Words: Patty Wildasinn
Illustrations: Israel Ron
Photographs: Heather Bejar
Are you interested in teaching yoga to special needs students? Or maybe you want to incorporate yoga at home with your own kids? Then, keep reading! I am a Kundalini yogi, counsellor, mom to an adult autistic son, and I put the fun in functional! I am passionate about delivering yoga to all abilities, and am thrilled to be sharing a series of articles on delivering yoga to special needs kids and adults. Much of the information shared is adapted from my first book, Yogable, A Gentle Approach to Yoga for Special Populations, in addition to new tips and tools. This population will love and challeng you. They are honest, and they may be loud or very subdued. You may be touched, smelled, licked, and hugged, or conversely ignored and dismissed. One minute your heart may be so full you’re simply bursting with love, and the next you are asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” These students will be your teachers. They will push you to be a better person and will hold you accountable. How do you begin? Begin by saying “Yes. Yes, you are welcome.” Honestly, yoga is fabulous for all kids!
Yogic techniques are useful for improving balance, flexibility, a calm mind, concentration, and focus, while also releasing stress, anxiety, and worry. It strengthens the entire nervous system. Within the special needs population, there is the observed added benefit of improved sensory processing, emotional and physical regulation, and better sleep. Kundalini yoga is known as the yoga of awareness. It is a highly practical approach to the body and the mind, and is easily made accessible and beneficial to all levels and abilities. The yoga, meditation and other recommendations shared are adaptable and inclusive. For the purpose of clarity, terms such as; special needs, normal, disabled, neuro-divergent or typical, mild, moderate, or low functioning, are purely for description purposes, with respect to the fact that we are all different. The verbiage does not imply a diagnosis or label. Did you know that only slightly greater than 20% of the population must display the same pattern in physical make-up or behaviour to be considered “normal?” By that definition, normal expression represents a slim margin. Yoga honours our individual differences and similarities.
Special needs yoga may be promoted or referred to as “all abilities” or “all inclusive” classes. You are welcome to adjust your wording to fit your community. I work with children and adults on the Autism spectrum (ASD), with Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, ADD, seizure disorders, sensory processing disorders and many additional lesserknown disabilities, and I love them all! Remember a diagnosis does not define the person, and anyone can practice yoga if given the chance. I am a big advocate of family style classes and family participation for two reasons. One is that each child has unique abilities and/or challenges, be they physical or behavioural, that the parent or caregiver is best equipped to deal with in a studio class setting. The parent may also shadow and assist the child as needed. Secondly, caretakers need a peaceful practice as much as the kids themselves. If you are teaching in a school, camp, or recreational setting, it is important to have the teacher, counsellor, and/or faculty aides present for supervision, behaviour management, and support.
- Decreased anxiety, stress, and tension
- Appreciation for an activity kids and parents can do together
- Laughter and smiles
- Improved sleep
- The body feels better with movement
- Increased body and spatial awareness
- Increased ability to attend to tasks for longer periods of time
- Increased focus by using techniques outside of the class setting
As the yoga teacher you will be responsible for defining your class parameters. I would recommend scheduling a class of thirty or fortyfive minutes, as an hour is too long. Some things to consider are: who is welcome, what ages may participate, is there any behaviour that will exclude participation, will the family be included, what is a good time to hold class, and how will the class be set up? If you are practicing at home some of these parameters may not be applicable. Of course, your best plans should be embraced with a neutral mind. Create your class plan and then be flexible to allow for change. Expect the unexpected. Participants may be set up in rows facing the teacher, or in a large circle. Setting students up in a large circle offers more visual connection and interaction with peers. Sitting in rows offers less visual stimulation and distraction. There are pros and cons to both, so experiment and take your set-up cues from what best serves your students.I do suggest seating students with more than an armslength distance between them so they cannot easily reach over and touch their neighbour. I do not encourage activities that involve touching beyond the parent child pair. This may sound counterintuitive to those who are already actively teaching kids yoga in a neuro-typical setting.
Setting up an environment that naturally supports keeping the hands to the self is wise for students with poor impulse control and those with either weak or overly strong boundaries. When teaching kids, I aim to balance a familiar, age appropriate, warm-up routine with fresh and varied themed yoga sets. I recommend moving with the kids throughout the class by demonstrating each posture so that students can follow along visually. Encourage participation by using words such as; watch, copy, and show me, rather than do this or do that. An invitation to join the posture or activity is more empowering than a direction to perform. I never force compliance or demand that students get into the postures, and I don’t wait for everyone to do the posture before moving on. Teach at a pace that works for your students.Addressing kids by their name with specific praise, rather than a general good job, builds self-esteem and motivation.
The self-regulated movement of yoga, where each individual chooses how much or how little they engage in the postures, allows individuals to participate to tolerance. Allowing for personal choices fosters a feeling of success. Physical adjustments are best kept to a bare minimum, and only with permission. Be aware that traditional yoga props such as straps and blocks may be turned into weapons. However, supervised non-traditional props may add stimulation for the senses, and fun. For example, placing weighted bean bags on the belly, or blowing bubbles, feathers, or leaves and watching the movement are activities helpful in connecting with the breath. This type of exercise, with fun props, assists in identifying between the inhale and exhale. Although, the words breathe in and breathe out are more easily understood by children. Taking a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth at the end of each posture facilitates a smooth transition to the next exercise. At the beginning of each class or personal practice, I suggest pausing, with intention and reverence, to connect with the Divine flow of life. In Kundalini yoga this is done by chanting the mantra Ong Namo, Guru Dev Namo three times. In Hatha traditions it may be chanting Om three times, or simply taking three deep breaths to prepare for yoga.
