Children with special needs also have special abilities, and yoga is uniquely suited to uncovering and the abilities and allowing them to shine brightly. Because of the emphasis on movement with breath, yoga for children with special needs increases body awareness, teaches effective stress handling techniques, improves concentration, strength and flexibility, all in a positive social environment.
One of the strengths of yoga is its nearly infinite adaptability within given forms. Because yoga poses are expressions of internal alignment, the ability to achieve an external form or “look” is a distraction from what yields the true benefits, which is aligned movement connected to breath. This movement can be generated from within with conscious muscular engagement or with the help of a sensitive teacher or practitioner, as often happens with children starting out, regardless of ability.
Sometimes the very technologies that help us adapt to our needs create needs of their own, which can happen when a child’s mobility is limited in some way and they rely upon a wheel chair or other devices. The patterns of muscles in this seated position can be eased and even reversed with assisted stretching and movement of yoga poses. Even from the seated position, borrowing chair yoga techniques and moving or assisting the upper body into the forms of Warriors and other poses effects the entire spinal column and every organ system. When assisted stretching of the lower body is added, the results are synergistic.
For children with neurobehavioral and developmental needs, the integrative effects of breath coordinated movement are profound. While this describes a broad and diverse group of needs, the core issues with sensory and motor integration as well as more acute need for calming strategies are well addressed by the breathing techniques of yoga - such as deep belly breathing, three part breathing, bumble bee breath, and alternate nostril breathing - in concert with programatic and sequenced movements. The simple association between opening the body and inhaling, then folding the body and exhaling is itself a calming and integrating series that can be learned by any child.
Yoga is being used specifically for autism spectrum disorders with demonstrated positive effect. Since autistic children tend to be inward and relate better to objects than people and experience repetitive movements, learning a sequence of breath coordinated movements often named for animals and objects - Tree, Eagle, Dogs - can become a welcome and generative activity which builds sensory integration, builds connection between the child and teacher as well as encouraging abstract or metaphorical thinking fundamental to relationship. When muscular imbalance or weakness is present, yoga is designed to strengthen and stabilize musculature and movement.
In forms of hyperactivity, breathe awareness and deepening techniques such as those mentioned above, in concert with the focused activity of yoga postures has a beneficial effect, often calming and stabilizing attention and mood even after a single session.
Yoga for fetal alcohol syndrome addresses both affective and sensory needs effectively while “grounding” or creating even body sensations that can help in coping with emotions.
Special needs vary widely, even within a specific diagnostic category, so every child will require their own program, or set of exercises. This does not, however, differ from the ideal circumstance in any yoga practitioner: yoga practice is most effective when tailored to the individual. Certain generalizations can be helpful in thinking about how yoga can be tailored to your child’s special needs:
Try this simple “log roll” exercise toward the beginning:
Set 3 or more mats end to end to create a pathway then lie down at one end of the pathway with your arms close to your body and roll down the path as if you were rolling down a hill. This can be calming as well as focusing and fun.
Let your child set the pace, and take rests whenever they are ready.