Yoga therapy for teens: Support during a transitional time
By Ali Popivchak
I often think about how much easier my own teen years would have been if I’d had yoga to help me. I wonder whether I would have felt more comfortable in my changing body or had more control over my emotions, key benefits I see in my work with adolescents.
Adolescence is full of challenges that affect all layers of our being—physical, emotional, and energetic. For me, it’s been a joy to find ways to support and nurture teens through the practices of yoga.
Looking through their lens
I teach lots of yoga classes to adolescents, often outside traditional yoga studio settings and sometimes to youth who have never practiced yoga. I strive to offer students a sense of control over their level of participation, to include opportunities for social engagement, and to allow ample time for tuning in to their own bodies. It is my goal to create a space where teens can feel accepted as they are, where their voice is heard as part of a group but they can also be proud of their uniqueness.
To cultivate more opportunities for interaction in my yoga classes, I’ve even developed a yoga card game. Yugo features a variety of poses demonstrated by animal figures to help students discover the shapes and movements in their own bodies rather than trying to mirror others. (The images below are from the game.) It’s an unintimidating way of encouraging kids of any age or ability to try yoga—always one of my key goals as a yoga therapist.
Practices to help
If you’re the parent of a teenager or someone who works with teens, encouraging them to start a simple yoga practice (at home or in a group class) or to meet with a yoga therapist one-to-one can be incredibly beneficial. Marlynn Wei, a yoga teacher and board-certified psychiatrist, sums up the case for practice during adolescence:
“Yoga during this time can help teens cultivate ‘executive functions’ or the important skills of creativity, flexibility, self-control, and discipline.”
Because teenagers often stay up late and may have a difficult time turning off technology, one tool you can suggest to help promote these benefits is a short—screen-free!—yoga practice. Here’s a sample of what this pre-bedtime wind-down could look like. It’s best thought of as a starting point, and I would encourage them to discover what feels best in their own body.
This relaxing yoga practice can be done in bed or on the floor.
- Deep belly or abdominal breathing: Lying on your back, with knees bent or straight, take three to five deep breaths. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
You could incorporate an affirmation or intention to bring in support you need right now, maybe in the form of confidence, self-acceptance, or relaxation.
Benefits: Calms the nervous system (via the relaxation response), supports respiratory and immune system
- Knee-drop twist: From the previous position, draw your knees toward your chest (any amount). Drop your legs down to the left and turn your head to the right (any amount). Your arms can come out to the sides or find any other comfortable position. Hold the pose for about 1 minute, then repeat on the other side. Afterward, take a moment to notice how this pose feels in your body.
Benefits: Relieves back tension, can create a sense of mental calm and equanimity
- Child’s pose: Kneeling on the floor or bed, sit back toward your heels. Your knees can be together or apart. Relax forward over your thighs and allow your forehead to rest on the bed or floor. Your arms can rest by your sides, extend overhead, or create a support for your head—decide which way feels better for your body.
Benefits: Offers disconnection from overstimulation, relieves tension in hips and back, cultivates a sense of grounding and inner stillness
I’m so happy that yoga is becoming more prevalent in schools and other youth spaces, creating more opportunities for teens to give these supportive practices a try. Helping today’s teenagers have better experiences so that they can thrive and live to their full potential is a worthy goal for all of us!
Ali Popivchak, E-RYT 200, RYT 500, is a yoga therapist in training. She leads inpatient yoga therapy groups for all ages at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, and has also taught adolescents in behavioral health outpatient and residential programs. Ali’s game Yugo is available online.
I struggled so much when I was a teenager and railed against adults. Yoga practice then would have be so helpful. Excellent article, Ali!