The physical and mental benefits of practicing yoga are numerous and well-supported by research: decreased stress, enhanced concentration, improved flexibility, better posture, reduced insomnia -- to name a few.
But yoga remains an activity largely pursued by and catered to adults, rather than stressed-out teenagers running on overdrive who might need some of these benefits the most.
"It's sort of like a medicine that really has been shown to work and nobody takes advantage of it," said Palo Alto Medical Foundation pediatrician Amy Heneghan.
Heneghan noticed the gap in her own organization's offerings -- plenty of mindfulness classes for adults, fewer for teens -- and set out to change it. With the help of others, she has brought a free after-school teen yoga class that teaches breathing, mindfulness and the basics of yoga to Palo Alto high schoolers.
"The way I describe it to (teenagers) is they are hijacked by cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone. When you suddenly are living in this -- 'I'm fearful, I don't know what to fear, I'm thinking about the future' -- you miss the now. You really can retrain your brain to sit in the now," Heneghan said.
"Mindfulness and yoga for teenagers, especially when their brain is very elastic, learning these important adaptation skills and skills of self control, skills of coping -- I couldn't think of a better group to learn this," she said.
So for the past several Tuesday afternoons, Palo Alto parent and certified yoga instructor Clia Tierney has lead an hour-long drop-in yoga class specifically crafted for teenagers. Part of Tierney's training was done with RISE Yoga, a Bay Area nonprofit that partners with schools to bring them yoga, wellness classes and life-skills workshops that focus on topics like self-esteem, nutrition, relationships and nonviolence. (In addition to the most well-known benefits of yoga, the RISE website cites case studies showing how yoga can help reduce youth anxiety and depression as well as help with ADHD and eating disorders.)
Tierney's daughter Zoe, a Palo Alto High School senior, has been a frequent attendee of the new class, which is held in a small warehouse on Encina Avenue. The space -- a large carpeted room with soft blue and white walls, exposed wooden beams on the ceiling and skylights that let in natural light -- was recently acquired by Palo Alto Medical Foundation and is well-suited to yoga.
"You come out of it feeling very relaxed," Zoe said. "Especially as a senior or high schooler, school can be crazy. It's a nice, welcoming, calm environment. It's really just a good break for your body."
Paly junior Matt Celigson, a lacrosse player who had never done yoga before attending this class, said it helped him significantly.
"I had a workout earlier that morning and I felt much, much looser that evening," he said. "It really felt quite good. I recommended it to all my friends since then."
Tierney said she usually starts the classes by teaching the students breathing exercises. The class might also incorporate partner poses, so it's more interactive and social than a typical adult yoga class.
"Yoga is a time for mental relief," Zoe said. "It's mental and physical relief. A lot of yoga is focusing on breathing, which is very relaxing. The whole thing just makes you feel more relaxed in general."
This is Heneghan's goal.
"Yoga and especially mindfulness -- just taking a minute to sit in the now -- helps so much as a coping strategy," she said. "Mindfulness improves concentration, improves focus, decreases stress, decreases blood pressure. It changes your brain. The more we learn about the brain, the more I approach (mindfulness) as a medicinal addition."
The class is also a way for pediatricians and physicians to establish themselves as sources for mental as well as physical health support.
"This was born out of the fact that we all feel a little helpless. We all want to offer more," Heneghan said.
"Mental health is not separate from physical well-being," echoed Palo Alto Medical Foundation Health Educator Becky Beacom, who helped make the yoga class a reality. "It's about pulling it all together for overall health and well-being. Yoga does that."
Patients, Heneghan said, might also be more open to trying an hour-long yoga class than being directed to a therapist or being prescribed medication.
"Everybody is receptive to stress management. Everybody is receptive to improving your physical well-being. Having a program like this that's on site, it gives us credibility that we take the whole person seriously," she said.
Palo Alto Medical does provide two other courses geared toward teen mindfulness, a teen yoga workshop and C.A.L.M (Cultivating Awareness to Live Mindfully) for Teens, but both are three-week commitments and are not free.
The medical center is not the only group looking to expand yoga options for youth. Tierney said she's heard a strong interest from parents in bringing age-appropriate yoga to Palo Alto middle schools. Avalon Yoga on California Avenue in Palo Alto also offers a free yoga class for teens (ages 13 to 17). Castilleja School students can opt to take yoga as a physical education unit; a Gunn High School teacher also teaches an after-school class.
Zoe, who started practicing yoga with her mother in eighth grade, has brought several friends to their first-ever yoga class over the last few weeks.
"They loved it," she said. "They kept on saying, 'We're coming back.'"
The yoga class is Tuesdays from 4 to 5 p.m. at 67 Encina Ave., Palo Alto. No registration required. For more information, click here.