Yuva Yoga: Yoga for the Teenager

Rishi Arundhati Saraswati (Satyanandashram, Ontario, Canada)

Rites of passage

Previously, in all old societies, when a child reached the stage of puberty he was initiated by his elders into society as a child becoming an adult. Some of these customs are still practised today, for example, the Barmitzva: the ceremony that all young Jewish boys go through for acceptance as an adult into society. This formal recognition that gave the developing adult the rite of passage – “I will treat you as an adult from now on; therefore, it is your duty to accept your role as an adult within the society” – does not exist in most industrialized countries today. There are some activities that are seen as rites of passage such as school graduations, communion in the Catholic Church, but these are not the same as rites of passage. These recognitions are associated more with academic achievements and moral maturity than with advancement into the social structure as an adult.

Physical growth and development in adolescence

Accurate knowledge of the normal growth and development of children and youth is essential for those who want to teach yoga to children.

Body growth in boys and girls is a continuing process throughout childhood and adolescence. It is exceedingly rapid in the first two years of life and less so during the middle years of childhood. However, maturation of organs and glands continues to take place during this time. From the ages of twelve or thirteen there is a spurt of growth in relation to puberty followed by cessation of growth when adult height and organ development are complete.

It is thought that puberty begins when the hypothalamus becomes less sensitive to the fold-back mechanism of the small quantities of sex hormones produced during childhood by the gonads. Luteinising hormone (LH) releasing (LHRH) therefore increases the blood levels of LH and increases follicle stimulating hormone (FSH).

FSH in the male stimulates production of spermatozoa by the testes. In the female it stimulates follicular development in the ovary and oestrogen synthesis by the follicles. LH in the male stimulates Leydig cell function and testosterone synthesis. When it reaches the target organ it is converted into dihydrotestosterone (DHT) by the enzyme 5a reductase. DHT is metabolically more active than testosterone and its formation is essential if full masculinization is to take place. LH in the female also stimulates oestrogen synthesis. It induces ovulation and hence the formation of corpora lutea which produce progesterone.

Slow-moving yoga asanas for burning fat cells are ideal for obese children. The systematic practice of yogasanas also helps to keep the glandular system balanced and functioning well. When practising asanas, there is stimulation and balancing within the thyroid gland, which is the second most important gland in the body and controls all the lower glands.

Psychological growth and development in adolescence

Adolescence refers to the period of transition from childhood to adulthood. During this period the young person develops to sexual maturity, establishes his identity as an individual apart from the family, and faces the task of deciding how to earn a living. A concept of who he is and where he is going helps to formulate standards of conduct and for evaluating the behaviour of others. He must know what he values as important. He also needs a sense of his own worth and competence. Young people are not given many adult privileges until late in their teens. In most countries they cannot work full-time, sign legal documents, drink alcoholic beverages, marry or vote. Freedom from parental authority and from emotional dependence starts in childhood, but the process of emancipation is greatly accelerated during the early years of adolescence.

To function effectively as an adult the adolescent needs to begin to detach himself from his family and develop independence in behaviour, emotions, values and beliefs. Problems of rebellion and resistance to parental control during adolescence are almost invariably a continuation of problems that began earlier in childhood.

According to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, at the time of adolescence there is the need for establishment of identity. The parents become less a role model for developing attitudes, tastes, etc. Peer groups and outgroups are more important models of leadership. At this stage the adolescent is striving to be himself and often sees parental guidance as an effort to make him into the parents’ image rather than allowing him to be himself.

Sexual development like any other form of development follows a difference in rate of onset, with those who are late maturing being the most vulnerable to feelings of low self-confidence and independence. Late maturing males face a particularly difficult adjustment because of the importance of physical prowess in peer activities. Studies indicate that males who mature late tend to be less popular than their classmates, have poorer self-concepts and engage in more immature attention-seeking behaviour. The effect of late maturation on personality in females is less striking. A few personality differences between early and late maturers persist into adulthood, long after the physical differences have gone.

During adolescence one begins to re-examine many of the beliefs one had previously considered to be immutable truths. New experiences and new cognitive abilities that emerge prompt one to challenge some of the values and beliefs received from parents. This re-examination in early adolescence may be due to moving from a small neighbourhood elementary school to a larger more heterogeneous junior or senior high school and therefore being exposed to a wider peer group and the increase in development of the cognitive abilities to the point where he can think in more abstract and relative terms.

