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Sylvia Pericles
Sylvia Pericles
Health

They Came to the Mat and Took Off Their Masks

A campus yoga and journalism instructor shares coping strategies and counseling resources after yoga students’ practice diaries reveal depression, adversity, abuse and trauma.

It was 8 a.m., a dreaded time for college students, who notoriously hate morning classes. The gym echoed with the sounds of students in their Ugg boots with their sweatshirt hoods pulled over their bonnets, grumbling gently that it was so eaaaarrrrly.

But despite the hour, the class was filled to capacity. When the college where I was teaching journalism added a course in yoga (which I also teach) to the curriculum, I hoped I’d get 10 students to sign up. Within two days of the class posting, more than 70 students had registered. Yoga is plenty trendy, but I was surprised so many students practiced.

It turns out that they didn’t. When I asked how many of them had done yoga, one or two hands went up. All they knew about yoga was that it involved stretching and it was supposed to help you relax. They probably thought the class looked like an easy A.

Because students of color are at higher risk for depression than whites, I might expect to see more depression on my campus, a historically Black women’s college. But it’s not always obvious. ‘Black adolescents … tend to express their depressed feelings by complaining about conflicts with others and [about] physical pains,’ according to a study from Rutgers University.

 
But the real reason they were there became evident when they turned in their first journal entries about their practice. In paper after paper, students mentioned their depression and anxiety. I did an informal, anonymous poll and found that more than 70 percent had experienced mental health issues. These young women — all fresh braids and full sets — were looking for something to ease their distress.

Depression among adolescents


They weren’t alone. Statistics from the Pew Research Center show a steady increase in the number of teens reporting depression. In 2007, 8 percent reported a major depressive episode. By 2017, the number was 13 percent. The number is higher (20 percent) among girls than boys. Some expect the figure to climb when post-COVID-19 research is done.

According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 40 percent of college students — who are still considered adolescents until their brains fully develop — reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. And because students of color are at higher risk for depression than whites, I might expect to see more depression on my campus, a historically Black women’s college. But it’s not always obvious. “Black adolescents … tend to express their depressed feelings by complaining about conflicts with others and [about] physical pains,” according to a study from Rutgers University. They might not look sad or down, but their arguing and aching may indicate a depressed mood.

A question about something we discussed in class would be a pretext for unburdening herself about some other issue. Her absent father’s addiction. Her fear that she might be pregnant again. Her roommate’s abusive boyfriend, who was a distraction to her and a danger to them both.

We think of young people as carefree. We dismiss their worries as growing pains and teenage drama. “Keep living, baby,” we say, expecting them to grow out of it like last season’s jeans. But they may be suffering more than we know.

Letting it all out


Almost every day, at least one student would hang back after everyone else had rolled up their mats and wandered off to breakfast. A question about something we discussed in class would be a pretext for unburdening herself about some other issue. Her absent father’s addiction. Her fear that she might be pregnant again. Her roommate’s abusive boyfriend, who was a distraction to her and a danger to them both. Her grandmother or her siblings, who needed her at home — and couldn’t or wouldn’t support her college aspirations.

Yoga’s meditation and breath-work practices help moderate the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that helps calm your nerves. Yogic breathing can also regulate heart activity and create cardiac coherence, which in turn helps manage thoughts and emotions so that you can maintain a sense of emotional equilibrium.


I changed my teaching schedule so I didn’t have to rush to another class after yoga. I didn’t have training in counseling, but I could offer my ear, some understanding and some resources. I kept the college counselor’s number on my phone. Sometimes I’d walk a student to the counseling center after class, if she’d let me.

Why yoga?


In my journalism classes, students might come to me to talk, but not like this. What was it about this yoga class? Moving and stretching the body is health-giving. The physical practice stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps regulate the nervous system. Yoga’s meditation and breath-work practices help moderate the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that helps calm your nerves. Yogic breathing can also regulate heart activity and create cardiac coherence, which in turn helps manage thoughts and emotions so that you can maintain a sense of emotional equilibrium.

But in this class, we also talked about life. My own training taught me that yoga, in its full form, is much more than the bending and stretching we see on Instagram pictures. It’s undergirded by principles and philosophies that inform the way we live. I made it a point to share the ancient Indian teachings that students could use as tools to ease their paths. The concept of ahimsa, nonharming, was the basis for a discussion about self-care and sisterhood. When we talked about saucha, cleanliness, it was a lesson about avoiding petty behavior. Our talk about asteya, nonstealing, became a practical chat about the dangers of plagiarism and any kind of cheating. We talked about being careful who you share your time and energy with, about having faith, about living with purpose.

I also taught my students the physical poses as metaphors for life: The Warrior poses were a reminder to stand up for themselves and create boundaries where they were needed. Goddess pose urged them to be open, creative and proud of their womanness. Crescent and Camel poses opened their hearts and reminded them to keep their spirits lifted.

I also taught my students the physical poses as metaphors for life: The Warrior poses were a reminder to stand up for themselves and create boundaries where they were needed. Goddess pose urged them to be open, creative and proud of their womanness. Crescent and Camel poses opened their hearts and reminded them to keep their spirits lifted.

The emphasis on being present and making an effort in class gave students a way to get in touch with their bodies too. Dozens of young women in a room meant dozens of different body-image insecurities. I wanted yoga to show them that a body that could move and respond was a good, intelligent body. I watched them all wobble, then find their balance, and hoped that would carry over into their lives. I hoped yoga would help them find their way.

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