Yoga4Youths: Improving Mental Health in the Silicon Valley

Today’s story is an extremely personal narrative about losing a friend and contains descriptions and information about suicide which may be triggering to survivors or to the family and/or friends of victims. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please seek help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day for assistance.

Last spring, a childhood friend died by suicide. As a result, many people, myself included, were both devastated and confused at the same time.

Mental health issues aren’t commonly discussed in my community, and though, from what I understood, she was suffering from severe stress and depression, most people didn’t know it. It was ingrained in the competitive culture to disregard people casually talking about self-harm and depression because of societal, romantic, familial, and peer pressure to excel in not only academics but also extracurriculars.

Many of the typical symptoms that are exhibited by someone who is suicidal coincided with what many people see as just being “stressed.” But I wish I could’ve supported her more and let her know that I cared for her, so she wouldn’t have had to resort to such extreme ends. For me personally, I felt hopeless and dejected after her death because it simply wasn’t a huge shock to me that someone from my high school had completed suicide. It happens in schools all over my district and in nearby cities as well.

Afterward, I turned towards yoga and mindfulness as a way for me to process my feelings and extricate the negative energies from my body. I felt more clear-headed and ambitious to make a change. I started practicing yoga every day in my house at 6 a.m. before school started and meditating before I went to sleep. I started developing a regular routine for dealing with any obstacles that came my way, not by suppressing my emotions, but rather by breathing them out and letting them float away gently. I discovered the true reason others have found solace in practicing yoga, whereas, before this experience, I was just practicing yoga like it was a relaxing sport.

Similarly, I wished to share my experiences with yoga as a way of self-healing to others in my community. I want to disrupt the continual cycle of kids thinking it’s OK to constantly be stressed because they think it’s the norm. I now know for a fact that this is not normal and that this vicious cycle of suicide shouldn’t persist.

As a result, I started a traveling yoga studio with my sister, an RYT-200 certified yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance and blogger of V Yoga Company, to bring yoga to surrounding schools in my hometown of the Silicon Valley. During my sister’s junior year of high school, a student ended her life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. We had heard she became too burdened by doing well in school and in outside academic competitions. Therefore, both my sister and I had personal motivations to make this project successful. We had both seen and experienced firsthand what it feels like to be a student in this kind of high-pressure community and how the community seemed, to us, somewhat indifferent just weeks after the incidents.

First off, I started teaching elementary school students basic yoga poses and breathing techniques. My sister and I tried our best to turn the rowdy, mischievous kids whose energy was positively infectious into quiet, calm individuals, especially when they were in Shavasana. Then we brought the free yoga classes to our local library where people of all ages in the community could participate in the yoga and mindfulness trainings.

Forming the nonprofit organization, Yoga4youths, has opened so many opportunities for us to create lasting collaborations with different schools and community hubs in the Silicon Valley and tackle the problems that plague our community the most. People of all ages, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and beliefs, can come to these free classes.

As long as they walk through the door, they depart from their emotional baggage into a safe haven of love and unity. The protective and encouraging atmosphere is very personal and welcoming for all level yogis, but especially for beginners who have never tried yoga or mindfulness before.

I believe it is imperative to share the message that every life is precious, and everyone is worth fighting for. No matter what difficulties and obstacles you may face, whether they’re predetermined or born out of your environment, they can be remedied through less drastic or permanent measures than suicide. And although it may not seem like it, you never have to go through it alone because there are always people who want to be there for you, talk to you, and support you.

I know yoga is not the cure-all for suicidal thoughts or depression, but it can be a good start in helping us all become more aware of these thoughts and feelings both in ourselves and in others. Creating safe spaces like this where a dialogue around emotions is created can help end the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Most of all, it can help connect people experiencing mental health issues with more resources and encourage them that it’s OK to seek help.

For more information about Yoga4youths, please visit https://yoga4youths.wordpress.com/ or follow the nonprofit on Instagram!

For more resources on suicide prevention, please visit https://bornthisway.foundation/get-help-now/.

Jessica Zhang

Jessica Zhang, 16, is a student at Middlesex School in Concord, MA. She started her nonprofit, Yoga4youths, to teach yoga and mindfulness in public and private schools with high suicide rates. In addition, she has achieved a President's Volunteer Service Award and is currently a Miss CEO ambassador and Girl Up club leader to further female empowerment. Last summer, she worked as a writing intern at the Stanford Daily, learning collegiate journalism from the current editor-in-chief, Ada Statler. When she's not avidly reading books, writing, or watching TEDx Talks, Jessica can be found meditating and practicing yoga.

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