Individuals vary in their need for conformity, whether to parental or peer standards. The more self-confident and assured the young person is, the less he will feel the need for blind adherence to norms. He can evaluate for himself what is important among the various views proposed and arrive at conclusions. This is the essence of finding one’s identity.

Yoga for transition to adulthood

Developing one’s own identity, dealing with sexual maturation and development, emancipation from home, re-examination of beliefs are the major psychological developments for the adolescent. A method for providing the major necessities for a healthy, confident lifestyle should be introduced to the adolescent, if not before adolescence. So yoga for the teenager is ideal for introducing what we call the three Fs of education. Fitness, Felicity and Focus, the three necessary qualities of education to ensure capable transition to adulthood with self-confidence, positive self-image and self-control, a well-rounded personality capable of excelling.

Fitness

Yoga asanas are an ideal way to bring about fitness. The postures not only help to strengthen bones and muscles, but when one reaches the adolescence stage, the execution of the postures is done with more time and awareness than when one is younger and the body is still developing. Physical movements from one posture to another provide strength, flexibility and health in general to the bones and muscles; maintaining the positions for a period of time brings about internal, hormonal and cellular changes. Slowing down of the maturation of sex glands and hormonal activity may produce psychological ill ease during this important time of life, but research has shown that females in particular who are active in gymnastics have a later onset of menarche and have a lesser tendency towards breast cancer as adults.

From ages fourteen to twenty-four, education is a very important activity. So the yoga activity needs to be one that is easily remembered and does not take a lot of thought or time. This is the time of life when one can make great use of asana sequences. Most sequences, e.g. surya namaskara, ardha chandra namaskara, poorna chandra namaskara, chandra namaskara sequence, chandra sequence or warrior sequence (see Yoga Education for Children, published by Yoga Publications Trust) are not just asana practices, but also include pranayama (breathing practices) and involve the mind. The value of the sequences is that they are well-rounded sets of asanas that have been put together to bring about the maximum state of health with minimum effort. The breath and concentration that accompanies the postures makes them a complete sadhana.

Felicity

Whichever system we use to develop the individual, it should include methods for developing and directing their emotional states. According to the dictionary, felicity is defined as a condition of supreme happiness; blissfulness, prosperity; appropriateness. According to yoga philosophy, the basis of our nature is bliss. So how can one help the adolescent experience this level of himself? Due to the extreme changes in hormones during this time it is probably difficult to get the teen to even consider this a possibility.

Yoga gives us a technique whereby we can rapidly reduce the physiological symptoms of stress such as fast heart beat, fast breath and excessive adrenaline introduction into the blood stream, and at the same time helps induce clarity of thinking. It is as simple as a complete breath, a slowing down of the whole breathing process and utilizing the total lung capacity. We are not only calming down the internal processes with control of the breath rate, but also improving oxygenation and the resulting benefits to the lungs, skin, etc.

A second form of pranayama which is very important is nadi shodhana whether you practise only happy breathing (alternating without retention) or you go on to develop your own ratio of, say, 1:4:2:2 of inhalation-retention-exhalation-retention. Research done in 1988 using an electro encephalograph (EEG) showed that when the right nostril is blocked and the breath is drawn in through the left nostril, activity in the brain wave patterns in the right side of the brain rose while the same side brain, i.e. left brain hemisphere was quiescence. The opposite was also true; air in the right nostril raises left hemispheric activity.

From research in psychology we know that the different brain hemispheres store different types of information. The left hemisphere is where language abilities, mathematics, etc. are stored whereas the right hemisphere stores information to do with spatial perception, appreciation for arts, music, etc. Studies have also indicated that the majority of the time, either the right or left nostril is dominant in terms of the amount of air entering the lungs through the nostrils. One nostril will be flowing freely and the other slightly engorged. They also noted that approximately every 90 minutes nostril dominance changes. There is usually a short period of seconds when both flow freely and then the dominance changes to the other nostril.

At exam time it is important to be able to be aware of the nostril dominance and understand ways to bring about the free flow in the nostrils and, therefore, stimulation to the side of the brain necessary for exam performance. This can be learnt from a competent teacher.

