Mindlab: Benefits of Teen Yoga

Understanding the adolescent brain is essential. Before we go on to talk about the benefits of Yoga for teenagers we must share the current findings on the development of the brain at this important stage of life. The adolescent years are from around 12 – 24.

There are critical phases of brain growth in children – first, between the ages of 0 – 3 years and then again between 10 – 13 years. There is an overproduction of the number of neurons and synapses in the brain during these times. This gives the brain enormous potential, and is quickly followed by a phase of pruning and organizing of neural pathways, which of course, depends upon the experience of the individual. Learning is then a process of creating and strengthening frequently used synapses, (the brain discards unused synapses), resulting in the brain keeping only the “strong” synapses. Repetitive experience then determines which synapses flourish and which are pruned away.

Reading, sports, music, video games, x-box, spending time with friends – whatever a child/teen is experiencing – these are the neural synapses that will be retained.

How children/teens spend their time is CRUCIAL to brain development since their activities guide the structure of the brain.

Research is also showing that adolescents use the amygdalae to process emotional content while adults depend more on the rational pre frontal cortex (which is not fully developed in adolescents until the age of 25). The amygdalae, amongst other actions, is known as the emotional centre of the brain. From this understanding it may be a reason why adolescents often react more impulsively than adults as some of the “ executive functions” of the pre frontal cortex which include: focusing attention, organizing thoughts and problem solving, shifting/adjusting behavior when situations change, inhibiting inappropriate behavior and initiating appropriate behavior, and modulation of intense emotions – may be hazy. These factors are often joked as being absent in the average teenager.

 Yoga and meditation help build the bridge between the amygdalae (emotional centre) and pre-frontal cortex development in the young adult.

The underdevelopment of the frontal lobe/pre frontal cortex, make adolescents more prone to “behave emotionally or with ‘gut’ reactions, particularly in boys, as the connections between the pre frontal lobe and the rest of the brain do not develop until after 15.

So how does this information bring forth a case for Yoga?

Neuroscience is showing that breathing practices, meditation and yoga postures activate what is known as the ‘relaxation response’ within the body. (Dr Herbet Benson, Harvard Medical School)

This is the activation of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, often known as the rest and digest system. These practices are also shown to stimulate more activity within the pre frontal cortex and less activity in the amygdalae. According to research carried out by Dr Sara Lazar, they saw that after 8 weeks of Mindfulness and Yoga training, there was a reduction in the size of the amygdalae, which related to less emotional reactivity. This research alone should be enough to be encouraging adolescents to embrace these practices or for our education system to be implementing Yoga into the P.E curriculum.

So we did a little delving and guess what we found…. Yoga has been included in the GCSE Physical Education Specifications under the skills of Exercising safely and effectively to improve health and well-being”. So why aren’t schools exploring this? It seems they are in the UK.

Yoga is all-inclusive. For teens who don’t want to play sport it is ideal, for those who want to improve their sport it is ideal, and for those who want to find inner peace and happiness it is essential. On their Yoga mat they have the chance to be fully who they are, and it is encouraged. Judgement does not come into Yoga, it is actively avoided, and if it does arise we are taught to acknowledge it and let it go. It is a chance for each individual to explore and get to know their bodies and how their minds react to difficulty. They learn skills through different yogic practices of self-care, self-discipline and a sense of community. Compassion and empathy for themselves and others is encouraged every time they arrive on their mat. They learn tools to help with emotional regulation, they get to move, build inner strength and flexibility which lays solid foundations for self-confidence to grow as teenagers.

Is this enough of a case? We would love to hear your thoughts. If you know there is an opportunity to bring Yoga to schools then please, do push forward, and get in touch – it is such a wonderful opportunity.

Please visit the Yoga icon on our site for a timetable of classes or get in touch via nicky@mindfulguernsey.com for 1-2-1 sessions.