Lisa Harwood discusses the benefits of family yoga.
Yoga in Schools is a CIC that brings yoga teachers to schools across the UK and director Charlotta Martinus says “We have found a statistically higher percentage of SEN schools take on yoga than regular schools. I think this reflects the enormous impact it can have on students with learning difficulties.”
Yoga has been practised in the East for thousands of years and has been gaining popularity in the West since the 1960s. It is a practice consisting of gentle stretching, breathing exercises and meditation as a mind-body intervention, which has benefits for physical and emotional health and well-being. Yoga is delivered in a calm and peaceful environment, is non-competitive and is an ideal activity for children, teenagers and adults with learning disabilities.
Benefits of yoga for SEN children and teens
Research on the benefits of yoga for children with SEN has shown that it has wide ranging benefits. ‘Students show significantly increased balance and coordination… and… increased self-esteem and social communication skills’ (Kenny, 2002). Similarly, White (2009) identified that yoga for children improves balance, flexibility and coordination. For young children with special needs, yoga ‘improves concentration, focus and creativity’ Mochan (2017). In the SEN teenage group, Beauchemin et al (2008) found that mindfulness meditation ‘decreases anxiety and detrimental self-focus of attention, which, in turn, promotes social skills and academic outcomes’. Similar findings are reported in research on the benefits of yoga for adults.
Benefits of family yoga
Family yoga, which includes parents/guardians, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents, is often offered by many children and teen yoga teachers who are keen to promote families enjoying activities together. Throughout the lockdown periods during Covid-19, many people explored options for activities online, with many yoga teachers moving their classes to an online platform. Many families, mine included, started doing activities that the whole family could do together including yoga. For many people the online experience provided an opportunity to try new activities in their own home, at a time that suited them in a safe and familiar environment. According to Tessa Welsh (2019) ‘Family Yoga can encourage a sense of playfulness, fun and creativity in interactions between parents and their children to help enrich communication, support closeness and personal connection and enhance everyone’s development in a nurturing way’. Some children in my family yoga class had tried yoga as part of the wellbeing curriculum within their school and family yoga gave them an opportunity to share their learning with family members.
Partner yoga poses are a great way to develop understanding, develop sensory awareness with touch, have fun and act as a conversation point for family members outside of the yoga class. Sitting cross legged back to back is an ideal pose to bring awareness to the breath, the movement of the body when you breathe, focus the mind and bring a sense of calm. The family bonds and conversations that are initiated within the yoga class can be taken to the home to enjoy and develop and share with other family members. Many of my yoga students love to share, and show, what they have learnt to members of their family and friends.
Relaxation is often the favourite and most important part of the yoga class. It provides an opportunity for stillness, calming the mind and body, focusing on breath and increasing body awareness. For some SEN children the time to be still and relax is something they have previously not experienced. Jodie Hendricksen, Children and Teens yoga teacher in Cardiff, reported that during relaxation in family yoga the bonds strengthen between children and their families.
Why should people consider doing family yoga?
For SEN children returning to the pre-covid routines, coming into a strange environment, or even trying something new can induce feelings of anxiety and stress and be extremely challenging. However, embracing a new activity with somebody they trust, and whose company they enjoy, can bring them that confidence that they need to take the first step. This support provides positive feedback for any achievements in the yoga class, they have fun together and enjoy doing the activity together. It provides an opportunity to socialise, meet new people and families that they may not have met before, making new friends, catching up with old friends and integrating into the local community. The yoga class practice can easily be transferred to the outdoors. Families can enjoy practicing yoga together off the mat in the garden, the park or beach. Doing mindful activities such as identifying shapes in the clouds, listening to the sounds around them or even practicing yoga poses.
If you are interested in bringing yoga to your school, you might like to connect with Yoga in Schools at info@yoga-in-schools. co.uk, a unique agency that has links to 10,000 schools and over 2,000 specialist yoga teachers across the country and can match your needs wherever you are. It is a company that understands the importance of experience in working with different age groups and needs and many of the teachers are also trained subject teachers. They will be very happy to discuss your needs with you and explore avenues that might work for your community, whether it be a day, a term or a year of yoga for pupils, families or staff.
Practicing yoga together is an activity that the whole family can enjoy regardless of age or abilities and can strengthen the bonds between the generations. It provides the opportunity for families to discover the benefits and value of self-care, an important life skill, as they develop their yoga practice.