Studies have shown the positive effects of children growing with a shared spiritual relationship during their childhood.
Why Spirituality for Youth
“Spirituality is the central organizing principle of inner life in teenagers," says Dr. Lisa Miller, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University. Children are naturally spiritual and are closest to the rhythm of the universe.1 They are filled with a sense of wonder — the Rasa of Vismaya — for all things new and dynamic, be it nature, animals, or man-made technological wonders.
Religion and Spirituality are not two separate concepts. Similarly, yoga and spirituality are not separate concepts. When there is a leap of faith in something beyond the body and mind that makes us who we are, there is a seeker in us. When there is a faith in the rhythm of nature and its laws to take care of everyday life, there is peace within us. Practices such as worship and rituals, asana practice on the mat, or a seated meditation are all different paths of yoga and spirituality to reach Moksha, the highest freedom and supreme happiness.
Dr. Lisa Miller has also shown in her research studies that children who grow up with spirituality and religious practices in the household are better at coping with difficulties in life; better than children who have no religious background.
Adolescence - the cusp of life
Emotionally, adolescence is the most difficult stage of human life. As children turn into adolescents, they try to individuate and find their own identity. However, they lack the life skills and the strength of character needed to take complete responsibility for their lives. They are at the cusp of needing parents and wanting to be free from parental patronage. This brings duality in both the adolescent and the parent. Spirituality offers emotional resilience to be able to handle this confusion. Spirituality also helps adolescents build healthy relationships with their peers and keep an open communication with their parents.
As the child grows to be a teenager, their sense of wonder and curiosity turns into creativity and innovativeness, along with adventurous and risk-taking behaviours. They like to try everything new, whether it is positive or negative. They are prone to making mistakes, being impulsive and careless, and defy the rules set by the parents and by the community.
Adolescence is the time of life when one needs their entire “village” for support and encouragement if one wishes to grow up to be a healthy and happy individual. A positive spiritual experience with a family member or a mentor can bring a total inner transformation to the life of an adolescent. Dr. Lisa Miller notes in her book, “Spiritual Child”, “Even a single powerful childhood experience of spiritual awareness can be a lasting source of guidance through adulthood”.
However, youth today are growing up in dangerously difficult environments. The competitive atmosphere where they are pressured to outperform their peers brings a toxic environment where they are forced to develop jealousy and a judgemental nature towards their peers. It also forces them to seek unethical shortcuts to beat the competition. Social bullying is perhaps one of the side effects of this toxic environment. A few decades ago, youth were bullied in school during break time or after school. However, when they were back home, they were free of this humiliation. With social media weighing down on today's youth, they are in a pressure chamber of being judged or bullied constantly. This ghost of a bully does not leave the teenager even at night.
According to Center for Disease Control (CDC), 8.9% of American high school students surveyed attempted suicide and 18.8% of high school students “seriously considered” attempting suicide. This number is higher in competitive atmospheres such as within Asian families.
Boredom and Restlessness
With a surge of technological advancements, youth are bombarded with devices to distract them. The pace of life has gained so much speed that every minute, the youth need something new and exciting to keep them busy. They are easily bored.2 It is true that teenagers generally have raging hormones that make them restless. If they are not taught to handle this energy, they can easily get into trouble.
Youth are seeing their identity, but this is a slow process during their adolescence. They need leisurely time and space for trial and error before they know who they are or want to be. They will be unpredictable and impulsive because that is how they figure out their identity. However, this stage of psychosocial development where there is identity versus role confusion is exacerbated by peer pressure and parental expectations.
As a result, they tend to “act out” instead of being genuine and honest about themselves. This acting out can initially be seen as a show they are putting up for others. If this behavior continues, however, it can lead to self-denial and self-deceit. If they are not taught to be true to themselves, and express their vulnerability, they may become complex individuals with personality disorders and can develop anxiety and depression.
It can affect their growth, career, relationships and their social wellness. Youth need a safety net where family, friends, a yoga teacher, a mentor, or a guru is holding that space for them. We need to give them freedom to explore.
