Exploring the benefits of yoga for children with SEN.
More than just postures, yoga originated in India as an ancient science to enhance the wellbeing of the body, mind and soul. It is about providing holistic health through physical exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet and philosophical practices.
The wonderful thing about yoga is that it is accessible and beneficial to every person – old and young, female and male, religious and secular – through disability, illness and good health. True yoga is completely non-competitive and non-goal-driven and this is what sets it apart from many other forms of activities or therapies for children and adults with SEN.
It also does not put a strain on the heart, joints and working systems of the body. Instead, the yoga postures (called asanas) are designed to stimulate and support the body’s internal organs and processes, to promote a long and healthy life. Regular practice provides countless health benefits and, in addition, is about bringing awareness to our mental and emotional health.
There are many different forms of yoga – such as Hatha, Vinyasa and Iyengar to name just a few – and similarly, a number of methods have been developed specifically to help children with SEN. The method referred to in this article is called Yoga for the Special Child: The Sonia Sumar Method. It was created by yoga teacher Sonia Sumar over 45 years ago, following the birth of her second daughter Roberta, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Yoga can help children and young people with a wide range of conditions and disabilities. I will briefly outline below how yoga can be used with people with some of the most common SEN.
The key characteristic for children diagnosed with cerebral palsy is that they often have both high and low muscle tone which affects their movement. Learning a sequence of asanas builds greater strength, flexibility and coordination in the limbs and body. Incorporating forward bends, backward bends, lateral bends and twists, the body is moved in every direction working the bones, muscles, cartilage and nerves within.
Of particular note is that yoga poses stretch and realign the spine, the telegraph pole of the body. The Spinal Twist pose, for example, will create space between the vertebrae, reduce pressure on the discs of cartilage and relax the nerves that radiate out of the spine. This, in turn, releases muscular tension throughout the body and enhances overall nerve function. Over time, a child is able to develop an increased range of movement and coordination, meaning increased independence.
As yoga works holistically, the practice can improve strength, coordination, balance, respiration, eyesight and many other key areas for children with Down syndrome.
The condition is categorised by weak muscle tone and since all the internal organs are themselves muscles there is a tendency for children with Down syndrome to have weaker internal systems. Through regular practice of yoga this can be addressed and improved. This is one reason why yogic breathing exercises are so beneficial, as they not only improve the respiratory system but also strengthen the internal organs, improving general health and development.
Over time, these exercises will improve the central nervous system’s functioning and impact on motor and cognitive development, boosting body awareness, concentration and memory to have a positive effect on the child’s everyday life and learning abilities.
Joint dislocation is also quite commonly suffered by children with Down syndrome, so working on body strength and core strength is fundamental. Therefore, asanas such as the Plank are of great benefit in terms of strengthening the whole body.
First and foremost with autism, yoga neutralises and calms the sympathetic nervous system bringing inner peacefulness. For the child, this means better sleep, better concentration, and better ability to self-regulate.
Soft chanting and sitting postures at the beginning of class are important for children with autism, it supports their sensitivity to the external world by bringing inner balance so they can make the transition to do yoga, as well as other activities.
A key breath technique for children with autism is deep belly breath. It is very beneficial as often their natural breathing is shallow and fast, and they are often mouth breathers. This means the quality of air is not the same as with a child who breathes through the nose, which is designed to filter the air before it enters the lungs.
Building mutual trust and friendship with their yoga teacher is also a fantastic benefit for children with autism. A bond can be developed naturally in a yoga session precisely because the practice is free-flowing and flexible, rather than focused on achieving set positions or outcomes. The teacher patiently enters the world of the child meeting them on their own level rather than telling them that their world is the wrong one.
For children diagnosed with ADHD, the most valuable benefit of yoga is calming them down and improving their concentration and focus.
Again, yogic breathing exercises are highly important to this process. There is a fundamental link between the breath, the mind and the emotions. All are intimately connected, so by bringing awareness to the breath and fostering calm, controlled breathing patterns, we automatically see a more peaceful and relaxed child.
Physically, yogic breath work (pranayama) stimulates vital areas of the brain and central nervous system. Regular practice helps the child to relax and focus more and more, enabling the teacher to introduce the practice of deep relaxation, enhancing all the benefits of calmness, awareness and concentration.
Deep relaxation is an essential part of yoga. In our modern lives of ongoing choice, stimulation and distraction, real relaxation is often overlooked. This is where the spiritual element of yoga will first appear, as a child is given an opportunity to be with their own silence and internal awareness.
For a child with ADHD, their yoga practice can have significant results, increasing their capacity for schoolwork and peaceful social interaction.
What makes yoga different
The core aim of yoga practice with children is to promote a happy child. It is completely focused on the individual, not on the child’s condition. Often, for children with SEN and disabilities, physical needs are the primary focus and physical milestones become the measure of their health and identity, while essential tools for a happy life like self-esteem and self-acceptance are not considered.
With yoga, the emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing of the child is given as much importance as the physical. This is what makes yoga so unique and life affirming for children with SEN.
Denisa Nenova is the founder of the MahaDevi Yoga Centre and senior therapist in The Sonia Sumar Method: Yoga for the Special Child: