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TEEN MENTAL HEALTH & the Vagus Nerve

By Veronica Greene  (Printed in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine MARCH 2019)

 

Teen Mental Health is at an all-time low, with anxiety disorders reported as the most common mental health condition.

Teen anxiety manifests in a number of different ways including:- Generalised Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Phobias, Social Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
While the exact cause is not known, contributing factors are Genetics, Brain Chemistry, Stressful Events and Home Environments.

Anxiety affects everyone and doesn’t differentiate between age, gender, background or social group. It is a part of everyday life and is a normal reaction to stressful events or fearful situations and can in fact help us ‘perform’ or deal with an overwhelming situation. Anxiety triggers the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) or more commonly referred to as the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. Simply put hormones are released to prepare the body to either stay and face the threat or to run in the opposite direction.

Physical changes include dilated pupils resulting in better vision, to assess the situation; increased heart rate and respiration as the body supplies more oxygen to the muscles; trembling as the muscles become tense, ready to respond; loss of skin colour as the blood supply moves directly to the muscles and brain all in preparation for the “fight or flight”.
 
Incredibly useful response but for many Teens this response is now interfering with their everyday life.
 
Their body is triggering this response as a reaction to their perceived threat which maybe as simple as getting into school. The threat often triggered by a thought, resulting in an emotion, resulting in a stress response. It becomes a catch 22 situation as the stress response makes them hyper vigilant to the physical changes in their body causing more fear and activating more stress hormones.

Adults, care providers, parents talk freely about the issues and their perceived causes – social media, blue light from computer screens/mobile devices, fashion gone crazy, parents busy working, bad diet, not enough exercise etc.

It’s true that teenagers today live in a very different world to the teenage life their parents lived.
 
So what is the answer?
 
The reality is that there is no one path that can lead to a solution but a combination of love, support, space, knowledge and the realisation that they are not alone and not the first to feel this way.
 
Can Yoga help?
 

Yes, combined with conventional medicine and other experiential therapies to create a holistic approach between mind and body.

Bessel A. van der Kolk, clinical psychiatrist and author of ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ states that, “Body awareness is a necessary aspect of effective emotion regulation. Learning to notice, tolerate, and manage somatic experience may substantially promote emotion regulation.”

More specifically, there are certain postures in yoga which activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is why we experience relaxation or calmness in a yoga class.

The PNS is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system. It’s the polar opposite of the SNS where energy is conserved, the heart rate and blood pressure are lowered and the digestive system is activated.

The PNS is triggered by the Vagus Nerve. The Vagus Nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves. It’s the longest, travelling from the brain stem to the abdomen. It helps control most of the thoraciac and abdominal organs – including the lungs, heart, espophagus, stomach, intestines & kidney.

There has been a lot of talk and information about the Vagus Nerve in the yoga world and how creating ‘tone’ in this nerve can help us to lead more calm and peaceful lives.
 
What does that mean?
 
In layman terms it’s a bit like using weights to develop muscular strength. The more weight we use, the stronger the muscles become.

With respect to the Vagus Nerve, the more we activate it the more proficient the body becomes at engaging it’s ‘Rest and Digest’ system, resulting in the stress response being deactivated. Effectively we are setting up the neural pathways for a calmer life!
 
So how do we tone it?
 
Meditation and relaxation techniques are all incredibly useful in helping ease anxious feelings and triggering the vagus nerve. However, in practice, getting teens to lie still can be challenging. Many will fidget or become distracted making the relaxation segment almost impossible. For many who suffer from extreme anxiety, lying still promotes more fear and a sense of panic. Some breathing techniques can cause an anxious teen to over breath thus hyperventilate and bring on a panic attack.
 
The following 3 postures are practical solutions to engage a TEEN in ‘relaxation’, to ignite a sense of calm while toning the vagal nerve.
 
All of the techniques use props, which gives the ‘mind’ something else to focus on without becoming a distraction. These are tolerated well – even the most anxious teen will participate and find peace for a moment or two.
 
Head Hammock

  • Loop a belt – the folded belt should reach from hip to heel
  • Lie on your back with knees bent
  • Place the belt buckle at the nape of the neck, passing either side of strap behind ears
  • Put the ball of your foot in the other end and extend that leg towards the ceiling
  • Other leg can remain bent or straight depending on tightness of hamstrings or comfort
  • Hold for 3 minutes (each leg)

 

Supported Bridge (Chatushpadasana)

  • Lie on the floor with your knees bent
  • Lift pelvis and place one block, lengthwise across the sacrum making sure the pelvis is parallel to the floor and not tilted towards the ceiling
  • Repeat 3 times adding a block, rolling the shoulders under each time checking that the pelvis is neutral and parallel to the floor
  • With 4 blocks under the sacrum, press the upper arms to the floor, bringing chest towards chin.
  • Hold for up to 5 minutes

