As we come into exam season in Australia, many students, teachers and parents will be asking themselves how they can stave off anxiety and manage their stress. This is often a time when schools turn to yoga or mindfulness. Strictly speaking, it is always optimal to bring in yoga earlier, so that it sets a strong foundation of calm to work from, but it certainly does work to bring in certain anti-stress practices at a later stage too.
The Teen Yoga Foundation have a You tube channel ( https://studio.youtube.com/video/CjGa73A4APM/edit/basic) with videos specifically designed to help at this time that goes with a set of Mood Cards (https://teenyoga.com/product/moodcards/) which can be ordered from our representative – Kathy@teenyoga.com.
We know that yoga supports wellbeing, reduces stress, improves focus and improves quality of sleep. In 2018-2019, the Teen Yoga Foundation coordinated and ran a project together with the European Union, which involved 750 young people from 5 countries receiving 10 weeks of yoga together with the staff. This intervention was measured and researched, we created an infographic of the results which you can see here.
How does this work? How can yoga be so effective?
Many scientists have been looking at this over the years and there are a few important factors that seem to stand out.
- GABA is a neurotransmitter in the brain which downgrades anxiety and according to Dr Chris Streeter’s research, is produced during yoga practise.
- When we extend our exhalation as we do in yoga, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system, which induces the Relaxation Response. (see research by Dr Herbert Benson)
- When we stretch the muscles in the body, the muscles send a message to the brain to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. (see research by van der Kolk and Dr Porges)
- When we alternate between aerobic exercise as in a strenuous sun salutation or vinyasa flow and a relaxation, we increase the Heart Rate Variablity, which is an indicator of physical and psychological resilience. See Dr Shirley Telles papers on this. (https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-21928-005)
- Holding balancing poses and measuring our breathing, helps focus and concentration, one of the essential eight limbs of yoga. Focus and concentration are probably two of the most important elements of learning.
- The Amygdala (fear button) in the brain is down regulated in yoga and the Hippocampus grows, making more room for learning. (Dr Streeter)
- Wellbeing is a loose term which we can tie it down to mean feeling connected and understood – each TeenYoga class has a strong element of fun and supportive community, as it is non-competitive and honours each body as different and unique.
- The philosophy of yoga espouses positive thinking, support, belonging and connection to ourselves, our community and the world, giving us meaning and support through tough times.
So how do we introduce yoga to a group of young people about to start their exams?
Here are some top tips, that have been tried and tested over the last 17 years I have been teaching young people yoga and training people to deliver yoga to teens.
- Have fun!! Laughter is the best medicine! Start with some silliness, warming up the body to some music, dancing or just jumping and swinging from side to side. You could also start with stuck in the mud, yoga style – meaning when youre “it” you tag someone and they need to get into a yoga posture, which others then free you from by crawling under you. This is a fun game for all ages and usually goes down well.
- Do some strong exercises to reduce cortisol, leg exercises are particularly good for this – lots of chair to warrior – see who can hold a warrior for the longest, feel the burn!!
- Relaxxxxx – get them to lie on their tummies and feel the breath move their body on the floor.
- Long deep stretches to release tension in neck and shoulders and lower back
- Stretches in wrists and hands to counteract long sessions at the computer.
- Then introduce some breathing exercises, particularly the square breathing technique, which is an inhalation as you trace one side of the square (could be a book), hold the breath for one side, exhale for one and pause for the last side of the square. Then to finish off and to have some fun, you could introduce the humming bee breath, which allows the mind to quieten yet remain alert.
- Visualisations – of the exam, of being calm, of things not really mattering that much, of feeling good.
- Check in – let the young people chat about their feelings and be a sounding board for them.
If they are weirded out by yoga, you can do many of the above exercises on a chair, which makes it a bit more accessible in the beginning and also something they can do in the classroom.
For more ideas, you could check out the Teen Yoga Foundation you tube channel, buy the Mood Cards or take the highly acclaimed TeenYoga course. (www.teenyoga.com)
More than ever, we need to bring wellbeing tools to our young people. Yoga is an effective and proven tool which engenders emotional self-efficacy, resilience and regard for others. Many thousands of TeenYoga teachers in Australia and across the globe are enjoying the results of their yoga classes, with young people leaving school with a sturdy toolkit for life, why don’t you join them?