According to research from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty’s 2005 Global Study, “Beyond Stereotypes: Rebuilding the Foundation of Beauty Beliefs,” 70% of teenage girls who feel bad about their looks respond by withdrawing from life. They avoid school, cancel doctor visits and feel afraid to speak up in class.
More than 90% of girls want to change at least one aspect of their appearance, with most of them picking body weight. Almost 25% would consider plastic surgery to fix perceived flaws, and 13% admit to having an eating disorder. “I believe that poor body image is fairly widespread,” says Elissa Gittes, MD, an adolescent-medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “The media evokes ideals to girls which are often unattainable and unhealthy.”
As wellness professionals, you have an opportunity to help teenage girls develop a healthier body image and a greater sense of self-esteem. One of the best ways to do that? Yoga.
“The practice of yoga (or Pilates), where the mind-body connection is promoted, is a creative and potentially successful way for girls to develop a positive body image,” says Gittes.
Practicing yoga helps teens develop the body-mind connection that Gittes refers to. This connection not only improves body image but also promotes better posture and even alleviates stress.
But is practicing yoga any different from, say, playing on the lacrosse team? Experts say many sports do not foster body-mind awareness in the way that yoga does. “With sports like lacrosse, teens get that adrenaline rush from the cheering crowds. But with yoga, it’s not the crowd cheering that makes you feel good about yourself. You, alone, are responsible for feeling good about yourself,” says Mary Kaye Chryssicas, RYT, and author of Breathe: Yoga for Teens (DK Children 2007). “And sometimes competing and always wanting to be the best is draining and anxiety-producing; so yoga just brings relief.”
Here are some other ways that yoga benefits teenage girls:
“During adolescence, there are growth spurts. The bones tend to grow fast, and the muscles stay a little tighter. This makes it difficult to maintain flexibility in adolescence. The emphasis that yoga puts on flexibility can really help with that problem,” says Kevin Walter, MD, pediatric sports medicine specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
We don’t usually think of teens having muscle tightness, but it’s a real issue for adolescents. Tight muscles can lead to tension headaches and various body aches and pains, says Walter. Increasing flexibility alleviates some of these health issues. As an added bonus, greater flexibility helps prevent sports-related injuries.
Promotes Better Posture
“A lot of the alignment principles of yoga, like drawing your navel to your spine and lifting from the crown of your head, make you engage in proper posture,” says Chryssicas. She points out that many teens become “hunched over” from carrying heavy backpacks and spending massive amounts of time on computers (not just for social networking, but also for homework).Slumped shoulders and poor posture project a poor body image.
When others pick up on this nonverbal message, they tend to respond accordingly. “In my classes with teens, I talk a lot about posture and the way you present yourself. [A healthy] mindset translates into a positive body image,” says Chryssicas.
Improves Body Image While Decreasing Self-Consciousness
It’s no secret that maintaining a positive body image can be quite a challenge for adolescent girls, who are going through extraordinary physical changes and learning to cope with hormonal fluctuations. “This is a time when girls can feel ‘disembodied,’” says Kim Weeks, RYT, founder of Boundless Yoga in Washington, DC. “They feel pressure to have the perfect body and the perfect face.”
Beth Shaw, founder and president of YogaFit Training Systems Worldwide Inc. in Torrance, California, says getting in touch with their bodies through yoga just helps girls feel better. “And that manifests itself out in the world. It becomes a positive cycle,” she says.
For some girls—unless they’re athletes—becoming proficient at yoga represents the first time they’ve experienced their own body strength. For most of these girls, that’s an eye-opening sensation. “You start to realize that it’s a body you can make strong, and you realize the awesome power of it,” says Chryssicas. “That tends to decrease the self-consciousness that teens feel about their bodies.”
The rhythmic breathing and stretching involved in yoga offer teens a natural way to find relief from daily stressors. “One of the basic tenets of yoga is proper breathing,” says Weeks. “When girls are instructed to breathe, they notice how it feels. Breathing in, then letting it go. You’ll find that they start to relax.”
Deep breathing is a common stress-relieving technique, useful for quieting the mind, promoting good sleep and calming the nerves. Yoga just takes this concept several steps further. “The breathing involved in yoga helps with the general overall feeling of well-being,” says Shaw.