 

Alternate Nostril breathing (simplified finger position)

(explain that you will introduce the breathing pattern but that everyone breathes at a different rate)

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your back supported – could be on a chair or crossed legs with back to a wall.
  • Place the thumb of your right hand over the right nostril and the first 2 fingers over the left nostril
  • Draw right arm towards body and support the elbow with the left hand
  • Breathe in through your nose then out through your nose
  • Close the ‘thumb side’ (right nostril gently with thumb) and breathe in through the ‘finger side’.
  • Close ‘finger side’ release ‘thumb side’ and breathe out ‘thumb side’
  • Breathe in ‘thumb side’, close ‘thumb side’, release ‘finger side’ and breathe out ‘finger side’
  • Repeat around 5-10 cycles with 1 cycle being an inhalation and exhalation on both sides.

Veronica Greene founded Little Greene Yoga® and offers a Certified Children’s Teacher Training package (for 3-5yrs; 5-8yrs; 8-12yrs & Teens) www.LittleGreeneYoga.com

 

LGY TEEN – Mind & Body Teacher Training course is packed with practical tips to engage with teens and create a successful Teen yoga class.

 

Why do Teens do Yoga

By Veronica Greene (printed in Om magazine May 2018)

Nearly everyone can list the benefits of yoga…………increased fitness; better body awareness; better posture; balanced hormones; increased immunity; lower stress and all round better health and wellbeing.
These factors attract many pupils to yoga classes of varied disciplines but often are not enough to keep them attending on a continued basis.
Kids can also achieve the same benefits from yoga and can be enticed by making the yoga class great fun with games or stories or roll play.

What about teenagers?

Teens are at that awkward stage. Questions are never answered by a simple yes or no when one has shoulders that can be shrugged; eye contact is often reserved for very good friends or the family pet; hoods are clearly meant to be up indoors and suddenly the ability to speak without mumbling has been lost.

Nobody understands them and “what’s the point”, so why would they attend a yoga class?

Clearly there is a demand given the number of Teen Yoga Teacher Training courses on the market but do they attend of their own accord or do their mother’s make them?
I’ve been teaching teenagers yoga for about 12 years. I run classes in schools and tailor the class for my audience.
If I’m working with students around exam time then I’ll work on balancing postures for concentration and relaxing postures to help them achieve a good night’s sleep.
If I’m working with a sports team I’ll introduce postures which will help improve a particular sport and if I’m working with the football team I will ‘man up’ my yoga teaching style……………..sorry but it’s true!

So classes are tailored to my audience.

But what about my main stream, public, teen classes? They don’t play for the same team, study the same subjects or have the same personality type. The only thing they share is an abundance of hormones and a love for hoodies!
I decided to sit my girls’ teen class down and ask a few questions about what brings them to yoga and what keeps them coming back. The class is made up of 15 girls. 6 of the girls have been doing yoga with me for more than 6 years and have graduated into the teen class, from my kid’s classes. 4 of the girls are quite shy. 5 are sporty ‘jock’ types and 2 do no other form of exercise! 5 are ‘A’ students while 3 of the girls are not keen on school.

Why do you come to yoga?

“It’s helps me relax and I feel less anxious.”
I have asthma and my attacks are less if I keep coming to yoga. It also gets rid of the tension in my shoulders”
“I like the people here.”
“Helps me stretch my muscles out after a weekend of playing hockey.”

What parts of the yoga class do you like?

“Relaxation at the end!”
“Shoulderstands with a chair”
“Sunsalutaions”

What parts of the yoga class to you dislike?

“Head down dog!”
“Sunsalutations.”
“Balancing postures”

Do you practice at home?

“Sometimes when I’m stressed”
“When I can’t sleep I’ll do some of the breathing exercises.”
“When my muscles are really tight, I’ll stretch them out.”

How would you feel about a mixed class?

“I don’t mind if the boys are good looking?”
“I wouldn’t want that as then we couldn’t ask questions.”
“I’d feel weird doing head down dog.”

The more we chatted the more they opened up about their yoga class and what it meant to them. It became clear that although the girls were all very different they felt they shared this common bond of yoga. They encouraged each other in some of the trickier postures. They felt comfortable enough to discuss hormones, skin breakouts and issues with friends or teachers. The ‘jocks’ were kind to the shy girls. The 12 year olds looked up to the 18 year olds and the 18 year olds in return would give them the time of day.

I sat back and watched this group of teens interact. A group who were very different as individuals and who would probably never be friends outside the yoga studio. A group of teens that only ever came together to share this bond for 1 hour a week. It then struck me that the yoga studio was just like the detention room in the 1985 film the ‘Breakfast Club’, where total strangers, with nothing in common meet, share a moment and accept each other for what and who they are.

A cult movie, even in modern times – let’s hope my yoga class is the same!

