My years of teaching yoga to children at risk and with special needs have taken me across Ontario and throughout Canada. I have been fortunate to teach in some of the best community agencies in Canada that offer unique and caring programs for children. For example: YMCA of Canada, Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, Girls Inc, Children's Aid Societies, Calgary Board of Education, Limestone and Upper Canada School Board and wonderful community programs that focus on children's education and developmental needs throughout larger cities in Ontario.
Close to my heart is working with children with developmental delays as my son has a severe seizure disorder and autism. I have had the fortunate experience of teaching yoga programs in a private school for five years with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other learning differences. Yoga is a wonderful tool to teach all children especially children with special needs and developmental concerns.The classic definition of yoga is to “still the fluctuations of the mind.” For adults, quieting the mind is often difficult. For children, especially those with special needs, there may be a multitude of challenges that prevent such quieting. When this process is not smooth, disruptive behavior, an inability to focus and poor quality of engagement can result. Physical challenges and cognitive impairments can further complicate this process. With comprehensive yoga practice, children benefit by learning how to quiet their minds and calm their bodies; this results in improved physical health and sense of self. For children with extra challenges the benefits are extraordinary. Yoga for children with special needs is based on the methodology created by Sonia Sumar and Louise Goldberg. It is designed to help children who have ADD/ADHD, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, neurological disorders and learning disabilities. Yoga sessions are based on the Hatha Yoga tradition, which begins by working on the structural systems of the body, alignment, flexibility, and strengthening bones, muscles, and tendons. Internal organs benefit at the same time as they are toned and rejuvenated through the movement and poses of the yoga practice. Eye exercises, sound therapy and breath work, combined with regular yoga poses, affect all the systems of the body. Circulatory, respiratory, digestive, endocrine, neurological, nervous, cardiovascular, lymphatic and pulmonary systems are stimulated and toned, benefiting and balancing the internal body and mind with the external body.
For children that struggle with self regulation or sensory processing disorders, yoga tones and stimulates the nervous system, often breaking the “fight or flight” mode, stimulating the parasympathetic system and reorganizing the child’s nervous system. Regular yoga practice, as an adjunct to other interventions, is an effective therapy that meets the child where he is. The focus is on the child’s abilities, not his disabilities.
Children are assisted with accepting their limitations, using that as a starting base. From that point, the practice significantly enhances the child’s physical, mental and emotional state in a safe, peaceful and gentle manner. A child’s yoga practice differs from an adult’s practice in that it may include play, noise and lots of movement! A typical children’s class can include breathing exercises, movement and music for eye and hand coordination, and traditional poses such as cobra pose, child pose, and downward dog pose, each adapted to meet the child’s needs and capabilities.
A child with special needs benefits from an assessment prior to participation in a yoga class to determine appropriate class placement. The benefits of yoga for children with special needs include improved physical health, attention, and focus; however the greatest benefit frequently observed is improved self awareness and the increased self confidence that comes from being able to control their own body.