Yoga, the Brain, the Chakras and STUVOL
by Rutger Tamminga
The following is a summary of a talk given by Rutger Tamminga at the recent Global Conference in Taiwan, Empowering Youth for a Neohumanist Society, based on his many years of experience working with children and youth of all ages.
Teenage years are a time of change with a tendency for risks and experimentation on the one hand and vulnerability on the other. It is a time of stress and confusion that requires being grounded and relaxed. At the same time it is the best opportunity to direct this energy towards spiritual goals, ideals and purposes.
One of the reasons for behavioral changes during this time, neurologically speaking, is that teenagers undergo major changes in their limbic system—the area of the brain that controls emotions—at the onset of puberty. At the same time the development of the prefrontal lobes and the frontal lobes, which function as the control center, lag behind. Doctors now believe that this mismatch in development of the impulse-control part of the brain and the hormone- and emotion-fueled parts is what causes the risk-taking behaviors that are so common among teenagers.
Unlike during early childhood, the teen’s brain does not expand as much as it grows new connections. But teenagers do learn fast and deep, and what they learn may remain a pattern throughout their lives. Also, rapidly growing neural connections may carry some risks. About 70% of mental illnesses, including anxiety, mood and eating disorders, depression, schizophrenia and psychosis, appear in the teen years and early adulthood. Risks for health issues like addiction are also higher during this time period.
The need for stress release
In this perfect storm of sensitivity, curiosity, irresponsibility and dynamism the teenager needs to find a sense of peacefulness and rest. The American Academy for Pediatrics has pushed for longer sleep times by requesting schools to delay class times. Increasing sleep has been seen as a way to reduce stress and help the healthy development of the brain.
Insight into their own brain development is also helpful for teenagers. It helps them understand their behavior better. From the yogic point of view, some explanations also may help teenagers and offer practical ways to balance oneself. In fact P.R. Sarkar, the founder of Gurukul and the propounder of the Neohumanist philosophy, says that adolescence is the best time for learning the path of self-reflection, something that would balance the lives of these young people.
Psychology and spirituality
The formative first decade of life is a period of natural spiritual awareness when a spiritual road map begins to develop—neurologically, psychologically, and embodied in everyday life. Adolescence represents a crescendo, a developmental “surge” period for spiritual development, just as puberty creates a surge in every other aspect of a teen’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development.
In post-material psychology, depression is often linked with unutilized spiritual potential. A brain area in the cortex that is related to a sense of hopelessness and despair is also an area that is strengthened through meditation, prayer and devotional activities. Clinical research by Lisa Miller and others shows that those students who encounter spirituality during middle and late adolescence are 80% less likely to end up with drug abuse issues, addiction, or promiscuity. Faith and Love for God are that important to our individualization.
The Manipura Chakra
From the Yogic point of view, adolescence is a time when the manipura chakra (third chakra) is more apparently expressed. Manipura is the energy center located in the upper abdomen behind the navel. It is the center of heat and vitality, the area of the body where food is transformed into energy. Emotionally this chakra deals with our willpower and self-belief. It also deals with how we use our basic creative energies. It supports development of a sense of purpose and establishment of self-control. With the cultivation of self-control, the child begins to accept responsibility for the type of person he/she is to become. When this chakra is balanced, a child respects herself and other people, is energetic, spontaneous, and loves seeing friends. If it is overactive, she may be angry, controlling, or just ill-tempered and dominating. If it is underactive, she can be frightened, insecure, painfully shy, and in need of constant reassurance.
If the manipura chakra becomes volatile, symptoms may show as excessive heat in the body, high blood pressure, hot flushes, and sweating, and individual character may become more aggressive and domineering in seeking power over others and in fighting loss of control.
When the manipura is strong and healthy, its natural fire will radiate confidence, warmth, well-being and friendliness throughout our being. As it is related to light, fire and sight, the mind becomes clearer and our thoughts and actions become more organized. We feel in control of ourselves and our lives, being more able to make decisions quickly and extract the essential meaning from what is being said to us, or from the situations going on around us.