Veronica Greene founded Little Greene Yoga® and offers a Certified Children’s Teacher Training package (3-5yrs; 5-8yrs; 8-12yrs, Teen – Mind & Body & Postnatal Yoga)

Printed in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine (June 2017)

by Veronica Greene, founder of Little Greene Yoga

Little Greene Yoga a certified children’s teacher training package (3-5yrs; 5-8yrs; 8-12yrs & Teens)

 

Congratulations! You’ve passed and are now a fully qualified Yoga Instructor!

What now?

You have your 200 hours yoga qualification under your belt. You’re ready to take on the whole world and can’t wait to share your knowledge with everyone and I mean everyone – the benefits of yoga should be shared no matter age, sex, health, disability or life stage.

 

So does your yoga qualification really cover you to teach ‘everyone’?

You did attend a talk on children’s yoga as part of your course. You were also instructed to treat pregnant woman as individuals! So surely that means you are able to teach the whole world?

Absolutely – you can teach whomever you want. In fact given that there are no national standards you could’ve taught without actually having done you’re a yoga qualification, in the first place, and many people do!

But not you – you decided to arm yourself with knowledge and completed a ‘certified’ teacher training course!

So do you think that lecture on children’s yoga has equipped you to teach children; the pregnancy notes given are enough to see a student through the nine months of pregnancy and then the postnatal phase?

One could argue that a body is just a body no matter what age or what life stage; one could also argue that yoga is the same no matter who you’re teaching it to!

In part you are right ………………………let’s start from the beginning.

 

Conception!

As soon as a woman conceives and the fertilized egg becomes an embryo major, internal changes start to take place in her body. Hormone levels rise causing a range of symptoms from nausea to loosening joints. Cardiac output increases and blood pressure drops. All changes which are perfectly normal but will affect her balance, mood and body awareness. As the pregnancy progresses the weight of the baby will affect digestion, circulation, breathing not to mention the pressure on her pelvic floor.

Pregnancy Yoga

At this time many woman decide to take up yoga for the first time! Many health practitioners recommend it as they deem yoga a gentle form of exercise. This, of course, will depend on the class and the style that is being taught.

 

As 10 – 20% of spontaneous miscarriages happen in the first trimester taking up any new activity, at this stage is not recommended.

Even after the 1st trimester many instructors do not feel comfortable having a pregnant woman in their class as they have a duty of care for not only the mother but also the unborn child. This is unfortunate as yoga is wonderful physically and mentally for a healthy pregnancy and birth.

Many yoga postures are deemed unsuitable for pregnant woman as they may put too much pressure on the abdomen or pelvic floor – mostly closed twists, abdominal work and strong backbends. That’s the general guidelines for a ‘normal pregnancy’ but what about the common problems that can and do occur in pregnancy – high blood pressure; gestational diabetes, prematurely dilated cervix, Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction? In some yoga traditions even standing postures would be avoided especially if there is a history of miscarriage and these are the mainstay of many a yoga class!

 

After the birth yoga is fantastic to rebuild the body without any risk to the now, born child.

Again many changes have to be made:- prone positions where the mother is lying fully on her abdomen and chest could be uncomfortable and lead to mastitis; unsupported backbends can be too energizing and dry up the mum’s milk supply.

What about pelvic floor issues, painful 3rd degree tears; cesarean scar tissue, carpal tunnel, separated tummy muscles (diastasis recti). In fact the popularised photo of the mum, in a variation of Boat Pose, with her baby balanced on her shins, is an absolute no-no for a mother with separated tummy muscles – who knew!

The child grows and the parents, knowing how great yoga is, send them to a yoga class. These children are just mini people so surely the same yoga can be taught in just a more child friendly way.

No! This small person has a developing body i.e. the arches of the feet are developing; bones are still fusing, hormone surges take place especially in boys aged 4-6yrs; the lumbar curve of the spine does not fully assume it’s adult shape until the age of 10 etc. etc.

 

Many yoga teachers will teach children and teens the same postures as they would an adult and in the same way.

Although inversions are beneficial for their developing endocrine system one really does need to tread carefully.

Children do not have enough body awareness or upper body strength to perform headstands (Sirasasana 1) safely without injury to their cervical spine! Shoulderstands held, as one would in adult class, can be overstimulating to an underdeveloped thyroid gland.

‘True’ Pranayama, as taught on many training courses, should not be practiced with children or indeed teens for a variety of reasons – the most important being that their lungs are still growing until late teens for girls and early 20s for boys. Bhastrika and Kumbhaka pranayama are actually considered dangerous for this age group.

That’s quite a lot of information and responsibility!

 

In the words of Aristotle – “The more you know the more you know you don’t know”.

Legally there’s no requirement for supplemental training but to best prepare for the myriad of life stages and challenges each presents, do consider embarking on some of the specialist training courses that are now available.