Many girls stop exercising around the age of puberty: the age when their bodies either grow unexpectedly and disproportionately, or sometimes barely at all. A recent study in The Journal of Adolescent Health noted that only 12 per cent of 14-year-old girls in the United Kingdom achieved national exercise guidelines. The reason? Confidence. Well, the reason cited was the development of breasts, but often the real, deep-rooted justification for giving up sports around that age is that generally young girls (and many boys) don’t feel comfortable in their own skin—something that we’ve come to accept rather than challenge.
A play on the Buddhist word “nirvana” meaning “free from suffering”, Girlvana Yoga is a mix between a summer camp and a yoga retreat, created specially for teen girls. Founder Alex Mazerolle (also co-owner of Distrikt Movement in North Vancouver) is vivacious and approachable, a wide smile breaking across her face whenever she says hello. She makes those she is speaking to feel truly listened to.
Girlvana retreats are held every year on British Columbia’s serene Gulf Islands. Mazerolle and her team arm participating girls with the tools to understand acceptance, forgiveness, and self-worth—things that aren’t taught in school or by many parents. The girls practise yoga, journal and write, dance, and have a lot of fun, opening up to one another in a natural and organic way. “It’s an open forum for girls to have conversations about periods and sex, and consent and sexuality,” Mazerolle says. The program has been licensed so that it can be rolled out globally, and Mazerolle is currently in the process of writing a Girlvana book: an aid to keep girls connected to themselves long after the sun sets on the last day of their camp. Mazerolle will also lead a Ladyvana retreat in the fall—or “wine and crying,” as she describes it.
It took 29-year-old Mazerolle a long time to get to a place of true self-love and care. When she was fresh out of high school, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a professional career in the cut-throat dance industry. “As a dancer it’s so crazy,” she explains. “You train your whole life like a pro athlete, but you show up to auditions and it doesn’t matter how good you are. It’s really about what you look like and who you know. You’re being cast into all these roles and it’s so soul-sucking. It’s such a tough industry, and I felt like I was constantly trying to mould myself.”
Drowning in the pressure to conform, Mazerolle moved home to Vancouver a couple of years later. “I was really sick,” she says. “I was bulimic and injured, and just so burnt out, and my mom was like, ‘I think you’ve just got to chill for a little bit.’ So that’s what I did.” At home and without the crutch of dancing, Mazerolle started to notice women in the grocery store or on the street carrying yoga mats. At a time when yoga wasn’t as popular as it is now—even in Vancouver—this piqued her interest. “The entry point for yoga was the need to stay fit, and it looked like something that would work,” Mazerolle says. “So I started doing yoga and took a month off dance, and then it was two months and then it was three months. And I really realized that I didn’t love [dancing] anymore, and it was such a relief not to have to go and perform and go on auditions.”
Spend just a few moments with Mazerolle and it becomes clear that even through her own issues and faults, she is a fearless trailblazer: within a year of practising yoga, she had booked her teacher training. “I was the youngest in that training by a good 20 years!” she says with a laugh. Pulled in by the transformative power of breath and meditation, Mazerolle fully immersed herself into the yoga lifestyle, taking on a guise once again: “Any industry is competitive—even if it is yoga—so I started to want the best time slots [when I was teaching]. You wanted to be taken the most seriously, and I found that I was really moulding myself again, this time to be more like a yoga teacher,” she says. “Yoga teachers don’t dye their hair, and they don’t wear makeup, and they wear flowy clothing and like malala beads and only drink green juice. And I was a vegan and was always on a juice cleanse, so I started to see that all those patterns I had created as a dancer, I was doing again. I was just disguising my eating disorder in green juice.” She ended up with pneumonia and had to be hospitalized.
“I had that dark night of the soul moment,” she says emphatically. Corny as it sounds, she says she “just felt it” and in that moment knew what she had to do: teach yoga to girls. It was about helping young females connect with each other, which doesn’t mean a life free of mistakes or alcohol—it means through all those trials of being a teenager, knowing how to “come home” to themselves. “If you don’t, then you’re just looking for home in other people—you’re looking for home in drugs and alcohol and so many other things,” Mazerolle says. “But if you know how to sit with yourself and just come home, and you know you have a community of women and girls that are here for you…it’s life-changing for sure.”
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