During her teen yoga classes, Chryssicas makes a point of discussing the sources of stress and how it affects different parts of the body. “Initially, [girls] have no idea how being excluded at lunch or doing poorly on a test or walking down a crowded hallway can be stressful. It takes a toll on their body and mind. The body tenses up, and the mind acts paranoid or shuts down. Yoga breaks down barriers and helps teens cope,” she says. Chryssicas also talks her teens through poses and explains how each one helps reduce stress, improve balance or strengthen the body. Teens seem to respond well to yoga, she says, when they understand how it helps them. (See “Yoga Poses for Teens” below for recommended postures and “Building Rapport” below for communication tips.)
The breathing that’s taught with yoga can be especially beneficial for teens with a chronic illness. (Be sure, of course, that a physician has cleared them to participate.) “Kids with illnesses such as diabetes and asthma can benefit from yoga as a complement to traditional medicine,” says Walter. “They can get an improved sense of self-esteem and body awareness from yoga.”
Yoga is even used to help kids who are fighting cancer. At the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, yoga classes are offered to help young people deal with the stress of their diagnosis.
“Adolescents tend to think ‘more is better,’ and they dive in and do as much as they can,” says Walter. “With yoga beginners, that’s not safe.”
Urge teens to build a yoga routine slowly and develop flexibility. Have them start with beginning postures, or asanas, and only gradually progress to intermediate poses. You may need to assure students that they’ll see results sooner, rather than later, to get them to slow down!
The bottom line? Teenage girls have a lot on their minds, and that’s stressful. Yoga gives them two things they desperately need: physical fitness and emotional nourishment. “There really is a direct mind-body connection. If the mind feels healthy, the body will feel healthy,” says Chryssicas.
By encouraging teens to practice yoga, you’ll be giving them tools for dealing with the ups and downs of their hectic lives. “The overall fitness they get from yoga can decrease their anxiety. This is huge for teens. They’re trying to figure out how to fit in with their families, their friends, their teachers and, basically, where they belong in this world,” says Walter.
Before teaching yoga to teens, be sure to ask about injuries and illnesses. “Any teen who has had a musculoskeletal injury should talk with a physician before starting yoga,” says Walter. “Some yoga postures can get pretty aggressive, and anyone with a spine, knee or hip injury should be careful.” Walter also advises that teens with a chronic illness, such as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, should speak with a physician before starting yoga.
Here are seven poses recommended by yoga professionals who work with teens:
- mountain pose
- downward dog
- warrior I
- warrior II
- cobbler’s pose
- standing forward fold
As teens progress and move into intermediate-level poses, they usually enjoy sun salutation. This sequence of 10 postures, including downward dog and plank, is done in a rhythmic, repetitive flow. “To help teens get out of their busy minds and into their bodies, the flow style of yoga works well,” says Shaw.
You know that communicating with adolescents can sometimes be a challenge. Mary Kaye Chryssicas, RYT, who’s had great success teaching yoga to teens, offers these six tips for connecting well with them:
- Teens have busy minds, and it’s hard for them to be in the present. Start the class with a reminder about how attention to breathing will help them find a “still” place in the world.
- At the beginning of class, ask each student to tell other class members one fear she has. Barriers break down as girls realize they’re not very different from one other. They relax, and that makes them more likely to respond to yoga, says Chryssicas.
- During each pose, make a connection about why they’re holding this pose. Teens are more likely to try a pose when you explain “why” it benefits their bodies. It also helps them learn to focus on the present instead of thinking about something that happened at school that day.
- Teens worry a lot about failure, so if they fall out of a pose, encourage them to try it again right away. Don’t give them time to think about “failing” in a pose.
- Create visual images during poses. Chryssicas has girls imagine a bright, white light shining down through the crown of their heads and warming their entire bodies. You could also have teens visualize their own peaceful place during a pose.
- As students progress and you add more poses, tell them about the health benefits of different poses. For example, explain which poses improve sleep or help get rid of a headache. Teens suffer a lot from insomnia and headaches. Offer them yoga remedies for their ailments, and like most of us, they’ll be listening!
Breathe: Yoga for Teens by Mary Kaye Chryssicas (DK Children 2007).
The Girls’ Yoga Book: Stretch Your Body, Open Your Mind, and Have Fun! by Michaela Caldwell (Maple Tree 2005).
I Love Yoga: A Source Book for Teens by Ellen Schwartz (Tundra 2003).
Um, Like . . . OM: A Girl Goddess’s Guide to Yoga by Evan Cooper (Little, Brown 2005).
Yoga for Teens: How to Improve Your Fitness, Confidence, Appearance, and Health—And Have Fun Doing It! by Thia Luby (Clear Light Books 1999).
Beverly Blair Harzog is a freelance writer living in Alpharetta, Georgia.