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.
Yoga’s has the ability to benefit a person’s mind and body., but it also can benefit kids with special needs, who may have additional physical and emotional symptoms to address, such as motor development, sensory integration and confidence. Modifications are to be expected and embraced.
Here are the top five ways kids with special needs can benefit from yoga practice.
1. Awareness of Prana (Breath) and Self
When kids become aware of their breath, they can then begin to understand how breathing impacts their body, noticeably 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 their body and movement, or cleanse the mind-body complex. They discover that breathing is a tool and something they can control.
2. Development of Motor Skills and Coordination
Yoga tones muscles, and improves stability and balance. Along with these benefits comes body awareness and enhanced coordination. Standing asanas, such as Tadasana (Mountain) and Virabhadrasana (Warrior II), improve muscle tone, stability and balance. The flowing postures of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) practiced slowly and with breathing, stretch and strengthen all of the body’s major muscle groups while also helping kids increase focus and coordination.
3. Improved Confidence, Self-esteem and Social Connections
Kids with special needs can refine their social skills and grow confidence in their interactions upon learning self-regulation, self-calming, and improving their motor skills and coordination.
Ideally, you will want to schedule your child’s yoga practice during the same day and time. Consistency helps. Use the same mat layout, same opening and closing, the same vinyasa sequence, and perhaps the same music, as this can help your child focus and feel in control.
They will 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.
4. Sensory Integration
Kids with autism and kids who have been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder might benefit from yoga’s gentle environment.
The dim lights, soft music, smooth mats, and the quiet instruction of the teacher often is a staple in the yoga class. The comforting and low-stimulation environment is calming and allows for 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 the kids to be aware of what their senses tell them and to focus in class.
5. Yoga Helps You, the Parent
You can connect with and support your child with special needs through your own consistent yoga practice. You will find that you, too, 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.
Check out local yoga studios to see which offer classes for kids with special needs or ask your child’s therapist(s). Yoga can take place anywhere — all that is needed is a mat and uninterrupted time.
One classical definition of yoga is “Samatvam,” which is a Sanskrit word which can be translated as “balance,” “equilibrium,” or “evenness of mind.” The general idea is that traditionally, yoga is intended to help us maintain a sense of “centered-ness” or “equipoise” amidst any and every circumstance of life. Many of the same principles and techniques of yoga appear to be effective in promoting this sense of “Samatvam” for individuals or children with special needs.
— Greg Stein, MT-BC, Clinical Music Therapist at The Music Settlement