As a certified yoga instructor, I have long been aware of yoga’s ability to benefit a person’s mind and body. However, it was not until my daughter, who has special needs, trained to receive her certification to become one of the first teen yoga instructors in the U.S., that I truly understood the depth of its benefits.
Yoga is a full-circle practice of breathing (pranayama, also known as prana), movement (mudra), and sound (mantra). The asanas (poses), vinyasa (sequence of asana), and accompanying breathing serve to address the physical and emotional aspects in the practicing individual. Kids with special needs have additional physical and emotional symptoms to address, such as motor development, sensory integration, and confidence.
Yoga is a practice on the mat. I encourage students to meet themselves on their mats, explaining that some meetings will be better than others. I have led classes where one or more of my students has sat and practiced breathing the entire duration or stayed in a restorative asana, such as balasana (child’s pose). That is where the child is at that time, and that’s fine. Modifications are to be expected and embraced. The top five top ways kids with special needs can benefit from yoga practice are discussed below.
Benefit One: Awareness of Prana (Breath) and Self
Prana is the vital life force that animates and regulates all of our systems. When kids become aware of their breath, they can then begin to understand how breathing impacts their body, specifically the respiratory, cardiovascular, muscular and nervous systems.
Prana is a great coping technique for kids with special needs. Kids can be taught how to manage prana, moving it through their bodies in such a way to self-calm and balance emotions, invigorate body and movement, or cleanse the mind-body complex. They discover that breathing is a tool and something they can control.
Benefit Two: Development of Motor Skills and Coordination
Standing asanas improve muscle tone, stability and balance. The flowing postures of sun salutation, practiced slowly and with breathing, stretch and strengthen all of the body’s major muscle groups while helping kids increase focus and coordination.
Benefit Three: Improved Confidence, Self-Esteem, and Social Connections
Kids with special needs are often singled-out by others or feel different from others simply because of their movement or socialization lag behind peers. I saw this happen with my daughter, and I still see vestiges of it. Kids with special needs can refine social skills and grow confidence in their interactions upon learning self-regulation, self-calming, and improving motor skills and coordination.
Ideally, schedule your child’s yoga practice during the same day and time. Consistency helps. The same mat layout, same opening and closing, the same vinyasa sequence, and perhaps, the same music, as it can help your child focus and feel in control.
Kids with special needs develop a greater sense of their physical self in relation to others as well as within the space they practice. Eventually, they transfer this awareness to the world outside the sala (studio) or wherever they practice.
Benefit Four: Sensory Integration
Many kids with special needs suffer from overactive nervous systems. This is particularly the case of kids with autism and kids who have been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder.
Yoga is a gentle environment—dim lights, soft music, smooth mats and quiet instruction of the teacher. The comforting and low-stimulation environment is calming and allows nervous energy to be released in a controlled way during the asana practice.
Yoga encompasses movement, breath work, visualization, storytelling and music. This combination activates the emotional part of the brain, encouraging kids to be aware of what their senses tell them and focus in class.
Benefit Five: Yoga Helps Parents
You can connect with and support your child with special needs through your own consistent yoga practice. You, too, will receive numerous benefits from yoga practice, particularly the awareness of your sensory system in relation to stress and how to use breathing as a coping mechanism.
Visit www.SNRFSD.org/special-needs-resource-list-san-diego/yoga to see who offers classes for kids with special needs or ask your child therapist(s). Yoga can take place anywhere. All that is needed is a mat and uninterrupted time.
- Muscle Tone
- Muscle tension
- Sensory integration
- Positive behavior
- Language and communication
Judy M. Miller savors time with her kids. She is a RYT200 Yoga Instructor and Certified Gottman Educator, with a particular affinity for working with kids.