The Secret to Teaching Yoga to Teens (and Preteens)

April 3, 2015    BY Beth Spindler
Teen Yoga

I wish I had before and after photos of the young people I know who have taken on sincere yoga practices. Not because of their physical skill or dramatic backbends, but because of the stillness I've seen dawn in their eyes, the way they begin to respond to questions with more thoughtfulness and insight, and the ease they gain in social settings.

I wish I had before and after photos of the young people I know who have taken on sincere yoga practices.

With its current hipness factor, yoga is an easy sell to preteens and teens, but actually practicing with consistency—and this is the case for any of us really—is the key to making a difference. Nowadays, enrolling in a yoga teacher training or immersion program is often the only way for young students to really dive into practice and study, not unlike the days when master teacher Krishnamacharya devised the rigorous ashtanga series to challenge young people living under his tutelage. Yet not everyone is able to take an intensive or residential study. So, for many young people, public classes and home practice become a self-made course in stress management and life skills that will take them through the decades to come.

As an overweight preteen in the '60s, I encountered yoga in a few books and TV programs, and the hook was set. To this round, bookish girl, fitness, as it was mandated in public school, seemed an endless array of cruel gladiatorial sports. I resigned myself to headaches and hyperventilation in the required dodgeball, relay races, and pull-up contests, and any alternative to the inevitable embarrassment of P.E. was taken with a good deal of internally muttered thanks. But this yoga thing was a whole different matter! Nobody was watching and I could take my 360° hip rotation into all kinds of shapes. The possibilities got my imagination going. I remember dreaming that I could refine my attention into a laser beam, move objects, and see the future while contorting my body into various forms during asana practice. Public classes where I lived were mellow, Sivananda-type hatha yoga, and I fell in love with their coolness and that great after-class feeling.

Years later, when I started teaching yoga to young people myself, I learned that there was much more to it than simply leading a group through a series of asanas. I had to respect the people in class, relate yoga to them, and address their needs—just as in any yoga class. Dumbing down yoga for any student is never a good idea, but with an individuating teenager, it’s unforgivable. My teenage students respond to bandhas (energy locks), agni sara (essence of fire), and other subtle practices, and they love the sweet buzz at the end of a deep shavasana (final relaxation) or the challenge of steadying the mind. Sure, some want to approach yoga as an athletic endeavor, but most are looking to overcome emotional and physical pain, find peace, and discover self-mastery. An added bonus? Tucked deep into the backs of their minds is the secret desire to evolve into Jedi masters, ninjas, and sages—and yoga offers them that chance (without the cumbersome beliefs of adulthood to thwart the drive).

When I started teaching yoga to young people myself, I learned that there was much more to it than simply leading a group through a series of asanas.

Kids can spot a disingenuous person from miles away, like the teen Nachiketa of the Katha Upanishad who questioned his father’s devotion. Dad was a prominent teacher and enjoyed that role. Nachiketa was a keen observer and asked why his father would be making a public show of the offering of aged cattle while retaining his own wealth. Angrily the father cursed his son to go ask Death, so he did! The teen set on his journey to visit the king of death to learn life’s secrets.

Today's young people are hungry for truth as well, and they have this amazing capacity for seeing the real—both bad and good. As I was closing a class at a juvenile courts facility with nine boys, I ended the class with the traditional "namaste." Puzzled looks prompted me to paraphrase, "It means the light in me recognizes the light in you." 

"What light?" asked Carlos, an eager 15-year-old with a tracking device on his ankle.

"The light that's in everybody." 

He turned to the boy next to him, "Namaste, dude."

The boys all joined in the "namaste, dude" recognition, bowing to each other in simultaneous fun and seriousness. It was one of those moments that makes teaching absolutely worth it.

Kids can tell that yoga rewires them too and gets them to their center, to the essence of living, sooner than if they were to follow a more mainstream path. And they also sense that yoga gives them a reliable resource to shape their developing philosophies and aspirations as their seasoned yoga teachers answer questions about their changing bodies and ongoing journeys.

Kids can tell that yoga rewires them too and gets them to their center, to the essence of living, sooner than if they were to follow a more mainstream path.

The type of asana practice undertaken by an adolescent may need to vary according to his/her ayurvedic dosha (unique body-mind type, or humor) so that her practice helps her to achieve and maintain balance. That's why it's good to encourage your students to investigate different hatha styles (many studios will let people ages 10 and up attend adult classes, but, of course, it's always a good idea to check first) and let them know that there's a lot more to yoga than asana. As time goes on, meditation, pranayama (breathwork), and even yamas (restraints) and niyamas (obervances) are great destressors and character-builders that help teens to navigate life's ups and downs.

