, and then exacerbated by the pressure of social media and the massive neurological and physical growth spurt. Often there are also complicated family issues. No wonder, we see “behavioural issues”. 

When we are depressed, angry, sad or lonely, and neither have the words to express these new and unknown feelings, nor the sympathetic listener to express it to, but only the support of our peers who are as clueless as us, then this can lead to a frustration behaviour, where slamming doors is all that is left. So, behaviour, then is simply another language.

In every class I teach, we spend the first part of the time sharing how the young people feel. Initially this can be awkward and laconic, but very soon there are gentle openings, expressions of frustrations and not knowing. It becomes a questioning forum, where the ear of a non-judgmental adult is needed. Every time I have done this, the boys particularly express that there are no other areas in their life where they are asked how they feel. They also mention what a relief  it is to have a teacher who does not constantly bellow at them.

In one school (very well established, rural Catholic college, boasting an outstanding Ofsted report) where I teach, 80% of the students at A Level are on some kind of medication either for depression, anxiety or sleeping disorders. For many self-harm is the way of expression, a worrying  and confusing act to witness.

On the upside, the adolescent brain is extremely malleable and able to absorb information, change itself and move on quickly and effectively. So, these pressures could, in the best scenario, also be a positive driver to become a mature and well-adapted person in society, which is the main “job” of the teenager.

In yoga, mindfulness, conscious breathing, meditation and other meditative practises, the amygdala (freak button of the brain) is calmed by the increased activity of the Prefrontal cortex (“executive functioning”, overcoming emotions and being rational) and in some activities also an increased activity in the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right sides of the brain. When this happens, the mind is more integrated, supporting learning and optimal wellbeing. This leads to integration also within society, within friendship groups and in academic circles. (see Dr Siegels book ‘Brainstorm’)

Recently, there has been quite a substantial body of research (particularly by Dr Shirley Telles) supporting the use of yoga to mitigate the effects of trauma. This is because in yoga, there is a gentle resolution or digestion of trauma and shock, as the implicit memory slowly becomes explicit, thereby releasing us from repeated unconscious and destructive behaviour. When we practise yoga regularly, any traumatic or difficult experience is quickly “digested” and released, leaving the practitioner feeling at ease and at peace.

Most teens seem to come to yoga out of curiosity and end up coming to release frustration and anger and find their inner calm. They quickly notice how this emotional release supports them in learning, integration, friendship and optimal wellbeing.

When we make our unconscious conscious through mindfulness, meditation and yoga (they always come together), we no longer become victims of “fate” but rather meet challenges head on and steer our lives towards an optimally healthy and optimistic outlook. 

So, when we bring yoga to teenagers, we are teaching them probably the most important life skill of all – to dissolve and digest “trauma” as it happens, and hence regulate emotions, to support learning and integrate themselves into life thoroughly. Moving away from fear, they learn to live their lives with curiosity, openness, acceptance and love.  Is this not the optimal state for learning and joy?

Charlotta Martinus

Charlotta is a yoga therapist for mental health (with the Minded Institute) and a Yoga Alliance Professionals accredited  Senior Yoga Teacher. Charlotta is also the Director of Universal Yoga. She has graduated from the 350 hour Yoga for the Mind therapy course and is a qualified therapist in mental health. She is currently taking private clients who need help to alleviate depression, stress, anxiety, PTSD and post-natal depression. She holds a clinical license and teaches at Callington Hospital to the patients sectioned and suffering from psychosis, schizophrenia and other ailments. She also runs the TeenYoga course internationally. 

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