Accessible yoga for kids with special needs
The benefits of yoga are well-known and varied, across body, mind and intellect. The results of consistent yoga practice are also well-documented, contributing to its widespread popularity around the world.
From an anatomical point of view, a good understanding of the muscular and skeletal system helps extract maximum benefits from yoga practice. Specifically for children who have lesser amount of inorganic matter in their bones, like calcium, magnesium and phosphorous salts as compared to adults, the higher level of flexibility have led to the belief that children should not practice traditional forms of yoga as their bones are still forming and may have adverse effects. Others postulate that simplification and incorporating variations of traditional yoga techniques is all that is needed, for example, emphasizing on more stretching poses, reducing the length of time in holding the asanas or just letting the child jump in and out of the positions. It is precisely from the latter group that the potential benefits from yoga practice has been successfully extended to special needs children.
``For the first time in her life, she was able to blow out her birthday candle`` -Erin Fenney, 19, cerebral palsy
Kids with special needs are born with developmental challenges and can be medically diagnosed with physical and/or mental disabilities. Examples of this include autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) amongst others. The difficulties faced by special needs children are manifold. From a physical point of view, children with Down Syndrome look distinctly different from other children due to chromosome abnormality. The muscular and skeletal systems also suffer from development challenges depending on the severity of the condition and this can lead to anything from a basic lack of physical strength to deformed limbs. Psychomotor problems resulting from mental retardation also present major obstacles which can make it difficult for them to coordinate their hands and limbs simply to climb a flight of stairs.
Special needs children may also suffer from learning disabilities, for instance speech and language impairment and short term memory resulting in the constant need for revision or re-learning tasks that normal children take for granted. On the bright side, a lot of progress has been made in the utilisation of yoga practices for special needs kids to very encouraging and positive results, with case studies illustrating the practice of yoga as an healthful alternative to drugs (“Getting in touch, with Adya” – Yoga for children, vol. 2.) To this effect, certification programs have also been developed to teach parents, yoga teachers, therapy professionnals and healthcare workers with regard to maximising yoga as therapy for children with special needs.
At a basic level, the younger the child, the greater the potential for restorative effects. Needless to say this largely depends on the medical diagnosis on the severity of the disability, the receptivity of the parents and conviction of the potential for improvement. For instance, Sonia Kumar who has developed the program ‘Yoga for the special child’ first experimented with her daughter, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, when she was only 3 months old. She held her briefly in an adapted headstand position, which helped reverse the blood flow, benefiting the nervous and endocrine system.
In terms of physical development, various stretching and strengthening asanas can be introduced to support muscular and skeletal development. This helps to build body awareness within the child who may have basic difficulties differentiating the right and left hand. Additional psychomotor moves can be added along the way so the child learns better coordination by simply stretching the right hand to touch the right foot. Postures which focus on the abdominal also help strengthen their digestive systems and surrounding organs, which can often be an under-developed area of their internal systems.
``...we meet them where they are, not focussing on their disabilities, but their abilities.`` - special needs yoga teacher
With breathing techniques, while retention may be difficult depending on the child’s progress, simple controlled inhalation and exhalation exercises can be taught to special needs children. These tools can be used for calming themselves down when frustrated, learning to relax or just as a means to improve concentration. The introduction of basic “om” chanting or bramari breathing can help kids to relieve tension as they learn to focus their minds. These different techniques, including yoga nidra can be used by the special needs child even outside of the classroom, especially when they feel the need to manage their frustration or anger and have difficulties expressing their emotions.
In imparting these asana and pranayama techniques, the connection and rapport between the teacher, child and even parent builds over time. Especially with asanas where it may be necessary for the teacher to adjust or help the child get into a comfortable position, this opens up the child to be more receptive to sensorial touch, which helps to build their social skills. Having to take instructions develops their listening skills and gradually helps them communicate better, building their confidence in the longer run.
Having a class format with the same schedule and same class layout every week brings in much needed consistency and control for the special needs child. A basic set of sequences will also help bring the much needed stability and build a safe atmosphere for the child, allowing them to experiment and try new things away from the prying eyes of the outside world.
Of course, modifications will be needed to the standard yoga classes to take into account the special requirements. As a start, group size needs to be co considerably smaller. Depending on the extent of the disability, this can be an individual class or a group of five students with their parents/guardians welcomed to join. The asanas and breathing techniques will also need to be modified to take into account the varying disabilities of the special needs children
The use of visual cards, props, sounds, music can be creatively integrated into the sequences to bring them to life and continually engage the kids. For instance using an illustration of a dog for the downward dog posture and having the kids bark like a dog to increase the fun element. To this effect, music and dance movements can be included as stretching exercises to warm up the kids or used at the end of practice to calm them down and relax.
The use of yoga for special needs children knows no boundaries, as long as it is done with consideration of the needs of the child at its core. The benefits to the kids are extensive and can prove to be tremendous help for them, having started their lives at a disadvantage. With a healthier and stronger body and mind, they can be better equipped to take in future challenges in their lives.