Here's a description of the different doshas so that you can recognize the temperaments in your classroom (or at home) and help your teens even more:

Vata (air)
A teen with vata imbalance will tend toward erratic behavior and anxiety. She will stay up late, grabbing a couple hours of sleep one night and catching up with twelve on the weekend. He’ll live on cold pizza and microwave popcorn, then invest in a juice fast, then try paleo, then suddenly become vegan. These kids will benefit from alignment-based practice, lots of grounding and centering postures, long, deep breathing, and a regular dose of yoga at the same time each day.

Pitta (fire)
Go, go, go! These kids are into sports and events, joining every club, and you know what? An A- just isn’t good enough! Door-slamming and cutting friends out if they don’t meet the mark are good signs that this child needs a slow, cooling asana practice and some sweet, calming breathwork. Less push, push, push and more mellow styles work best for our fiery perfectionist.

Kapha (earth)
These youngsters are grounded, earthy, and deep. While your kapha child would rather meditate or read about yoga, he could use an energetic, motivating asana class with plenty of movement. Her struggle often shows in her self-deprecating behavior or bouts of depression. Yoga serves as a positive, non-competitive activity that builds confidence in these less-athletic children. Asana gets their bodies moving, and pranayama lifts them up so that they can maintain a healthy outlook.

The teen years aren’t just something to "get through." As teachers and parents, supporting our kids through the crossroads of adolescence is key to helping them root their feet in the ground as they reach for stars. This is an exciting, pivotal time of intrepid adventure, and we can help our children discover their own valor as they reach for their passions. I hear the word "life-changing" often from young students and their parents and, I have to say, when students start young, yoga does seem to get into their bones in the most wonderful way. They may lapse periodically, but these kids remember that yoga boosts them up and helps them master life on all levels. And they do come back to it. They may not learn to levitate, but they do learn to make better choices, and that comes in pretty handy in life.

Check out these quotes from some of my students. Their appreciation and maturity might inspire you to work with teenagers, too!

Blythe, age 18: “I’m thankful that I’ve grown up in a yogic household and been taught awareness. I often see my peers huddled over, filled with anxiety and depression, and I wish they had learned what I have been blessed with knowing.”

Caleb S., age 18: “I practice yoga because it brings me a lot of positivity. I began my practice at the age of 17 with the intention of building flexibility and strength, but found I also gained control over body awareness and breath, increasing my overall health."

"I have learned that yoga in its entirety (asana, pranayama, meditation) takes [away] the angst...that I have, at times, felt in my art. It is a medicine for me to practice yoga.”

Paige, age 18: “I am deeply entrenched in the arts and I use all different mediums from sketching to acting to express my thoughts and relieve whatever is pressing at that moment in time; but I have learned that yoga in its entirety (asana, pranayama, meditation) takes [away] the angst...that I have, at times, felt in my art. It is a medicine for me to practice yoga.”

Caleb B., age 19: “A yoga practice for me began from always admiring it and wanting it, but never having the self-discipline to do it. Once I did begin, it became all I wanted to do and talk about, and I still wanted so much more. Yet I still expected too much from it and wondered why it wasn't helping fix every other area of my life and why I wasn't advancing further. Once I did find a teacher with deeper study...it began to make sense to me. I remember leaving my first weekend of teacher training thinking, "Why wasn't this required in high school?"’

Hannah, age 18: “I began yoga when I was 17 and it quickly became a much-needed 'escape.' As a teenager in this country, everything for us is in excess. We have emotions in excess, pressure to do well in school in excess, social media and constant interaction with our peers in excess, just plain old stuff in excess. It sometimes feels impossible to get away from all of the excessiveness. Yoga provides that outlet to focus on one thing at a time in a culture that's raised us to love multitasking. Now as a college student this 'escape' has transformed into a way through which I live my life: removing the 'excess' both on and off the mat.“

Beth Spindler
Beth Spinder C-IAYT, ERYT500 is a yoga therapist, teacher, and published writer on yoga related subjects. A frequent contributor to YogaInternational.com, she has offered yoga therapy in hospitals, clinics, and schools and has been on staff as a yoga therapist at the Himalayan Institute, Omega Institute, and in centers for addiction and recovery. Beth travels worldwide offering inspiring retreats and trainings at Sivananda Ashrams and private retreat centers. She has studied and taught yoga... Read more>>

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