Excerpted from Chapter Three of our book, Yoga for the Special Child
Yoga is a scientific system of physical and mental practices that originated in India more than three thousand years ago. Its purpose is to help each one of us achieve our highest potential and to experience enduring health and happiness. With Yoga, we can extend our healthy, productive years far beyond the accepted norm and, at the same time, improve the quality of our lives.
The branch of Yoga that forms the main focus of my teaching work with both adults and children is called Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga begins by working with the body on a structural level, helping to align the vertebrae, increase flexibility, and strengthen muscles and connective tissue. At the same time, internal organs are toned and rejuvenated; the epidermal, digestive, lymphatic, cardiovascular, and pulmonary systems are purified of toxins and waste matter; the nervous and endocrine systems are balanced and toned; and brain cells are nourished and stimulated. The end result is increased mental clarity, emotional stability, and a greater sense of overall well-being.
Because Yoga works on so many different levels, it has great potential as an effective therapy for chronic diseases and conditions that do not respond well to conventional treatment methods. For this reason, children with Down Syndrome and other developmental disabilities who practice Yoga often surprise their parents and teachers with their quick mastery of basic motor, communicative, and cognitive skills. The same Yoga routine can help children with learning disabilities develop greater concentration, balance, and composure in their daily lives. Everyone gains some level of benefit. The only requirements are proper instruction and regular practice.
While studying the methods presented in this book, it is important to remember that Yoga is not just a slow-motion calisthenics workout or superficial exercise routine. Anyone who practices correctly soon begins to appreciate the depth and breadth of its benefits. For this reason, I always recommend that the parents of special students enroll in an adult Yoga class; then they can experience the effects of Yoga for themselves. After a number of lessons, they may experience some of the following benefits: the relaxation and softening of deep inner tensions and blockages, a sense of body-mind equilibrium, and a feeling of energetic buoyancy that can carry one right through the most difficult of days.
At our teaching center, I often remind my students not to strain or force themselves. Yoga is not a contest or a "quick fix." Like the proverbial story of the tortoise and the hare, Yoga favors quiet, consistent application over theatrical displays and superficial accomplishments. It does not require that we transform ourselves overnight into something beyond our capacity. Yoga begins by accepting our limitations, whatever they may be, and working with this self-acceptance as a base. In our daily practice, we gradually learn to transcend our limitations, one by one, and in this way, real and lasting progress is possible.
A Five-Limbed Tree of Yoga
At our teaching center in Brazil, we employ the same basic Yoga methods taught around the world since the system began. For my work with special children, I divide these methods into five basic areas of practice: (1) asanas, or body postures, (2) pranayama, or breathing exercises, (3)cleansing practices, (4) music and sound therapy, and (5) deep relaxation.
Asana literally means "posture" or "pose." According to an ancient and authoritative text, an asana is "a particular posture of the body, which is both steady and comfortable." I prefer to call these postures "psycho-physical," since they form the basis of Yoga's mind-body integration work. More than a hundred classical poses, with as many variations, can be subdivided into two categories: active and passive. Active poses tone specific muscle and nerve groups, benefit organs and endocrine glands, and activate brain cells. The passive poses are employed primarily in meditation, relaxation, and pranayama practices. The complete set of Yoga asanas covers the entire human anatomy, quite literally from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. Regular practice helps to correct postural and systemic irregularities, and to maintain the entire physiology in peak condition.
The greatest benefit from practicing asanas comes when we learn how to relax in a given pose. Contrary to what most of us have been taught, real relaxation results from a state of deep concentration, in which the mind is totally focused on a single object. During the practice of asanas, the object of concentration is the body. The student focuses his mind on the incoming and outgoing breaths, the steady flexion and extension of different muscle groups, or other bodily sensations. Ideally this inward focus should be maintained throughout the entire Yoga class.