CAMPING TRIP YOGA
Many of the postures given below may be done seated, using the arm movements only. When indicated, alternate variations will be suggested. This is a great example of yoga that works for all abilities and levels. Warm-up exercises are optional. Feel free to add additional animal postures to create an extended practice.
Mountain Pose – Get ready for a mountain camping trip. Stand tall with the arms at the sides, palms facing forward. Feel connected to the ground through the feet. Take a moment to wiggle the toes and press them down.
We made it to the campsite. Now set up the tent with Down-Dog Pose. The body forms a triangle just like a tent. For a seated variation, extend the arms out to the sides, with palms up, and bend the elbows so that the fingertips touch above the head, forming a triangle, or tent.
Hike into the woods with a Yogi March. Bring the hands into Gyan Mudra by pressing the tips of the index fingers to the tips of the thumbs. March around the room lifting the arms straight up with each raised knee on the inhale and bring them down on the exhale.
Bear Pose – Come in to Down-Dog, then spread the feet wider than the hips and slightly bend the knees. Ask the students to identify their favourite type of bear, so that all may participate with their words.
Tree Pose – Traditional Tree Pose may be supported by standing side by side and holding hands with a partner. An alternate Tree Pose is to raise the arms up over head and sway from side to side and back and forth, like a tree moving in the wind.
Cobra Pose – Cobra works great for any type of snake. Lie on the belly with the hands under the shoulders. Take a deep breath in and exhale with a hiss through the mouth as you push up through the arms. Come down and repeat this hissing snake pose three or more times. For a seated variation, hold on to the sides of a chair and push the arms down while moving into a gentle backbend.
Cricket Pose – The sun is setting and the crickets are beginning to chirp. Lie on the back and lift the hands and feet off the ground. Rub the palms together and the soles of the feet together briskly. This strengthens the aura and increases communication between the hemispheres of the brain.
At this time, you may opt to set up a pretend campfire by placing a battery-operated lantern or flashlight in the middle of the room. You may cover the lantern with colored scarves so it looks like a camp fire. If your class is not already in a circle have them move so that they are sitting around the pretend campfire.
Snap the Fingers to mimic a crackling, popping fire. Snapping or rubbing the fingers together is good for stimulating nerve endings on the tips of the fingers.
Rotate the Wrists – Pretend to make S’mores. To roast the marshmallows, extend the arms straight out in front of the body and then circle the wrists in both directions.
If you have never had S’mores, they are a gooey, sweet treat consisting of roasted marshmallows and chocolate held between two graham crackers. On a side note, graham crackers are an excellent snack choice for kids’ classes because they are a low allergy risk. Always ask permission before offering food treats in class.
Inhale through the Nose and Exhale through the Mouth in order to cool down imaginary hot cocoa. To add a dash of fun, fill disposable cups with a few marshmallows, or small crafting pom-poms, and have students blow into the cups to make the marshmallows move.
Our mouths may be sticky from the pretend S’mores. Move the tongue around the mouth and over the teeth in circles. Yes, we are exercising the tongue and jaw.
Sleeping bag roll – Direct students to lie across their mats at one end and have the parents or helpers roll them up in the mat, as if they are in sleeping bags. Unroll, and repeat a couple of times. The pressure of this roll may be calming and grounding, particularly for ASD students.
Coyote Howl – Use your voice to imitate the howling, yipping, yapping call of the coyote. Non-verbal students do very well with this type of yoga voice exercise.
Snore – Take a few pretend snores as you move into deep relaxation. The snoring vibration helps to release anger and frustration. Relax in savasana on the floor or in a chair. Adjust the time of relaxation to the ability of the students.
Ant Pose – Let the ants take care of any leftover crumbs. Come on to the knees and elbows. Lift the feet off the floor to work on balance, and crawl around the room like ants. For a seated ant variation, students can tap lightly and walk their fingers up and down their arms for a tactile sensory experience. Parents or aides may do the walking ant fingers for those who need help.
BOUNTIFUL, BLISSFUL, AND BEAUTIFUL MEDITATION
After a few minutes of relaxation, guide the students back into a seated posture. Place the hands, one on top of the other, on the centre of the chest, the heart centre. Sing the mantra “Bountiful am I, Blissful am I, Beautiful am I” for one to three minutes. This works as a positive affirmation.
In Kundalini yoga we end class by chanting a long Sat Nam, truth as identity. The more familiar Namaste, or taking a few long, deep breaths also serve as closure to the class. May you show up with an open mind and authenticity, and leave with a full heart. Companion mantras and songs mentioned herein can be found on popular streaming platforms.
Patty Wildasinn is a Level Two certified Kundalini Yoga teacher and author and has taught yoga to all levels and abilities for over 20 years. She enjoys working with seniors, kids with disabilities, people in chemical dependency rehabilitation centres, and those in recovery from addiction. Prior to teaching yoga, she worked professionally as a nationally certified addiction counsellor, and has spent over three decades helping others to discover their own success in navigating life’s challenges and addiction recovery.
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