13 keys to teaching yoga to troubled teenagers successfully

maren guessmann teaches kundalini yoga in a youth detention centre in germany and passes on her experiences

I woke up early one morning and decided to go and teach Kundalini Yoga in the Youth Detention Centre nearby. Kundalini Yoga helped me get through hard times in my life by guiding my soul and I wanted to pass these sacred teachings on to those who most need it: people dealt the harsh hand.

I had never before worked with teenagers and was a bit shaky about how they would react to the spiritual teachings and the internal journey. We did a test run to see how the teens would handle it, and when they gave me standing ovations after class, emitting delight and gratuity, I was hired.

I decided to offer Kundalini Yoga classes to those who came by their own free will. Usually, when teens enter detention for the first time, they are asked what courses they would like to partake in and they often say “yoga… no, yoga is not for me!”. But when they hear from my students what we are doing, suddenly, everyone wants to come.

Many times I have more people signing up for the course than I can take, as our little yoga room has only space for 12 people. During the summertime, when the weather allows us to do yoga in the court, I have 20 teenage students gathered around me, listening carefully and applying the techniques I teach them to quiet the mind, to wake the awareness of the body and practice self-compassion.

I think anyone can teach yoga to those looking for inner peace, as I never got certified to do that kind of work and it all still works out perfectly. I think all you have to be able to do is listen to your heart and, most importantly, let your ego step out of the way.

Most of the inmates are in detention for stealing, drug abuse or violence; souls who have lost their orientation in society. Even though they might usually be the most troublesome teenagers who swear, spit, fight and do anything they can to make you lose control, with me they are the most respecting, caring and sensitive beings one has ever seen.

Only when we find peace within can we carry it out into the world. We can’t change the outer world but we can change the world within and pass this sacred gift on to others. So here are some keys I have found most precious to reach to the very heart of people, which makes even troublesome teenagers listen with all their soul.

Key 1: Speak at eye level

The people you are talking to are not better or worse than you. They are souls searching to find their way back to their life paths. Recognise that all of them carry the same amazing potential to bring things forth in their life, even if they might seem rough at times. There is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’, there is just ‘different’. If you keep this in mind during teaching you will be able to keep the attention and focus of the group because they can sense that you are not looking down on them. As soon as you do look down on them, even in your thoughts, you’ll lose them.

Key 2: speak their language

When people don’t understand what you are talking about, mostly it is because you are using words they can’t relate to. In a teaching situation like this, it is useful to adapt your speech to common wording rather than fancy spiritual expression. Most of the teens have never listened to sacred teachings before and therefore lose focus. To keep them focused, use their words and if you can, even body language. However, don’t use vulgar language or slang as it is distracting for them and will make you lose your ground as a teacher and a respectable person. It is not about playing cool to be accepted in the group, but about being heard on a deeper level.

Key 3: Recognise that the other is you

Especially when your buttons are being pushed, ask yourself what causes the irritation. What is blocking you? As we are all different expressions of one and the same being, it is important we stop judging others. We cannot judge someone and feel love at the same time. To be able to give love and compassion to others we have to be able to give love and compassion to ourselves. This is the infinite source of energy you draw from when in a teaching position.

Key 4: Calm assertiveness is the highest form of the self

You will be tested in every kind of way; they will try to see if there is a loophole anywhere causing you to lose control. And they are always on the search to find ways to get your attention. Before you start the class, disconnect from your personal emotions, let your ego step out of the way to become that channel that is in service of the divine for the time being. You can continue your own human journey after class.

Key 5: Your Presence as a teacher

As a teacher you are not a preacher. Don’t tell anyone what is right or wrong, just offer guidance through the teachings, but then leave what they do with those totally and utterly up to the individual. Be authentic, say what you think— because if you don’t, you will lose the attention of the group. The more authentic you are, the more consciously present you become and the stronger your projection.

Key 6: Rules

Rules are important to give guidance. Explain your rules and most importantly explain WHY you have them. If it makes sense to them, if they understand them, they will respect your rules and will even be grateful for them. One of my rules is that everyone has to keep an eye on oneself and not on anybody else. No one has the right to correct someone else’s behaviour. I have them disconnect from the situation emotionally and not let someone else’s behaviour irritate them as an exercise for acceptance and self-awareness.

Key 7: Introduction

As I have new students coming every session, I open every class with an introduction that makes it possible for the students to grasp what yoga is about. I tell them that they are here by free will, and if they feel like leaving because they don’t like what we are doing they can leave without being judged. I do ask them to really dive into the experience when they decide to stay though. No one has ever left and I can refer to this sentence when I find them not taking part throughout the practice. I tell them that this is a mere opportunity for them to see if yoga works for them and that the more they put in, the more they will get out of it.

Also, I tell them that in yoga we work more on the fascia and nervous system rather than just the muscles, that way they are prepared that some exercises might look weird and are different to anything they’ve learned from the gym or sports classes.

Key 8: It is allowed to laugh

Yoga is not about being strict and disciplined, rather it is a tool to tap into your own soul. I know that some things we do throughout the practice are strange for many of my students so I tell them that if they have to laugh about some things to just let it out. There is nothing worse and distracting to the individual and everyone else in the class than trying to fight against the bubbling feeling of laughter in the belly. I tell them that it is normal for insecurity to arise and not to get distracted by the giggling of others if they giggle out of insecurity.

Key 10: Out of the head and into the body

In Kundalini Yoga we practice with closed eyes to be able to turn within, to find out what is going on inside and to connect to our soul. As I have many students coming in with ADD and ADHD, I find it very helpful to really anchor them into the moment by using the tool of awareness of the body.

Throughout the class I will constantly remind everyone to really feel the body, to feel the stretch, the pain, the nerves, tendons and muscles and to observe all feelings that arise throughout the practice. Between every exercise I have them lay down and take three long deep breaths to encourage calmness. Within two breaths, they are nice and quiet again.

Key 11: Meditate

After we are done with the exercise, I give the teens a short introduction to meditation. I use the classic meditation posture, sitting in cross legged position with hands in Gyan Mudra resting on the knees. They absolutely love it, as they recognise the meditation posture. It is a symbol for them to find inner peace and balance, to rest in the centre.

Key 12: Before and after

To make it possible for my students to recognize the difference they feel before and after class, I have them sit in a cross-legged-position before class begins and recognise how the legs, pelvic area and torso feel; acknowledge the stiffness, aches and pains. And then I do the same thing at the end of the class so they can identify how much the feeling of the body has changed. Most of them are really fascinated and proud of how much they can change in just one hours’ time.

Key 13: Beginning and ending

It is important to have a strong beginning and ending of the class so the psyche knows when we are starting and when we are finishing. Usually in Kundalini Yoga we start and end class with a short mantra but in detention I have them sit upright, place their hands together in prayer pose and say “Namaste” with a small bow. I explain the meaning of namaste: “I bow to the divine in you” or “I honour your soul”, encouraging the students to respect and honour one another.

I hope this text can help you to embark on your endeavour, whatever it might be. The world has never changed from people thinking about doing something but from the ones who got up and just did it.

“Be the change you want to see in the world”, said Gandhi, and I think he was right.

You also might want to check out this summer kids camp at H-Kore