Why stressed-out teens are turning to yoga to maintain their mental and physical health

Just as it can be for adults, yoga can help unite the body and the mind, which can make the demands of daily life easier.

Kat Owens, who teaches yoga at YogaOne in Abu Dhabi, feels ‘the formative adolescent years are not really given the proper attention they deserve’. Delores Johnson / The National
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Practising yoga during teenage years is much more than an exercise regime. Not only does yoga provide an energy outlet and help in building muscle and flexibility, it is also an entry point for a healthy and balanced life.

Kat Owens, who runs programmes for teenagers at Abu Dhabi’s newest yoga studio, YogaOne, says the practice for teenagers is basically an antidote to stress, in what has become an overscheduled world.

Owens has built her career around working with teenagers. The 28-year-old spent years providing counselling and building a supportive environment for underprivileged students between the ages of 16 to 19 in New York’s Brooklyn borough. Her background, however, has always been that of a yoga instructor.

“There is yoga for kids and there is adult yoga – I feel the formative adolescent years are not really given the proper attention they deserve,” she says. “A lot of times, teenagers need a platform to express themselves in a safe environment and be around adults they can trust in a consistent relationship. Yoga can provide that.”

Owens began teaching classes at YogaOne every other week with interest steadily growing among the teenage community.

This week, the studio is set to host a private yoga event for dozens of Emirati teenagers. “Yoga helps teenagers name their emotions, understand their bodies, move and build strength and flexibility, and feel at home in their own skin and learn to self regulate,” says Owens.

And for teenagers in the UAE, who find it difficult to find a part-time job or dedicated hangout spaces and are stuck indoors during the summer, yoga can “build a community, too”, she says.

“When they’re doing yoga, they’re hanging out with each other, with teenagers from other schools that they may not have necessarily met.”

Just as it can be for adults, yoga can help unite the body and the mind, which can make the demands of daily life easier. “Kids here are all from such different countries, with a demanding academic schedule,” says YogaOne’s co-founder Margie Cordon. “They’re so busy they find it hard making friends because people are leaving all the time. Yoga is a safe haven for them.”

Kiala Folkard, from Australia, can relate to the idea that yoga is a safe haven. The 18-year-old student, who will graduate from Raha International School this year before returning to Perth to pursue her higher education, has been doing yoga for three years.

“I exercise regularly anyway, but incorporating yoga helps me recover faster from my gym workouts, and I feel much more relaxed,” says Folkard. “It’s time you can take for yourself – it’s much more personal, focusing on yourself.”

She tends to seek out a yoga session if she needs to relax or after a busy week.

“Kat’s class is a mix between mindfulness and yoga, and makes us really feel like it’s a safe place to talk about how we’re feeling. You definitely feel like you’re getting a workout, but also feel like you’re taking time for yourself and reflecting and being mindful.”

Schools in the UAE are no strangers to yoga as a life skill – some offer an after-school option for children of all ages. In Dubai, Greenfields Community School has set up a mindfulness and well-being room to help students reduce stress, improve their mood and focus on their physical fitness.

“Practising mindfulness has profound impacts on children’s health and overall well-being,” says Rola Ghadban, the school’s mindfulness coordinator. “In my classrooms, I have seen how a daily mindfulness practice can help our students’ mental clarity, emotional intelligence, focus and overall happiness.”

The Ashtanga Yoga studio in Dubai is another place that runs regular workshops and classes for teenagers.

“Yoga gives our children emotional resilience, confidence and focus,” says Sonali Edwards, the studio’s teen yoga programme director. “They learn to reduce their stress and anxiety, and instead sharpen their focus and concentration.”

Natalie Hassanie is such a believer in the importance of teaching yoga and mindfulness to children and teenagers that she set up a company to bring exactly that to Dubai’s schools.

Posetivity, a sports service providing yoga and mindfulness curriculum programmes in schools, teaches children how to overcome their emotional challenges, discover their inner strength and develop positive thinking from an early age – all through yoga and mindfulness classes.

“Yoga and mindfulness can complement any educational curriculum,” says Hassanie. Emily Rentsch, head of the physical education department at Dubai American Academy, strongly agrees. “Students are physically, mentally and emotionally stronger after each class, and they learn the vital life lesson to live with compassion for themselves and for others,” she says.

The key, insists Owens, is to take it slow and build a common rapport with teenagers in a non-judgemental environment where they feel no pressure.

There’s no end to providing teenagers with a safe place that’s also constructive, and really the foundation of yoga’s benefit.

“In our first workshops with teenagers, it was me getting to know them, what their strengths are, what they struggle with, what their biggest stresses are,” says Owens.

She was surprised to find that in the UAE, relationship stress, family stress and behavioural issues are not at the forefront of teenagers’ worries. “It’s academic stress that they worry the most about – they’re not sleeping, they’re overwhelmed,” she says. “They put a lot of pressure on themselves to excel at school.”

Through a combination of yoga, meditation and mindfulness, it is Owens’s aim to teach her students how to handle stress so they aren’t just reacting to what’s happening to them.

“I want them to feel like they have a choice so they can learn to manage time,” says Owens. “They need a safe space to kind of just move their body and breath and notice what comes up – a place without any judgement.”

A yoga class, says Owens, must not be another thing that a teenager has to check off of an endless to-do list. Instead, it’s where they come to get away from it all, “have fun and build a beautiful practice for themselves”.

YogaOne’s Lighten the Load Teen Yoga classes, which teach mindfulness for boys and girls, ages 13 to 18, are usually held on Saturdays at 3pm. Go to www.yogaone.ae for more details

Let the light within you shine

Laura-Helene Kopinski set up the lifestyle consultancy firm Inner Seed in Abu Dhabi about three years ago. The firm provides activities, training, workshops, classes, events and retreats with one thing in mind – nurturing and enhancing inner growth.

Kopinski works closely with children and teenagers – the 30-year-old’s yoga classes combine breathing, meditation, mindfulness and provide space for non-judgemental, open chats.

“The teenage years are a challenging time for kids, as they try to understand their bodies, their emotions, what they can do and achieve,” says Kopinski, who is French-Lebanese. “There’s a lot of pressure for them to contend with.”

Teen yoga, she says, helps alleviate that pressure, and is quite different from children’s yoga. “For kids, yoga is a non-competitive activity for them to explore their body awareness.” “But for teenagers,” says Kopinski, “it’s more about opening up, feeling good, building self-confidence, opening the shoulders and focusing on posture because they tend to close up from all the piled-up emotions”.

Particularly important in teen yoga, stresses Kopinski, is an understanding of mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is a day-to-day thing, not just something to practice in yoga. I want them thinking about mindful eating, mindful choice, disciplining their minds.”

Kopinski also offers private classes for teenagers based on a family’s needs, and hosts teen workshops at the Bodytree Studio in Abu Dhabi.“If I knew there was such a thing as teen yoga for myself as a teenager, it would have been a game changer, definitely,” she says.