So the key to felicity is breathing. The more one practises it the more it becomes a natural state.

Focus

Probably the most important question for the adolescent is how to develop the ability to focus the mind. If he wants to play sports, the coach gives exercises to build muscles and stamina. The teachers teach sciences and philosophies, ask him to learn this or that, concentrate on what he is doing. Yet they fail to teach exercises that can build mental muscles for learning, memorizing and concentrating. The primary aim of yoga is to develop consciousness, and there are many yogic techniques for helping to develop dharana and dhyana (concentration and absorption).

Like many other body rhythms, on an average, concentration runs fairly well for about 90 minutes. Then it drops off radically and reaches a point when nothing is going in. It is important that a 10-minute break be taken at this point. When studying is resumed thereafter, the concentration is back at its previous level. These are things that teachers should be aware of.

Relaxed alertness (yoga nidra)

What is important if relaxed alertness or yoga nidra is being used as a learning tool is that then whatever the child wants to memorize should be available on audio tape or disc. The relaxation part of the practice is usually about 10 minutes long, which is followed by listening to the material required to be memorized or learnt. Of course, important to the technique is the instruction: to repeat mentally what is being said. In psychology this is called subliminal rehearsal, and this is a method for storing information in long-term memory.

Relaxed alertness is a great way to learn and prepare for exams, especially if the child has been working hard or actively engaged in sports, and is physically tired. After some time he can bring about the same state of relaxation as while sitting with this practice. It has been shown that we are capable of absorbing more information if we are relaxed.

Fixed gazing

Trataka, the practice of fixed gazing at a point, a candle flame, among other objects, is one of the shatkarmas or cleansing practices. The eyes are fixed on the object and held without blinking or shifting until they start to water. Then the eyes are closed and the tears wash the eyes. When this practice is used to improve memory and concentration, the student is asked to close the eyes before the eyes get tired. At the first stage, the eyes are opened again and one looks at an area above or below the object on which the gaze was fixed, for the counter image. The second stage of the practice is to close the eyes before they are tired and just look inside for the counter image on the retina. One of the best objects for this practice is a candle flame. The height should be so that the flame is high enough to rest between the eyebrows. The distance to sit from the candle is determined by the visual acuity of the practitioner. Those with myopia need to sit closer than those with far vision in order to have a clear image. The wall behind the candle or whatever is being used for the practice should be as plain as possible. A busy wallpaper will be seen in the counter-image as well and make it more difficult to fix on one spot inside.

When watching the counter-image, it will change colours, spin, have dots, fade and move away to one side or up or down. When the counter image starts to move, if you can really watch your mind, you will see that another thought is coming into the mind. So when the counter-image starts to move away, bring it back to the centre and steady it again. With this practice you are not only able to watch your concentration, but also intensify it.

Trataka is also especially good for tackling insomnia. So when one has been studying hard and needs a rest, a bit of trataka will get a good night’s sleep.

Nada yoga

Nada yoga has been found to be very effective if used for about five to ten minutes before major operations in reducing the amount of anaesthesia necessary for surgery. For the adolescent, this practice is very good because we all love to sing and create sounds and by using nada yoga we are able to bring about a state of relaxed alertness within ourselves.

The basic practice of nada yoga is to close the ears and inhale deeply and exhale by humming out or by chanting Ommmm... One listens to the sound from the moment it explodes until the sound totally disappears. After about five to ten minutes, the humming can be stopped, the ears are still closed, and one simply listens. Finally, one may relax the arms, open the ears and sit quietly for a few minutes before opening the eyes. This has a specific effect on the brain wave patterns. When we chant O or AU beta rhythms dominate, when we chant M, alpha rhythms dominate. So, a long O and short M gives alertness and is great for morning chanting. Short O and long M induces introversion and relaxes alpha rhythms in the brain so it is perfect for preparing for meditation or for going to sleep.

In Vienna, nada yoga was taught by a secondary school teacher to children. What he found was that after practising nada yoga the spelling grades of the students improved. They were listening more closely and were able to discern the correct spelling. Listening is an absolute prerequisite to learning to read. So the nada yoga not only brings about a very deep state of relaxation, but can also help facilitate one of the fundamental behaviours necessary for learning to read, that is, listening.