Yoga could help girls break free of doubt

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      For anyone seeking fitness, flexibility, and a mental break, yoga remains one of the hottest hobbies around. As outrageously popular as the ancient practice continues to be, some say yoga can do much more than enable people to salute the sun or balance like a crane. For young women, the form can have a positive effect on self-esteem. In Vancouver, yoga is showing up everywhere from a youth-custody centre to a summer day camp as practitioners turn to asanas to help build self-assurance.

      Kelly Mercer is a local instructor who's taking her tree and cobra poses beyond her West Side home-based studio. On July 10, she conducted a workshop for 12- to 18-year-old girls at Burnaby Youth Custody Services, one of three youth-custody centres in B.C. Two days later, she did the first of a series of sessions for girls with eating disorders.

      Mercer started doing yoga in her early 20s, when she was experiencing chronic endometriosis that led to three surgeries. Her illness led to stress, depression, and a whole lot of anger. She says that embracing yoga as a lifestyle and not just a type of exercise helped her overcome “destructive self-perceptions”  and self-limiting patterns of behaviour .

      “I had a lot of self-doubt,”  Mercer says between sips of a chai latte. “Yoga made me realize what I could accomplish if I put my heart in the right place.” 

      Besides making her feel simultaneously relaxed and energized, the 27-year-old says yoga helped augment her self-image to the point where she ditched her career in music promotions, left her native New Zealand for North America, and launched her own company, Pura Luna (www.puraluna.com/). “I never had the self-confidence to do that before. Now I want to help people going through the same kinds of things. I want to help women find...the centre of who they are, physically and spiritually.” 

      Of course, accounts like Mercer's of yoga's positive impact on self-opinion are largely anecdotal, and research into the form as therapy is only in its early stages. Besides, yoga's intangible benefits are tough to categorize and evaluate in a research setting.

      Nevertheless, one recent study did find a correlation. Jennifer J. Daubenmier, a researcher at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, tested whether or not yoga was associated with greater body satisfaction in her June 2005 study, The Relationship of Yoga, Body Awareness, and Body Responsiveness to Self-Objectification and Disordered Eating. She divided women into three groups: 43 doing yoga, 45 doing aerobic exercise, and 51 doing neither activity. In the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, Daubenmier concluded that the yoga practitioners reported more favourably on all measures than the others. (Plus, the more hours women practised yoga each day, the more likely they were to make healthy food choices.)

      That yoga could potentially help women suffering from low self-worth is one reason Julie Czerwinski decided to take Mercer up on her offer to do a volunteer session at Burnaby Youth Custody Services. Czerwinski, a correctional officer and life-skills instructor, says kids there are facing or have been convicted of charges ranging from breach of probation to theft to murder. Yoga, she hopes, can help foster self-acceptance.

      “This is the kind of stuff I wish I would have known about or heard about when I was their age,”  Czerwinski says in a phone interview. “There are a lot of issues with self-esteem and self-worth....The girls seem very eager to come down and try it [yoga]. It gets them to see another perspective on life.” 

      The Vancouver-based Yoga Outreach (www?.yogaoutreach.com/) places volunteer instructors in correctional and health-care facilities such as the Burnaby Correctional Institute for Women, Covenant House, and the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre.

      Volunteer Michíƒ ¨le Labelle has been teaching yoga for three years at Burnaby Youth Custody Services. “Yoga gives them the opportunity to find a place where they're okay within themselves, and that gives them the ability to deal with life in a more positive way,”  Labelle says by phone. “Yoga can help them find stability and strength inside themselves.” 

      In her 2001 paper, The Effect of Yoga Practice on Hope and Optimism in Prisons, Perth, Australia, instructor Helen P. Elscot described the impact of weekly classes she taught at two jails for six months.

      “What shocked me most was the poor physical shape of the women, who were mostly young, when they came into class,”  Elscot wrote. “They were often either extremely underweight, or overweight....Their health was wrecked by self-neglect and drug abuse....Their vulnerability and lack of self-esteem was often concealed behind a fragile layer of bravado and defiance.

      “We found that once the students began to experience 'success' in their practice, they also began to perceive positive learning experiences in almost any situation. The students were able to recognise their own growth, and their attitude towards themselves, others and their environment began to change.” 

      Of course, women of all types and backgrounds sometimes struggle with self-esteem. Yoga also shows up in Camp Fun Girl, which is part of Girlz Unplugged, a YWCA series for nine- to 13-year-olds and the adults in their lives. Fleur Palliardi, the Y's health-and-wellness manager, says that the aim of the camp is to boost girls' self-image through a variety of fun activities. (The second of two camps runs Monday to next Friday [July 17 to 21]. Details are at www.ywcavan.org/.) The camp includes courses in friendships, media education, Internet safety, dance, Aquafit, and rock-climbing. Besides helping improve self-confidence, Palliardi says yoga is on offer for other reasons. For one, it's a physical activity that suits all fitness levels. “When they [the girls] achieve at an activity, they get a sense of pride,”  Palliardi says on the line from her office. And yoga gives the iPod-loving young women some much-needed downtime.

      “Kids don't get any quiet time, any calm time. Kids don't know how to breathe anymore, so we use yoga as a relaxation method. It gives them a chance to connect to their bodies. And they need to stretch their little bodies.

      “Adolescents are going through puberty earlier and earlier,”  Palliardi adds. “It's a very stressful time where there's a lot of peer pressure. Young girls can get into cliques and they can be pretty brutal with each other. Having a place where you can be in your body, be in your mind, is useful....It gives them tools to get through life.” 

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