All the chakras create a connection with other people and the world around us, but whereas the muladhara chakra (first chakra) provides this connection in a tribal and dependent sense of belonging, and svadhisthana chakra’s (second chakra) emphasis is on our personal relationships, manipura energy is more about the power of individuality and our unique relationship to humanity. It has a stronger defining principle than the lower two. Here the self emerges from the group mentality or ideology and becomes its own thinker. This can bring the individual into conflict with some groups, as most groups are bound by an idea or central cause. Unless this cause is all inclusive and governed by sound reason, manipura energy will instinctively resist and rebel, either quietly or loudly, depending on the personality.
Spiritual Focus and STUVOL
As teenagers, when the energy of Manipura really fires up, we may find ourselves butting heads with the world, but at some point we have to turn all that passion and will power within to foster our own integrity and personal authenticity. This inner warrior needs discipline equal to its fiery passion. Spiritual ideation and the opening of the higher self is the pathway to opening the lower chakras and balancing their impurities. This is the key in the practice of Tantra Yoga. And this is where STUVOL programs can play such an important role!
(STUVOL stands for Student Volunteers. These extracurricular programs offer students activities and camps through which they can develop their service spirit and grow into caring and benevolent personalities.)
In the yogic system, the aim of most meditations is to open up the higher chakras, related to the pineal and pituitary plexi, and that way draw away energies from the lower chakras, where the tendencies are towards pettiness and self-centered and destructive behavior.
Yoga offers a great way of helping adolescents find balance in their lives
The Seven Avoidances
Our school and home education deeply affects the unfolding of our spirituality. Very often, due to our ignorance, we block our children’s spiritual search.
We turn our kids off when we:
- Ignore their spiritual awakening, questions, and experiences. If a child doesn’t hear a parent discussing a topic, then the child assumes that topic is not important.
- Disavow their spiritual reality. A definitive, negative statement by you about your child’s spiritual experience can shut down your child’s exploration because it signals to your child that their spiritual experiences aren’t part of the parent-child connection.
- Discourage spiritual discovery. A negative response to your child’s spiritual exploration is a lost opportunity, a moment when you could have, but didn’t, support your child’s tender, vulnerable, and emerging spirituality. You don’t have to agree with your child—you simply need to be interested, curious, and open to his exploration.
- Quash questions. A child’s questioning propels growth. Responding with an “I don’t know,” or “I don’t know and nobody else does, either,” often ends the discussion. Your child hears that spirituality isn’t worthy of pursuit, nor is it central to daily life.
- Base affection or discipline on performance-based values that don’t align with spiritual values of unconditional, non-contingent love, acceptance, and loving guidance.
- Overlook the need for a spiritually supportive community in which children can discover their own identity and be accepted and appreciated for their spiritual selves.
- Ignore signs that a community has punitive or other outdated values of conformity that twist spiritual values to serve dogma.
The Neohumanist Education Philosophy reaffirms the child’s spiritual nature and nurtures it as much as possible from a young age. It has to be clear that spirituality can exist without religion, and fundamentally means one has a link with the universal forces. STUVOL programs are focused on adolescents and aim to develop awareness of this link through introspection, discussion and self-discovery. What makes spirituality meaningful is personal choice and ownership. Imposed religious observances are not going to protect one from the dangers of depression, addiction and cynicism. Yoga practices offer a great way to help adolescents find balance in their lives.
How to create a spiritual home / classroom
“Following developmental attachment theory, we predicted a path in which nurturing parents affect young adults’ self‐concepts and self‐esteem, which in turn predicts the image of a nurturing God” (Granqvist)
- Create your own inner space
- Walk the walk
- Create depth and stillness in your relations
- Welcome nature as a co-teacher
- Satya—apply your words in a benevolent and blessing way
Asanas (Yoga Postures)
Through asanas we can affect the glandular secretions as well, and open the higher chakras.
Asanas have the unique ability to affect the glandular and neurological functioning of certain areas in our body. These gentle and slow movements are massaging and balancing exercises that optimize the functioning of certain centers.
For adolescents, balancing the lower chakras while opening the higher is essential for healthy and balanced development.
Cobra, cow pose, spinal twist, shoulder stand and fish, are suitable yoga poses along with kaoshikii dance and for males, tandava dance. Learning meditation is also important. While these yoga postures are likely suitable, some may not be good for everyone. In general, asanas should be individualized for the physical, mental and spiritual needs of a particular person.