Keeping teens away from rock bottom
At 25, Tiffany Paynter discovered yoga.
For years she’d written it off as something done by privileged people with time on their hands, but friends suggested it might help her battle with depression.
The breath control, the meditation ….it changed her life.
She’s hoping to show teenagers how it can do the same for them through As I Am, the free yoga classes she’s offering at Bermuda Society of Arts.
Her hope is to eventually grow the concept under Soham, a business she is developing through the start-up programme Ignite. If it plays out as she intends there will be multiple classes across the island for students.
“I'm doing it for free right now as a proof of concept in hopes of gaining traction and awareness and support from individuals, organisations, government, schools etc,” she said.
“It’s on us – as aunts, as fathers, as mothers, as elders. We have to act now. The [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] was warning of a mental health crisis even before Covid. In 2017 they said that one in three children had been victims of sexual abuse. In 2018, the Family Centre raised the red flag about adverse childhood trauma. And now the UN are putting out policies and briefs on mental health crises in young people.”
Ms Paynter has 11 years of practice under her belt and is a certified instructor with the Yoga Alliance. She is also certified to teach trauma-informed yoga for youth and kids’ yoga.
She promises students who sign up for As I Am will learn tools that decrease stress and anxiety, improve focus and attention, support mental health, improve physical wellbeing and support academic performance.
“We have this building and compounding crisis that we can continue to [ignore] but if we do nothing, at least two-thirds of our present and future generations will continue to suffer from behavioural, physical and mental health issues,” Ms Paynter said. “So this is my attempt to intervene in a practical way – a high-impact, low-cost intervention, so to speak.”
The idea hatched from her own experience at 25, when she “hit rock bottom” and didn’t know how to reverse the downward swing.
“I tried yoga as a last resort and it changed my life. It saved my life. Not many people know that from age 11 up until 21 I suffered in silence from depression. My story isn't unique. The [UK’s National Health Service] says that 75 per cent of children and teens struggling with mental health don't get the help that they need. And so I plan to change that.”
The Bermuda Society of Arts is to host As I Am, Tiffany Paynter’s yoga programme for teenagers.
Gallery director Nzingha Ming said she was “delighted and encouraged” by the collaboration.
"Keeping on top of mental health has truly been a challenge and the more resources we make available to create that support, the better,“ she said.
“BSoA is affectionately known as ‘the people's gallery’ and we strive to be an accessible space, in regards to our artists’ communities creative pursuits with all artistic mediums but also in terms of physical location."
At the moment she is working on her own. Her plan is to eventually get other yoga teachers on board so more children can benefit from the programme.
“For every one teacher on our staff, we can impact 120 children and offer 7,440 hours of yoga and mindfulness classes per school year.
“Of course, free is not sustainable and so at some point we will be looking to the wider community for support in terms of funding … and then schools willing to open doors.”
Confidence came from the response she’d had to the yoga programme she piloted at 12 after-school sites while working at the Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sport in 2020.
“Imagine what's possible when generations of children are equipped with lifelong tools to help and heal themselves,” Ms Paynter said. “We know that there are barriers to mental health access, there are cultural stigmas around it, there are issues of accessibility in terms of costs, as well as accessibility in terms of providers.
“We are in this time of increasing anxiety, trauma and isolation. Our youth need tools such as yoga and mindfulness more than ever to give them agency over their own health and wellbeing. And so this programme As I am, it's really a pilot programme just to test the waters and see how viable is this for the teen population.”
It was only through her volunteer work with Family Centre that she recognised her own “childhood trauma” and how yoga had helped her to “heal in terms of the self-inquiry that was involved, in the self-empowerment that was involved, and its ultimate goal of self-actualisation”.
“When I first started I didn't really want to do it as I thought I was completely sceptical about it. But I went from doing it as a last-resort attempt to help heal my body and mind, to practising every day. I get on my mat every day and throughout the day I practise the eight other elements of yoga.
“[The pictures] we see now, in magazines, or TV or YouTube videos, are just one aspect: posture. But the other elements have helped me. I practise breath control. I practise control of my five senses. I practise concentration … And that’s what different about [As I Am]. Our approach is classical in that it emphasises yoga as a life science that’s integrated into our daily lives and routines just like brushing your teeth.”
Other than the Beyond Yoga programme that has been offered by the Family Centre at Dellwood Middle School, Ms Paynter is unaware of anything on the island like As I Am.
“Most people often refer to [yoga] as exercise. That’s not our approach. Our approach is it’s a life science. It’s designed for depth and transformation with an intentional focus on self-empowerment and self-inquiry and ultimately, self-actualisation.”
Tiffany Paynter’s yoga classes start tomorrow at the Bermuda Society of Arts. To sign up, or for more information: www.tiffanypaynter.com; firstname.lastname@example.org