We all seek happiness in the objects outside. Youths are no different. Adolescence is the most unhappy and restless period of our lives, owing to the identity-seeking that this period compels us towards. When the teenager is not trained to find happiness in the right way, they take to substance abuse or develop sexual irresponsibility. However, one should understand that the only attempt that the teenager is making is to become happy. If they are not properly guided, they can get into pleasure seeking substances compulsively.2
Youth need an environment to become authentic and to be willing to share their vulnerability with a mentor. While the West has developed the entire field of psychotherapy for this reason, it does not offer a sacred relationship. Almost half of people drop out prematurely (Swift, J. K., & Greenberg, R. P. (2012).3 And Western psychology is beginning to acknowledge the importance of “Therapeutic Relationship” for client compliance.
Yoga brings a relationship of reverence and an environment of ethical coziness for the youth. Here ethics (Yama and Niyama) are explored but not mandated. Patanjali’s yoga sutras start with ethics as the basic foundation to calming down the mind (Chitta Vritti Nirodha). The entire Ashtanga Yoga is centered on mastering the mind. Rituals such as namaste, bowing down, a little prayer/mantra before and after the class, or a simple Aum chanting are all followed, but never forced on anyone.
Divine and sacred blessedness is present, but there is no scope for debate of confusion about “my path” or “your path”. It is a purest form of religion that the ancient Hindu sages have nurtured from time immemorial.
Such a sacred relationship alone can enable the adolescent to be able to share their vulnerabilities and seek solutions. Let us provide our youth with such a space.
Yoga for the Youth
Yoga helps with the overall development of youth. It teaches patience and tolerance to the high achievers who might need to be in a class which is slower than their pace. On the other hand, yoga teaches will power, confidence, and concentration to those who are struggling. Mental awareness during their studies helps develop memory retention, and relaxing after every learning session helps them develop associative memory where they develop the ability to think deeper, associate concepts with real life situations, and develop intuition.
Techniques to Build Concentration and Awareness
Gazing helps students to improve their focus and attention. In fact, one of the tests that is done for children to measure their attention span is by asking them to gaze on objects as instructed. An observed characteristic of some ADHD individuals is their inability to follow simple instructions related to focusing visually on two objects in succession. Classic Vriksasana (Tree Pose) helps them gaze at one point as they stand on one leg. With repeated practice, they will learn to stand still, gaze fixed and focus on a point.
Balancing practices help youth develop focus as well. Vrikshasana (Tree Pose) or Veerabhadrasana (Warrior Pose) helps them to stand balancing their body along with giving them physical strength in the legs and the core.
Chanting - Sound is the other way to calm down the mind, since the mind thinks in terms of chatter. Simple chants of Aum help them calm down the inner chatter. Chanting Bhramari in shashankasana (Child Pose) is shown to help with ADHD.
Challenging Yoga poses - Practicing yoga helps youth strengthen their body and mind. A strong body makes a strong mind. When they regularly practice yoga as a weekly regimen, their awareness improves. It also sets the stage towards a healthy lifestyle as adults. A benchmark of health and happiness once tasted, will always be a thing to look forward to as they grow up.
Spirituality is necessary for children to grow up to become healthy and happy adults. Studies have shown the positive effects of children growing with a shared spiritual relationship during their childhood.
Emotionally, adolescence is the most difficult stage of human life. They need to individuate and find their own identity. Unfortunately, adolescents of today are in a toxic environment of peer pressure and intense competition. The problems of adolescence include hormonal surges leading to boredom and restlessness, addiction tendencies, and acting out to seek validation from peers, teachers, and parents.
Youth need an environment to become authentic and to be willing to share their vulnerability with a mentor. They need a positive shared relationship with a guru or a yoga teacher.
Spirituality practice as family rituals can help them grow spiritually. Also, the practice of different yoga practices such as balancing poses, gazing practices, strengthening and challenging asanas, pranayama and meditation can help youth develop self-confidence. Healthy body can bring forth a happy mind. Then the youth does not have to seek happiness in substances outside.
The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving by Dr. Lisa Miller.
Harvard Graduate School of Education - Bored Out of Their Minds By Zachary Jason https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/01/bored-out-their-minds
Swift, J. K., & Greenberg, R. P. (2012). Premature discontinuation in adult psychotherapy: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 80(4), 547–559. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028226
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