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Yoga Therapy for Teens with Anxiety and Depression

Tim Hardy Photography
Images Contributed by- Shawnee Thornton Hardy

Yoga Therapy involves taking an individual assessment for each person who receives it as a healing therapy. In Yoga Therapy we cannot make generalities about “all teens” and “what is best for teens.” This has been confirmed by my 21 years of being an educator with teens. And what I know is that no two teens are alike. Each teen deserves to be related to as a unique human being with their personal gifts and challenges.

We have to sit with them, listen to each one and dig deeply to understand how to connect with them.

Interestingly, most of the causes of anxiety and depression in adults are similar for teens. These include negative thinking, negative feelings about self, problems with friends and family, past trauma, divorce, moving often, chronic illness in their families, taking on too much in life, financial problems, drug use and abuse and not enough self-care.

The thing that is different for teens is that their brains are not fully developed like the brain of an adult is. The frontal lobe of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) is used for making judgments, decision making, reasoning, problem solving, impulse control and control of emotions. The brain develops from the back of the head to the front over many years. The last part of the brain matures at about age 24-26 years old. Some even say the target age for full development is now 30 years, due to long amounts of time spent on screens and with technology. It should also be noted that this final brain development occurs at a time when the teen is trying to form their self-identity.

In addition, there are chemical changes happening in the teen’s brain that limit their ability to self-soothe when stressed or think through the consequences of risky and impulsive behavior. We also know that teens are more likely to become addicted to substances like alcohol, drugs and nicotine more easily than adults because of the chemical changes happening in their brains.

I am sure you can see the challenge that today’s youth face. First, they are living lives that are very similar to adults in terms of stress and exposure to adult activities and expectations. But the teen’s brains are not developed enough to be able to think through consequences of behavior, problem solve, or control impulses and emotions. And this is where they need adults to help them understand the reality of their situation.

It is simply like trying to drive from New York to California with 3 wheels on the car instead of 4!

The first goal is to help the teen have the awareness that he or she only has 3 wheels for the journey (at this time). This is not a judgment or a way to put the teen down. It is helping them to understand that they are normal. That being a teen is tough. They need to know that there will be more tools they will develop (like a fully functioning brain) in the future. The experiences they are having now will not always be like it is today. The problem is that when we as humans (and teens) are suffering, we think it will be like this forever. It won’t.

And we need to remind them that the only constant is change.

So where does Yoga Therapy fit into all of this?

As Yoga Therapists, we hold space for teens to feel the powerful feelings that they feel, to feel anxious and depressed, to be with their suffering. And trust me, they are often suffering! And sometimes just having someone listen without an agenda or judgment, to give empathy, and to understand their experience is a big deal. But then in Yoga Therapy can teach them coping skills to deal (to make-up for the missing 4th wheel). Coping skills include breathing techniques, meditation tools, learning how to cultivate an opposite perspective, learning to trust themselves, tuning into intuition, learning to regulate mood and emotions and energy…and more!

The teens that I work with are super interested in Yoga and Yoga Therapy when they find out what it can do for them. More specifically, they are very interested when they experience what Yoga Therapy can do for them. The moment when they see what their bodies are capable of in the yoga postures (which is often surprising for those who are not athletic) is such a joy to watch.

The day the teen realizes that they can use their own breath to control anxiety is an amazing day.

Yoga Therapy is full of self-empowering tools for emotion and mood management. This ability to have some self-control is what teens need when they feel so out of control and unable to manage impulses. It gives them a yellow light to slow down and think through what the consequences of their behaviors will be.

Furthermore, this is the best news yet! Yoga techniques can even help the teen to continue to develop the pre-frontal cortex of their brain! So the same tools that help teens accommodate for that missing wheel actually help them grow the 4th wheel!

This is good news for both the developing teen and the adults who care about them. If you want to find a Yoga Therapist to work with your teen, check out the website and put in your zip code. This will give you a qualified Yoga Therapist to work with your teen!


Amy Wheeler, Ph.D. is a Professor of Kinesiology at California State University, San Bernardino for 20+ years. Amy's degrees include a B.A. and M.A. in Health Promotion and a Ph.D. in Education and Psychology. Amy has travelled to India many times and was certified to teach Yoga/ Yoga Therapy in the Tradition of T. Krishnamacharya. Before that, she was certified by several other internationally recognized Yoga and Yoga Therapy Training Programs. She is the President of the Board of Directors for the International Association of Yoga Therapist (IAYT). Amy also helped the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) set standards for Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy. Amy is the Founder and Director of Optimal State of Living Programs, which provides both Yoga and Yoga Therapy Training Programs. See for details.

Find Amy on our Faculty Page!

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