January 27, 2012

Tips for Teaching to Youth with Mental Health Issues. ~ Lee Majewski

In September 2009, during my first class, I was facing 12 young people, 16-24 years old, a combination of males and females, not knowing what to expect.  

Some looked at me with curiosity, some avoided eye contact, some were laughing to themselves, some were dozing off, some were staring at the wall with blank expressions on their faces and some couldn’t sit still – almost bouncing off the mat.

Two years later I look back at my beginnings and I try to define what made yoga classes such a success for these young people. Here are the keys that I think made a difference.

1. Look beyond.

At the end of the class we sat in a circle holding hands. Before we started the chant I asked them to set their wish for the day. A girl, still fidgeting said, “I wish I didn’t have schizophrenia; I wish I didn’t hear voices.” There was an aspect of her that knew that her illness controlled part of her body and mind as she was watching it helplessly. Some deep part of her was not involved in the illness but was witnessing what was happening to her and wished that it didn’t, that it would go away.

You as a teacher need to look beyond the uncommon behaviours your students may exhibit and not be affected by them. They may have tics, may be drowsy, may be talking or laughing to themselves, or may be very anxious and agitated. Your success with them will depend on your ability to disregard behavior and see the person behind it – to find a way to connect to that part of them, which is watching the illness. Do it with every student.

2. Do not judge.

Understand their conditions and side effects of the medications they use. Sometimes they are heavily medicated. Sometimes they have adverse reactions to meds they are taking (see the info on my website Medications and Side Effects). These may be varied like dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, fatigue, blurry vision, weight gain, tremors, shaking, stiffness or abnormal movements – just to name a few.  

Often psychiatrists change the meds or adjust the doses. This creates the change in their behaviours. They may suddenly start bouncing off the walls or start falling asleep in the class. Behind these symptoms is a young, confused person struggling to make sense of their mental condition and life. You as a yoga teacher need to hold the space by treating them always with the same degree of care and kindness no matter what they do.  

One of the students – with bipolar disease – was either falling asleep or bouncing off the walls.  Sometimes he was troublesome. I was doing my best to not be affected by it and always address him with kindness although sometimes he would really stretch my patience. One day he came earlier to the class and wanted to talk. At the end he said, “You know, I really feel I can talk with you in a safe way. I feel closer to you than to my worker here.” I couldn’t ask for a better payoff!

It is also crucial for you to be aware of each diagnosis. You also need to be in constant contact with their counselors. I have a weekly meeting with staff during which we discuss the kids and their state.  

3. Be patient.

Do not be discouraged by lack of contact with them or if a class does not go well. It will take time for you to get to know them. It will also take time for them to trust you. 

One of my students sat there during the class and did everything to the best of his ability but his eyes were always on the floor. He would never openly share but would answer if asked a question directly. It took him 3 months to make his first eye contact with me. It took another month before I saw the shadow of a smile on his face.  

Most students feel confused and completely disempowered by the medical system. Show them that they have the power to make themselves feel better using yoga. Give them tools to cope with emotions like anger, anxiety, stress or discomfort. Teach them pranayama for specific situations; teach them mantras and mudras they can use when in need. Empower them so that they can manage their own reactions and become independent. This will help you earn their trust. 

4. Set up class structure.

Find a class structure that works for you and your kids. It may take some trial and error but always ask them for their feedback. My kids respond well to routine and structure but I do need to remain flexible to their behaviors on any particular day. 

In addition to asanas I use pranayama, mudras, chanting, meditation and relaxation with visualization.  Sometimes, when they are down, I will have them free dance to the music, encouraging them to move every part of their body.


Finally, the most important thing you can do is simply love them. Once, a 19-year-old student with anxiety and depression was waiting for me in the class. It was apparent that he was depressed – he sat on the floor in the corner with a sad face. He looked at me as I entered 15 minutes before class and said shyly, “I know I can be tough but sometimes even I need a hug. Can I get a hug from you?”

Love performs miracles!

Most of them are coming from abusive homes and that’s where they will return. Some of them live with foster parents, some in-group homes, and some have trouble with the law. All of them have had a shortage of love in their life and all of them respond well to love.

One of the boys told me, “You know, when I go back I have only 2 choices – it’s either gang or jail.” He didn’t see any other choices in his life. However, after 8 months of yoga and at the end of his integrative program he came to the class and proudly announced, “I will be a construction worker!”

Photo credit: Girl

 An engineer and musician by education, I spent over two decades in a successful career within the corporate business world. Simultaneously I was inspired to study various healing arts, and became a part-time holistic practitioner in 1989. Currently I am member of International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association, Toronto Kundalini Yoga Association and the International Association of Yoga Therapists. I teach therapeutic yoga in Toronto, Canada, and travel internationally teaching various programs and workshops. You can contact me via e-mail: [email protected].


Prepared by Yoga Editor, Tanya Lee Markul.

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