Rites-of-passage ritual lets teens sweat the big stuff

10th October 2014 at 01:00
School-leavers build ceremonial sauna to reflect on their lives

Contemplating life in the darkness of a makeshift forest sauna and witnessing shamanistic fire rituals are not common experiences for urban young people.

But that could be set to change after the success of a project that employs ancient coming-of-age ceremonies to help modern teenagers to cope with the often tricky business of growing up.

A group of school-leavers with troubled home lives have completed the Rites of Passage programme aimed at supporting young people to make the often tough transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Run by the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), the nine-month scheme included a range of typical arts education activities, from watching a screening of the classic Alfred Hitchcock mystery The 39 Steps to taking part in a musical workshop with Glasgow-born opera singer Michael MacKinnon.

But the students - chosen from two Edinburgh schools - also witnessed a shamanistic fire ceremony in Glasgow. And for the finale in September they created a "sweat lodge" in the Fife countryside, where they took time to reflect on important moments in their lives so far and look forward to the future.

The students built a small shelter, heated stones on a fire and then arranged them inside, pouring water over them to create a dense, steamy atmosphere. They then spent time sitting in the shelter thinking about their experiences.

Rosanagh Bennett, an Edinburgh psychotherapist who specialises in rites-of-passage rituals and led the sweat lodge event, explained: "Sweat lodges have been used in ceremonies for thousands of years, especially by Native American people.

"They were traditionally built from willow and animal skins to create a womb-like space where young people coming of age brought a symbol of their childhood and something representing the future.

"The whole purpose of the sweat lodge is for cleansing and letting go by `sweating out' any painful past experiences to face the future. It's an intense experience and challenging for a lot of people who are not used to a dark, hot, confined space."

Although only seven of the dozen students who started the scheme completed the full nine months, teachers believed it had a significant impact on their self-esteem.

Claire Rogers, formerly an art and design teacher at Holy Rood RC High School, which took part in the scheme, said: "I feel the pupils really benefited from the one-to-one support they were given in this project. They needed to be listened to, invested in and believed in and that's exactly what happened.

"This experience will certainly have a positive impact on the direction they now take in their lives."

Ms Rogers, who has moved to Johnstone High School in Renfrewshire, where she plans to incorporate ideas from the programme, added that it provided much-needed emotional support for students who were struggling with the transition into adulthood. "It may help to reduce the chances of them turning to alcohol or drugs as a method of coping," she said.

Maureen Cockburn, Holy Rood's head of arts, agreed: "Our pupils were not particularly artistic or creative and did have horrendous social problems.Some have matured quite considerably this year and tend to think more for themselves. All the pupils who followed the programme did improve tenfold."

One Royal High school-leaver, who took part in the project but did not want to be named, said: "I liked the way that the programme encouraged me to reflect on aspects of myself and my life in ways that I previously hadn't considered. Meeting everyone else involved in the programme and getting to know them was also a great aspect of it, and getting to see the shows in the festival was brilliant."

The EIF plans to continue the Rites of Passage transitions project next year. Sally Hobson, EIF head of programmes, said: "It is a programme that encourages young people to accept challenges which can take them to uncomfortable places - out of their comfort zone, if you like - and in doing so [they] experience what they have available to them."

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