Yoga for All: the whys and hows of yoga for children and those with special needs

You guys already know that I am a firm believer in nature for all based on my last few posts. Nature has provided more than just a good time or fun escape for my kids, it has provided a place of healing and acceptance. I could write a novel about our experience over this past year of nature being the ultimate therapy for my son with autism. But that is for another time. For now, I want to bring to light another activity that offers benefits for children, especially those with special needs. The best part is that this activity can go hand-in-hand with nature!

Now let’s talk yoga…
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Why Yoga?

I think by now most people in our society are familiar with the benefits of yoga–for both adults and kids. For those who may not be, here are some interesting facts…

Yoga originated 4,000 or 5,000 years ago in what is now India. …The yoga practices that arose out of these systems of thought were designed to facilitate development and integration of the human body, mind, and breath to produce structural, physiological, and psychological effects. The aims of yoga are the development of the following: 1) a strong and flexible body free of pain; 2) a balanced autonomic nervous system with all physiological systems, e.g., digestion, respiration, endocrine, functioning optimally; and 3) a calm, clear, and tranquil mind. Beyond these specific outcomes, yoga practices are intended to facilitate self transformation at every level of functioning, with the goal of improving the overall quality of life.” (1)

There has been some clinical research done on the true medical benefits of yoga and now the National Institute of Health categorizes yoga as an alternative medical treatment in the mind-body category. Although I haven’t performed a thorough search of the medical literature, I know first-hand in my own life that the benefits of yoga are real, which is good enough for me. So a few weeks ago, it dawned on me…..why hadn’t I introduced my children to yoga, especially my son with significant special needs? Yoga therapy has been used frequently with children on the autism spectrum and it seems to be growing in popularity. I’ve also noticed lots of other families around me getting their kids involved in yoga. So we took the plunge.

Yoga as Therapy?

Admittedly, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific research done on the effects of yoga on those with autism spectrum disorders. I found a couple of journal articles (see the end of the post) that highlight the use of yoga as an alternative therapy and they are certainly worth a read if you are interested.

In 2008 a report on alternative therapies stated that “yoga is a mind-body approach that enjoys popular practice for increasing the sense of well being and control with the potential to decrease anxiety. A trial of yoga for symptoms of ADHD was underpowered to demonstrate effect, but suggested some benefit in children on medication. Relaxation therapy decreased symptoms of anxiety in patients with anxiety on a child psychiatry service and in children with mental retardation. No studies have yet been published related to symptoms of autism and response to yoga techniques.” (3)

A couple of years later, it was found that yoga therapy “may offer benefits as an effective tool to increase imitation, cognitive skills and social-communicative behaviors in children with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]. In addition, children exhibited increased skills in eye contact, sitting tolerance, non-verbal communication and receptive skills to verbal commands related to spatial relationship.” (2)

Still, very little research has been done in this area. But as a mom to a child on the spectrum, it doesn’t really matter if I have medical evidence to back me up. Here is what I know for sure. Yoga (or “goga” as Big Brother calls it) is helping my son with autism in the following areas:

gross motor skills
spatial awareness and body control
listening skills
anxiety reduction
bonding with me

I’m sure the benefits will continue to rack up as we move forward, and I’m hoping that all of this will benefit Little Man as well. But I am so excited for Big Brother. Not only does yoga provide him with some great results, it does something even more important–it gives him a fun way to be active and have a sense of achievement. Yoga has been the only activity (besides hiking) we’ve found so far that Big Brother really enjoys and is motivated to do. His focus and attention span are extremely short, but when it comes to yoga, he can easily sit and perform for a good ten minutes, which is incredible for him. I’m pretty sure he could go even longer and we are working our way up.

Regardless of all the jibber-jabber you just read (surely someone, anyone is reading??), I’d do the nightly yoga just for a chance to see this cuteness every evening.

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How to Get Started

Want to help your kids get started? I found some fun apps that can help get the ball rolling. My kids especially love the first one pictured–Super Stretch. Big Brother also likes My First Yoga, but it is a really simplified version of yoga geared for young kids. Both are great ones to try. The third app pictured is also good, but my kids seem to like it the least.

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Also, you can find videos to purchase, like this one:

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You can also check with your local yoga instructors, as many now offer classes for children. For now, I know that Big Brother wouldn’t be able to handle a classroom full of kids, but maybe someday. So we will practice together at home and use that time together to bond.

What do you think? Do your kids do yoga or would you consider it now?

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References:

1. Yoga as a Complementary Therapy for Children and Adolescents

2. Application of integrated yoga therapy to increase imitation skills in children with autism spectrum disorder.

3. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

*I might have been a scientist in my previous life (aka before children) but I am not, and have never been, a medical health professional. In this post are my opinions and tips from my own experience that I wanted to share. For real advice, please consult a professional!

3 thoughts on “Yoga for All: the whys and hows of yoga for children and those with special needs

  1. Kerry

    I did yoga with my mum growing up, practice regularly now at a local studio and M has been going to a class for kids about a year. Yoga is good for anybody and any body ;) have never heard the term yoga therapy, though (?)

    Reply
    1. Hiking Mama

      That’s awesome! I have been enjoying yoga for years and I don’t know why I waited so long to introduce it to my boys. I was very intrigued to find some who are using yoga as a therapy for those with autism by designing routines that specifically address certain issues like imitation, etc. Seems like there is growing research and interest in it anyways. For us, it is a way to get Big Brother moving, which is sometimes hard to do :)

      Reply
  2. Michele Sanchez Portland Miane

    I taught Yoga for Kids in the public school for children grades K-2 and the benefits were astounding. Most especially I noticed how simple breathing techniques allowed those children diagnosed with autism to self-regulate. Michele Sanchez Portland Maine

    Reply