Why Teaching Yoga to Teens Is Different Than Teaching Yoga to Adults
I’ll admit I had my doubts when one of my regular yoga students brought her soft-spoken 15-year-old grandson to my teacher training program. Denton was homeschooled, and they were logging his yoga training for social studies, foreign language, and physical education credit hours. He was timid and serious, and I wondered if he’d be able to keep up with the mature adults in the training. But as time went on, he surprised me with his quick grasp of Sanskrit, asana, and biomechanics. I was even more surprised when he embraced the teaching methods and demonstrated the boldness needed to instruct others. By the time Denton was 18, he was teaching a Sanskrit class component to my 500-hour teacher trainees, and he could explain the mechanics of a pose with the command of any anatomy professor. Denton taught me not to doubt the power of an adolescent mind when applied to a passion for yoga.
As time went on, he surprised me with his quick grasp of Sanskrit, asana, and biomechanics.
The teenage brain is both complex and developing quickly. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the changes to the brain and reproductive system between the ages of 12 and 19 are enormous, and the shifts in reproductive and stress hormones during that time can affect thinking and behavior. Many of us remember our teen years as a time of high anxiety and depression, when we could well have used yoga’s benefits. Learning yoga practices at this stage in development can be a game-changer in dealing with hormonal fluctuations, and they provide teens with lifetime tools for stress management.
In addition to yoga being particularly beneficial to teens, the teenage years are a uniquely opportune time of life for learning and integrating yoga practices. Not only are adolescents at or near a lifetime peak of strength and physical ability, but learning during this period is rapid because the brain’s intellectual power and learning capacity are at a near-maximum. Behavioral tests and functional brain imaging suggest that the parts of the teenage brain used to learn yoga or any other skill are distinctly different from those of adults or younger children. At this stage of development, there is more connection between the various areas of the brain, and memory is often astounding.
I’ve worked with young people in both regular yoga classes and in facilities for youth in crisis, and each class has helped me to expand the scope of my teaching. In the early years, I taught a somewhat watered-down version of an adult class in order to “unweird” the yoga practices for teens. But over time, I’ve found that the unique qualities of the teenage mind often allow them to comprehend many breath practices, bandhas (energetic locks), and mudras (gestures of the eyes, hands, tongue, etc.) that adults might find hard to fathom. Teenagers tend to find the more "offbeat practices" (meaning those that go beyond vinyasa) interesting—practices like bhuta shuddhi or those from Kundalini yoga—and they are very sensitive to the energetic boosts these practices provide.
The “feel good” element is also important to teenagers. Rather than plowing through fast fitness-focused sequences, most teens respond well to taking time to feel the effects of a yoga posture—whether it’s a challenging arm balance or a calming twist. Explanations of the movement of the prana vayus, and why a particular movement may cause us to feel a certain way, is of great interest to young connective minds.
Rather than plowing through fast fitness-focused sequences, most teens respond well to taking time to feel the effects of a yoga posture.
When I’m practicing a similar set of postures from week to week with a group of young people, I find it helpful to offer a different piece of the puzzle each week. Introducing breath focus one week, and an exploration of alignment or learning Sanskrit names the next, helps to keep these quick young minds engaged in the vast world of what makes yoga yoga.
I’ve also come to believe that it’s important for a teacher to remember that every sensation, every perceived judgment, every embarrassment is felt more deeply in the teen years. When we’re young, we also remember the music, friends, and good times of those years more clearly because of the quick connective nature of our brains. So, making a yoga class a positive experience that teens want to return to—with acceptance of diversity, genuine encouragement, and time to laugh—can give them a positive impression of yoga overall that might be just the catalyst that keeps them practicing throughout their adult lives.
It makes sense to me why, in early India, a novitiate’s teen years were traditionally spent with his teacher, as the developing, eager brain of adolescence is wired for the rigors of yoga study. While our modern culture doesn’t often send teens away to study yoga in ashrams, yoga teachers can make a pivotal difference in the lives of young students. And filling your teen class with the fun and geeky things that once made your jaw drop or helped you see the big picture of yoga study (such as anatomy, teaching methodology, and philosophy) may be just the ticket for enthralling young yogis’ minds.
Tips for Teaching Teens
- Don’t underestimate what adolescents can learn.
- Help students to welcome new challenges, both mental and physical.
- Keep it fresh by including elements of fun in each class (lively kriyas, games, interesting breath practices, etc.).
- Be sensitive to trauma history with your choices in touch and languaging.
- Slow down. Explore the internal effects of the poses and practices more than focusing on achievement, helping students understand the stress-management benefits of yoga firsthand.
- Give students the chance to ask questions.
- Allow those students with an interest in teaching the chance to try it out with peers by letting them teach a pose or a sequence they’ve been practicing.
- Remember what it felt like to be a teen, as your empathy is the best tool for encouraging young people to develop a valuable practice they can refine throughout their lives.