Yoga for for Children With Special Needs
His mother Jennifer of Mountain View, who prefers to keep her last name private, was willing to try anything to help her son. Dylan can speak or understand what others are saying.
When someone suggested yoga, she brought him to Vanessa Kahlon, M.A., executive director and founder of Yoga Education for Autism Spectrum.
“It was amazing to see that within an hour of working with her, he was relaxed,” Jennifer says. “She taught him how to self-regulate.”
More and more parents who have children with special needs are turning to yoga. Some research connects the practice to improvements in children with ADHD, asthma, autism, asthma and irritable bowel syndrome. Studies show it can be helpful for conditions that are worsened by stress and anxiety.
Dylan goes to yoga classes once or twice a week and also uses what he learns regularly at home. When he feels anxiety coming on, he knows to go into a yoga pose to ease his stress.
“He can’t communicate his wants and needs, so he has high anxiety when things can’t go his way,” she says. “It’s like being in a foreign country and not knowing the language for him.”
Kahlon, who primarily works with autistic and visually impaired children, says she focuses on teaching kids breath work, social skills, language skills and learning how to focus.
“It helps a lot with confidence and body awareness,” she says. “It comes down to trusting their own body.”
There are certain poses, Kahlon says, that can be especially beneficial for her students. The “Tree” pose, for example, helps with balance since the child stands on one leg. The “Downward Dog” pose can be good for body awareness because it requires specific feet and hand placement. “Warrior” pose can benefit kids craving movement and sensory/motor stimulus.
At Wings Learning Center in Redwood City, one of the schools where Kahlon teaches autistic children, yoga is a regular part of the curriculum.
Wings Executive Director Karen Kaplan says there are many obvious benefits, including flexibility and staying in shape. But specifically for her students, it gets them to participate in groups, which can be very challenging for kids with autism.
“The basic principles of yoga help all children,” she says. “They’re learning to slow down. They’re learning to listen. They’re learning to breathe. It helps with their balance. It helps regulate.”
For Raj Sidharthan’s 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, who has high-functioning autism, yoga helps with self-regulation when she’s upset.
As someone who has practiced yoga since his childhood in India, Sidharthan was not surprised that it helped his daughter.“It’s been challenging to get her to do it every day, but now she’s more focused,” says the San Jose resident. “She finds a lot of enjoyment in doing yoga. We can put on the music and she can do it on her own.”
What the Studies Say
According to studies, yoga may help reduce stress by balancing the production of neurotransmitters in the brain. It has also been shown to improve oxygen levels and increase lung capacity because of the deep breathing techniques. It may be why yoga can help children with attention problems control their impulsivity and hyperactivity.&pagebreaking&Yoga can also be beneficial for children with lung disorders like asthma, cystic fibrosis or any chronic airway inflammation, says John Mark, M.D., a pediatric pulmonary physician at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.
Mark, who has an interest in non-conventional therapies for children with chronic disorders, recommends yoga for many of his patients.
“Any time you can get children to stretch and use their posture it can help with their health and anxiety,” Mark says. “It’s a way to learn how to relax and focus.”
He says that studies have shown that yoga is helpful for kids with behavioral issues and has improved focus in kids with ADHD. But Mark believes yoga can help children with any disorder.
“Most doctors don’t recommend exercise to their patients. I think physicians turn to medications first because that is how they are trained,” Mark says. “It is a lifestyle change that can really help. It can really lower the severity of an illness.”
However, parents should bring their kids to yoga instructors who are trained to deal with children who have special needs, he says.
Some hospitals have instructors on site or there are teachers like Kahlon who work regularly with children.
At UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, senior physical therapist Caron Bush teaches yoga and pilates classes for children that are open to the public. Many of her regular students include kids with autism, ADHD, Asperger syndrome and physical injuries.
While most yoga classes for adults involve little if any conversation, Bush says she likes to talk with her students because it makes them feel like they’re in a safe place. Once the kids start talking to her, they usually feel more relaxed and able to do the poses.
Students’ self-confidence, focus and flexibility seem to improve for those who take the classes regularly, Bush says.
“I think yoga is an easy thing to do because there are a lot of stretches that are very basic,” she says.
Jennifer hopes other parents consider signing their kids up for yoga. “It allows them to use their brains differently. You hear `yoga’ and think, how can this help my kid? But parents need to just think of it as therapy through movement.”
Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of two.