About a year ago I was chatting with one of my professors over coffee, and the topic of my extracurricular activities came up. I mentioned running and yoga as things I have kept up with, but also how the volunteer work I did at my church when I was in high school (mentoring junior high students) was something I still had not found a way—nor the scheduling freedom—to continue on campus.
My professor then asked if there was any particular reason why I enjoyed mentoring teenagers, if perhaps my interest in this age group was due to having had a difficult time myself at that age, and wishing a mentor had been there for me. The phrase “at-risk teens” was tossed around, something I felt did not really apply to me or to any of my mentees (based on what I learned from them during those Sunday mornings at church).
My professor then asked if there was any particular reason why I enjoyed mentoring teenagers.
The questioning about “at-risk teens” didn’t dominate the remainder of our conversation, although it did sort of take me off guard. Seated snugly at a too-small table at a café on campus, we were mostly catching up about our summers and sharing our excitement for the coming semester.
Upon further thought, however, I came to realize something that had not surfaced for me between sips of iced coffee that August afternoon.
All of us are at-risk teens.
Okay, sure, maybe you’ve moved past your teenage years and sprung face-first into adulthood. Maybe you’re approaching retirement and watching your grandkids grow up, eager to see them enter and explore the world.
Maybe you’re like me—about to begin the second half of your undergraduate career, kind of independent but also capable of growing seriously homesick. Perhaps you’re also sticking to your antidepressant prescription religiously because you’ve been in that place where you can’t get out of bed and aren’t texting your friends back—a place where you can’t remember who you are. You understand that the possibility of revisiting this version of you always exists, perpetually lurking around the corner.
No matter how often you show up where you are expected to be, and no matter how many mornings you've walked out the front door to proceed with doing what's expected of you, there is the ever-present memory of all the days you didn’t.
Or more accurately, memories of the days you dug yourself into a trench of believing your meanest thoughts and harshest self-criticisms. The way you tricked yourself into thinking you could not and might never again be able to function in the way society expects you to.
Things were not always like this.
Although a soft-spoken kid when growing up, I smiled more often than not. I hugged my relatives unprompted and frequently raised my hand in the classroom. I saw the world as fair and just, with success as something attainable—and believed that even if a plethora of challenges came my way, my own inner dialogue would not be among them.
I was on my own team.
However, because growing up means agreeing to relinquish some of our ignorance, one cup of bliss at a time, there are moments that even from very early on stand out to me as painful. Maybe it was my parents fighting, not having a seat in the cafeteria, or receiving crude text messages (that came before the words “cyber” and “bully” were connected).
Everyone has their own list of pains that cast shadows throughout their childhood. Depending on where you grow up, who your family is, and the cards the universe has dealt you, these bruises may look different on your spirit, on your life, than they do to others.
“Different” doesn’t make any of them “less than”—this is not a competition; this is living.
The reason I consider everyone to be, or to once have been, at risk is because of the unpredictability of what we are asked to survive.
Mental illness is still stigmatized in the world, despite teen suicide creeping into a younger and younger demographic; despite increased acts of violence being rationalized by a “disturbed mental state.” Even despite the fact that, although most of us will push ugly truths to the back of our brains and continue our denial in the hope of conforming, we all experience our own form and shade of mental illness.
I’m not here to tell you “You need help.” Nor would I say that, even if you can keep your composure 95 percent of the time, your mood could still swing just as low as it can for some of us who take store-bought neurotransmitters or sit in the waiting room of a therapist’s office once a week.
But I would like to say that how we overcome our trials, how we keep living, breathing, and dancing is what makes us who we are. Our responses to hardships determine how we grow into ourselves.
Yoga is a practice that has helped me face my insecurities head-on, to challenge the voices that discourage my happiness. Yoga has helped me grow.
Why did I start practicing yoga?
Well, at first it was to calm my nerves before playing travel basketball games. I would pull out some of my mom’s Rodney Yee tapes and stretch, thinking that holding these poses for some extended time made up for the fact that I’d probably sit on the bench for the entirety of the middle school game.
In high school, I quickly discovered my affinity for cross-country—you don’t need as much hand-eye coordination to excel in that sport—and there was a sense of pride that came from tightening times on the mile and noting my own progress, unrelated to how anyone else on my team performed.
The girls' track coach at the time took note of my presence at winter running practices. He taught a yoga gym class at the high school, specifically reserved for upperclassmen. But because my standard freshman gym class was in a period that aligned with the yoga course, the teacher was able to pull a few strings in hopes of increasing the amount of cross-training I could do. By the second semester of my freshman year, I was sitting in with older students for 40 minutes a day, experiencing the effects of yoga.
It was amazing how quiet one room could get in the midst of hallways overflowing with energy, and the sound of lockers clanging shut in between strings of gossip that students wove on the way to class.
