By Cindy Hurlbert
Yoga and kids. They go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yoga is playful and fun for children and, as an added bonus, a regular practice can provide many benefits.
If you’re an adult and regularly practice yoga, you’ve personally experienced its benefits. When a child finds comfort in a yoga posture, he finds his breath and his mind quiets. For a child with special needs, a thoughtfully designed yoga session can cultivate improved self-awareness.
Jane Williams’ son recently started attending yoga classes and she quickly noticed a difference.
“Zachary has become more aware of himself in space, showing greater ‘anticipation’ of obstacles in his parkour practice, and he seeks out calming breath on his own, demonstrating better focus as a result,” Williams says. “He is focusing better in his 1:1 tutoring as well.”
While much of the information supporting the benefits of yoga is experientially based, Williams’ observations are backed up by research data.
In a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, researchers used a pretest-post-test control group design. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) were placed in a control group engaged in their standard morning routine. The intervention group participated in a daily 16-week Get Ready to Learn classroom yoga program. The researchers concluded the study “demonstrates that use of daily classroom-wide yoga interventions has a significant impact on key classroom behaviors among children with ASD.”
A 2011 pilot study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine outlines an intervention of an 8-week, multi-modal yoga, dance and music therapy program with 24 children aged 3-16 years with an autism diagnosis. The Behavioral Assessment System for Children, Second Edition (BASC-2) and the Aberrant Behavioral Checklist (ABC) were used to measure the outcome of the study.
Researchers of this study concluded that a “movement-based, modified relaxation response program, involving yoga and dance, showed efficacy in treating behavioral and some core features of autism, particularly for latency-age children.”
So how does this translate to our everyday world of raising children with autism? Yoga is the union of mind, body and spirit. And a yoga practice can provide benefits in all three areas.
Yoga promotes physical strength and muscular endurance. Core strength is improved while building balance, coordination and flexibility. Attention, focus and concentration can be increased. Yoga promotes inner harmony and can help children find more calm.
For children with special needs, yoga can help encourage language and communication skills. It offers a way to connect to oneself and others. It can develop self-esteem and self-respect. Yoga supports breathing techniques and helps children calm their bodies and their minds, aiding in relaxation and aiding in better sleep and digestion.
Williams has also noticed the benefits of practicing calm breathing techniques with her son. Zachary uses the breathing techniques at home and is encouraged by his tutor to practice them before their academic work together. His sleep has improved as well, with little stalling at bedtime and falling asleep faster, she says.
In my classes, I use a jar with a lid and, depending on the child, we take the lid off and blow our wiggles or frustrations into it. We then “capture” them inside and put the lid back on quickly. One of the students translated this experience into the school environment by blowing his wiggles into his closed fist, then stuffing them into his pants pocket. That’s self-awareness and self-advocacy coming together in one brilliant moment!
Yoga can be another tool in your child’s toolbox. Raising children is an evolving journey of building skills to support them in their successes and independence as they navigate their daily lives. Skills that can be transferred from one environment to another are important.
By integrating yoga into your child’s life, the skills can happen at home or under the guidance of a yoga teacher. When looking for a teacher, seek one who can give consideration to individual needs and ability levels.
Also look for an instructor who incorporates breathing and calming strategies into the session, along with the asana (physical posture) practice. Ideally, the yoga teacher has had training and experience in working with children that have special needs. They should embrace inclusivity, uniqueness and support strengths of each child.
Every yoga session should be tailored to the unique needs and capabilities of each child. Those with expressive and receptive speech delays can benefit from visual supports that have been created to meet their specific needs.
For creating a home yoga practice, Yoga Pretzel cards and the Yoga Spinner game have cards with illustrations that can help a parent provide a visual guide. To avoid frustration, be sure to modify postures or the rules of the game to meet your child’s ability level.
How do you know if your child is benefiting from a yoga practice? Success is measured not so much by the achievement of a specific yoga pose, but rather by the process and the child’s responsiveness.
Yoga can empower children and provide them with tools to help themselves. Yoga and kids, peanut butter and jelly—magic happens when the two come together.
Cindy Hurlbert works for the Beaverton School District supporting kids with special needs, and is a certified yoga teacher and founder of Yoga Visual, LLC. She has completed two 200-hour teacher training programs along with specialty training for teaching yoga to children with special needs. She is fluent in American Sign Language and has special education experience, including autism