“Girls are largely raised without a sense of their own divinity…their worth in the world is tied to their looks, grades, and gifts – not the amazing miracle of mere existence“…Courtney E. Martin, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body
It’s no secret that rates of body image disorders, anxiety and depression are epidemic, or that parents and healthcare professionals are scrambling for solutions, usually pharmaceutical. But what does seem secret (or at least ignored) are the nearly three decades of research demonstrating that when it comes to teens at risk – a dose of “spirituality” may be really good medicine.
That’s why for my upcoming yoga therapy practicum I’ve decided to create a class with one focus – enhancing the spiritual well-being of teen girls. Because after reviewing countless studies suggesting girls with some sort of spiritual focus in their life (no matter their cultural background, ethnicity or religious affiliation) are healthier, happier, and have better academic scores that the norm, I’ve come to a conclusion. I’ve decided the best way to utilize yoga as a therapeutic tool is not just in releasing stress from a girl’s body or in calming her mind, but in nurturing her spirit.
Studies conducted on tens of thousands of teens from the US to Australia, show high levels of spiritual involvement are correlated with “ positive psychological and social functioning” and offer protective factors against “preoccupation with physical appearance and unrealistic standards of thinness” not to mention substance abuse, anti-social and self-destructive behaviors.
And isn’t this good news? Because while yoga may or may not be a religion, it certainly provides a spiritual focus. And doesn’t this suggest that yoga’s ability to foster spiritual awareness could provide a host of therapeutic benefits for girls and young women?
Problem is, as the recent Encinitas court case made clear, to teach yoga as a method of spiritual development is to head into dangerous waters. This means if I choose to offer my class within educational or health care settings, I will most likely be free to explore physiological calming techniques for my students body and mind, but if I mention her immortal soul, well, it starts to get dicey. I’m now in danger of impinging upon her religious freedoms.
I’m not sure if defining ‘spirit’ to my students as that greater part of themselves that exists beyond the material world and their physical bodies – is crossing the line. Or if teaching their bodies are a manifestation of the divine feminine energy of the universe called Shakti – is going too far. But in looking for guidance, I didn’t find much. Seems that most educators and health care professionals are comfortable discussing a girls physical or educational goals, but when it comes to her spirit (if it can be agreed she even has one) –that’s the domain of religion, so there wasn’t much said.
And while it’s a promotional cliché to say that yoga will relax and energize the body, calm the mind, and lift the spirit, the last part is often censored in materials addressing teens and young women. In fact, many yoga programs targeting young women feature a lot of talk about the importance of “self- love”, “going inward” and “mindfulness” but few make direct mention of the word – spirit. And I find it odd that while many treatment programs for eating disorders are utilizing spirituality and yoga as healing modalities, preventative programs promoting “body positivity” in yoga rarely address spiritual development directly.
Is this because yoga is increasingly under fire as a religion? Or is it because yoga has worked hard to distance itself from new agey woo-woo concepts that undermine it’s seriousness as a health care modality? Whatever the reason, I worry by removing the word “Namaste” from the yogic curriculum (as the Judge ruled at Encinitas) or reducing yoga to physical fitness or techniques for “calming anxiety”and “releasing stress” is to leave young women vulnerable to the very illnesses we are attempting to prevent and treat in the first place.
Is our secular discomfort with religion and spirituality so great that we are willing to leave young women at risk of what author Courtney Martin calls a “deadly, often destructive, lack of faith”?
Leonard Sax M.D., Ph.D is the author of book Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, and he writes “For girls puberty is often the years of spiritual awakening- when they struggle to figure out what they really care about”. Sax warns if “ girls are not healthy spiritually, they may find themselves not so much living as performing …. the technology of social networking sites, instant messaging, and texting makes it easy for girls to think they are living their own lives when in fact they are really putting on a show for their peers.“
And this is where the rubber meets the road because as Sax states “academics and athletics only take you so far when it comes to the dark night of the soul”… “even if a girl has top marks, and is in great physical health, those achievements will count for nothing when a crisis hits…life doesn’t always go smoothly, divorce, loss even death can happen.”
Researchers at Columbia University attribute growing rates of depression among young women to the “broad cultural lack of support or validation for spirituality”. Dr.Lisa Miller is the director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University and writes, “Denying or ignoring the spiritual need of adolescents may end up creating a void in their lives that either devolves into depression or is filled by other forms of questing and challenge, such as drinking, unbridled consumerism, petty crime, sexual precocity, or flirtations with violence”.
But here is the kicker – as Sax states- “it seems if she has nurtured her spirit, she is bettered prepared.” Sax has chosen to define spirituality “as a way of connecting with your inner self…this is not about how you look or what kind of grades you get or who your friends with…it’s what you’re left with if you take all these things away.”
To that end Sax suggests we begin by asking girls open-ended questions -does she believe in God? How come? If yes, is God male or female? Or both or neither? What makes her think so?”…“we need to help girls understand who they are and who they want to become regardless of the pressures from the society and popular culture to conform to certain ideals”.
So while I’m not sure how to go about it, my goal is to create a therapeutic class that connects young women with their spirits. I want to figure out how nurturing spirituality differs from lets say, religious indoctrination, and I want to find a way to deal with whatever taboo lies behind our inability to deal with what the research is telling us. Sociologists have known since the 90’s that religious or spiritual involvement offers protective benefits for girls and young women that it doesn’t offer boys or men.
That’s why it seems vital at a time when spirituality is almost entirely absent from educational discourse or popular culture that yoga class remain a place where young women are asked to find the “still center within “or “honour the light in her” or experience her body as “sacred space”. Yoga offers a unique invitation to a young woman to experience herself as a spiritual being -and this experience can be profound in a culture where she is encouraged to value herself for her physical appearance and accomplishments alone.
So in deciding how to define spirituality for my practicum class I will take a cue from teens themselves. A University of Missouri researcher is examining responses to the question “What does it mean to be a spiritual young person?”And so far answers reveal that spirituality means:
- To have purpose
- To have the bond of connections, including those to a higher power (typically God), people and nature.
- To have a foundation of well-being, including joy and fulfillment, energy and peace
And I think it worth remembering that word spirituality derives from the Latin Spiritus or Spirare – to breathe. And the breath, of course, defines the very essence of yoga – it is the unifying link between the body and the divine.
Yoga therapy is defined by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) as “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the philosophy and practice of yoga. That’s why for my yoga therapy practicum class I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m just going to come out and say it. Through Yoga we discover our Spirit. And that’s good medicine.