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Limitless Yoga: Yoga for Special Needs

Posted by on 12/2/2013

Yoga knows no boundaries. It seems to be the only holistic healing practice to affect and help such a large, colorful sample of our population. Those with mental and physical disabilities are no exception. Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of sitting in to observe a very special and unique form of yoga, "Yoga for Everyone", taught by one of my favorite yoga teachers, who is also an elementary school teacher with a background in psychology. The icing on the cake? Miss B. also has experience teaching special needs children. I consider this woman an unsung, modern day hero.

Yoga isn't really a sport, much less a competitive one that might qualify for an addition to the olympics or Special Olympics. Physical fitness (including physical therapy at least) is an integral part of treatment for those with physical or mental handicaps. Arguably, yoga is the ideal form of fitness for this special breed of yogis. Those with physical handicaps as well as children and adults with downs syndrome or on the autism spectrum can find healing and community, as well as building creativity and fitness, by partaking in yoga tailored to this unique group of yogis and their special needs and developmental issues.

Classes such as these are open to older children and teachers alike. Asanas in these classes were designed to be uplifting and fun, leaving the participants comfortable in their bodies and with a sense of accomplishment. Depending on the handicap, yoga can be beneficial to those with disabilities, freeing those from the chains and bonds of:

  • Down's Syndrome: Is a congenetal disability. Language and cognitive development are severely delayed, and the disease's hallmarks are the abnormal physical appearance as well as a very low intelligence quotient that typically meet the requirements for falling under mental retardation. Classes for those with Down's Syndrome are all about uplifting the spirits. Participants are able to connect with their bodies, limitations and all, and work through difficulties. This raises self-confidence. Plus, participants build priceless bonds and friendships with each other, whereas other forms of exercise can leave these citizens confused, defeated, turned off (e.g. cheerleading), or even scarred (for example, dodgeball, contact sports, and competitive sports). Here is a fitness regimen that won't pick you last. Participants feel in control and in turn, behavioral habits improve, self-esteem is boosted, and quite frankly, they have fun.
  • Autism: Autism disorders are arrayed across a spectrum of severity, so there is no black and white way to teach yoga to those with autism. Children can benefit enormously, in the early developmental years. Some autistic children cannot speak. Others lash out seemingly randomly, going into fits of rage. Yoga for autistic children can help with social interactions, pain reduction, reduction in stress and catatonic behaviors and feelings (which sometimes include self-inflicting harm), and aggression reduction. Introducing yoga to an autistic child can result in an early, healthy way to deal with negative, anti-social behaviors.
  • Cerebral Palsey: Those with Palsey, a neurological condition, suffer from a disorder of the muscles: loss of muscle function, impaired speech, coordination and gait. Bottom line: a severe knock to all bodily motor functions. Yoga can help those with Cerebral Palsey, like Ryan McGraw, who says since taking up the practice, his muscles are stronger and in turn, his body is more flexibe, balanced, and his coordination has greatly improved. Ryan's advice is to start slow. If you suffer from MS, Palsey, and other handicaps that negatively affect your muscular functions, skip the Bikram. Focus on slower paced schools like Yin, hatha, or restorative. The key is focusing on your breath. The bodily improvements will follow suit.
  • Speech Impairment: What in the world could yoga do for those with speech impairments? Truth is, it's all about the breath. Intentional and pranayamic (yogic breathing), linking bodily movements to intentional breathing and meditation. Certified yoga instructor and Speech-Language Pathologist, Renata Sumar, began incorporating yoga into her work as a S.L.P. She noticed a drastic change in focus, the ability to find a centeredness and sense of calm, and a change in the breath from irregular to slow, normal, and paced. Through more years of combining these two methods, she noticed the additional benefits for these participants (mostly children): social skills improved, speech improved, motor and cognitive abilities improved, and irrational emotions were normalized.

Do you or someone you love suffer from a handicap that keeps them shying away from hostile gyms or competitive sport? Has that individual tried yoga? Are you a teacher that specializes in yoga adapted for handicapped yogis? What have you seen that has worked? What have you seen as a change in your special students?

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