For at least those 40 minutes, I remember feeling lighter and not needing to be caught up in the bustle or desperation that comes with being in high school. The power of a daily practice was remarkable. I acquired more flexibility, gained more strength, and found moments of peace that I had never before realized I could attain.
This was my introduction to yoga, although I didn’t fully realize its potential to heal until I had become my most broken, most defeated. Without delving too far into the details of seasons when I wasn’t myself, I can offer you a glimpse of my experience, of the pain yoga has helped to heal, in another way.
My Freedom Tattoo
Part of me felt that my third tattoo marked the end of taking medication. I believed it was the last chapter of my life when the sadness would be unbearable and a finale to my counseling appointments. I had determined that I would no longer use sleep as a getaway coping mechanism—a trap door taking me away from the real world, for as long as I wished.
On my wrist lies my third tattoo, comprised of three lines and a price tag. The ink is etched horizontally across my arm in skinny lines that sometimes prompt others to ask if it is a reflection of my history with self-harm. When I had first told my high school therapist that I thought about cutting more often than I was comfortable with, she had suggested I keep a rubber band around my arm—something discreet enough to not draw attention, yet capable of delivering a sharp sting when snapped, without leaving any scars. Maybe it hadn’t kept the thoughts or impulses away, but it had stopped me from acting on them.
The top line of my tattoo is green; for me, it symbolizes growth, that we are all meant to keep on going—like a traffic light or the trees that stand outside, peacefully still, steady, and strong. The third line is red; this is for pain—for something we remember feeling, along with all the experiences that will hurt us that we haven’t lived through yet. The middle line is black and circles all the way around my arm; attached to it is a price tag marked “0¢,” a reminder to myself that while life can make little to no sense a lot of the time, it is still totally and utterly worth it. Priceless, if you will.
This is my freedom tattoo.
At some point, we are all at risk in one way or another. Yoga is one thing we can use to help ourselves overcome whatever trials we face, to free ourselves.
I know you might feel skeptical. When I experience severe self-doubt or depressive periods and people try to help me, every offering of advice is bittersweet. For instance, how could anyone expect something as simple as yoga to fix all of the problems I saw with myself?
I’m not prescribing yoga as the all-encompassing solution. Even with the practice, there will be pain. But the practice invites us to know the lighter parts of ourselves, the ones that may get buried in the business of everyday life.
While the memories of my initial introduction to yoga have not faded, they became much harder to recall on a winter afternoon, with snow dumping outside my window. The memories sank beneath my inner dialogue, the one telling me to stay in bed. My previous instruction in how to find peace was hidden beneath the false convictions that I didn’t have what it took to make my way to the campus workout center—and that no one would miss me anyway if I didn’t show up for practice.
Something I had forgotten was that in order to benefit from yoga, you do not need heaps of self-confidence. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t practiced in days, weeks, or years, and no one actually cares if you fall out of tree pose. Those standing behind you aren’t there to watch you succeed or stumble—they are there for themselves.
Yoga invites you to sit down with yourself. In a world that is constantly asking us to move, to be better, be smarter, be the best, yoga asks us to come as we are.
It can be as easy as fluttering your eyes closed, keeping track of your breath, and removing yourself from the burden of the worst thoughts that stomp their way through your mind.
You can become a smoothie-drinking, animal-loving, more-flexible-than-most yogi, or you can transform into a version of yourself that appreciates, acknowledges, and loves who you are and who you continue to be. You can even practice without the studio, teacher, or the mat—maybe it’s just being mindful, stretching while standing up out of bed and reminding yourself to breathe.
I will not say that yoga saved my life. I think placing that kind of credit on practices, medications, or other people negates some of the gratitude we ought to give ourselves.
Yoga has been most vital in the moments when I continued to inhale and exhale despite everything that made me wish for the opposite.
But yoga has always been available to me. Part of me realizes now that I practiced it when I was most afraid of what I would do next, even though that wasn’t a conscious choice I made at the time. I have only deliberately used it to help me when I took the time to bring awareness to myself, instead of letting distractions take me away from my pain. Yoga has been most vital in the moments when I continued to inhale and exhale despite everything that made me wish for the opposite.
When we ask ourselves to press forward, to try again, to stay, our lives begin to mean more. When we pave a path of practice—a life for ourselves that is built upon love—even the harshest, sharpest times can become lighter.
Yoga is for anyone who can see the value of a practice and can believe in the potential results it offers. You don’t have to be anyone other than yourself. Growth is natural and something we are all capable of. Come to your mat, find your breath, and soak up silence—appreciate all you’ve done for yourself.
For better or for worse, your past will remain. But you have an entire life still waiting for you. Enjoy right now and offer love to yourself; you deserve to be here.