WHAT IS YOGA
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.
HOW CAN YOGA HELP
The practice of Yoga poses (asanas), followed by deep relaxation, can help to significantly reduce high muscle tone, which is characteristic of most children with cerebral palsy. Holding an asana gives the muscles and tendons a relaxing stretch, releasing overall stress and tightness throughout the musculature and around the joints. At the same time that asanas are relaxing the body, they also provide just enough resistance to exercise low muscle tone areas of the body. In this way asanas actually improve both high and low muscle tone problems in children with cerebral palsy.
Perhaps the most important aspect of asana practice for children with cerebral palsy is its ability to stretch and realign the spine. Asanas flex and twist the spine in all directions. This scientifically designed series of stretches and counter-stretches helps to create more space between the vertebrae and reduce pressure on the disks and nerves that radiate out of the spine. Reducing the pressure on these radial nerves facilitates the release of muscular tension throughout the body and enhances overall nerve function. As a result, the child is able to develop a greater range of movement and coordination, as well as greater independence.
Yoga poses (asanas) help to stretch, tone and strengthen the entire body. Asanas also benefit the internal organs and help to balance and revitalize the endocrine glands. For this reason children with Down syndrome who practice Yoga stay slim and flexible, while those who do not practice Yoga tend to put on weight as they age. In conjunction with yogic breathing exercises, which have a beneficial effect on the central nervous system, asanas facilitate the development of body awareness, concentration and memory -- vital skills for any child with a developmental disability.
AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER
The first step in teaching Yoga to a student with autism is to establish a strong bond with the child. To do this the Yoga teacher will need to enter the world that the child lives in -- to meet the child on his or her own level, so to speak. Only then will the teacher be able to gain the child’s complete confidence. Massage, music, dance, rhymes and stories are some of the different techniques that the teacher can use to connect with the child.
As student and teacher gradually develop a foundation of mutual trust and friendship, the Yoga teacher can introduce some of the Yoga poses (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama) that will help to bring the child with autism out of his or her shell and into the world of social interaction. After the student becomes familiar with these introductory poses, the Yoga teacher may progressively add more asanas to the routine, as well as deep relaxation. The combination of asanas, pranayama and deep relaxation will strengthen the child’s nervous system, increase overall health and facilitate the development of body awareness and concentration. By establishing optimal physiological and psychological integrity, Yoga therapy helps children with autism gain new motor, communication and social skills. The end result is an overall improvement in their quality of life.
Since breath is deeply connected to the emotions, teaching yogic breathing exercises (pranayama) is an ideal way to start working with children who have attention deficit disorder. However, it is important for the Yoga teacher to first find a way to create a strong bond with the child, in order to gain the child's trust and attention. Then the exercises will progress more rapidly. In addition to its positive effect on the emotions, pranayama stimulates vital areas of the brain and central nervous system. By combining pranayama with Yoga poses (asanas) and deep relaxation, the benefits are greatly enhanced. With regular Yoga practice, children with attention deficit disorder develop greater body awareness, emotional balance and concentration - increasing their capacity for schoolwork and creative play. As overall performance improves, so does their self-esteem.
Currently, more than four million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. There are many factors contributing to this behavioral disorder: TV violence; poor nutrition; prenatal drug use by parents; sensory overload; pollution; crowding; and the breakdown of the family structure. Yoga uses physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama) and deep relaxation techniques to calm and strengthen the central nervous system. It helps children and teenagers with ADHD get in touch with their bodies in a relaxed and non-competitive way. There is also a spiritual side to Yoga that grounds its practitioners in their own silence and internal awareness - something that is becoming increasingly difficult to experience with the frenzied pace of life today.
Children with ADHD often experience learning delays due to their hyperactivity and distractibility. Yoga teachers will usually find it easiest to introduce pranayama and a few asanas to these children before attempting to teach them an entire Yoga routine. This will help them to calm down enough to follow instructions. Alternate nostril breathing will be of particular benefit to children with ADHD because of its ability to calm the mind and to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Teaching these children proper respiration is an important aspect of their Yoga training. Once the child with ADHD is able to follow instructions, the Yoga teacher can gradually introduce more asanas and the deep relaxation portion of the Yoga routine.