The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Yoga As a Healing Art

Photo by Anne Parker
Photo by Anne Parker

Photo by Anne Parker

The room is filled with bright, warm colors, decorated poster boards, cubby holders and handmade art work is displayed around the room. Seven bright-eyed kindergarteners are busily writing and drawing at their tables. After a few minutes, though, their minds start to wonder. As with most five and six year olds, their attention spans are not long. They start looking around the room and fidgeting in their seats. The teachers know it is time to step in.

Class is in Session

This particular class has a unique way of getting the students’ focus back into the classroom. “Okay everybody, let’s take a break and get in a circle to do some yoga,” says a teacher at the Rise School. The Rise School in Dallas provides early childhood educational programs for children with Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities.

Three teachers and their seven students form a circle and begin doing pranayama, asanas and savasanas-yoga speak for breathing exercises, postures and deep relaxation. One teacher reads from the “yoga book” while the other two engage in the class with the students. A little boy sits in one teacher’s lap as she guides him through the postures moving his arms and legs to get into position. Another teacher guides a little girl through the yoga sequences to keep up with the rest of her classmates.

The teacher leading the class is reading from a large, very colorful book with easy yoga postures and simple sequences for children. “Everybody in cobra, now up to down dog,” she says in a lively voice to keep the children engaged and excited about doing this activity.

While the kids are by no means perfect at the yoga practice, they remain attentive the entire time and are laughing and enjoying themselves as they do the postures. It is easy to see they are working really hard to do their best and concentrate on what they are doing. They are all focused intently on where to place their hands, feet, legs and arms depending on the position. While they wobbly and flail their arms and legs in the harder postures, they get right back in and have a great attitude. For a class of such young ones, they remain quiet and attentive most of the time. At the end of the 10 minute yoga session, it is snack time. The kids go back to their seats as they patiently wait for their teachers to bring them a snack. Then they will be ready to sit down and get back to work.

The Benefits

What these young kids do not know is just how good their break from class work is for them. Studies have recently started to show that yoga can have a benefit on the daily lives of special needs children. For children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and even ADD or ADHD, yoga is believed to help them with the development of body awareness, concentration and memory

According to Yoga for Children, yoga can promote strength, flexibility, coordination and posture among kids of all ages and physical disabilities. Authors Mary Stewart and Kathy Phillips believe that it is a way for them to learn how to relax, concentrate and be still in a noncompetitive environment.

Kari Zerbe, the director of the Rise School, is a big proponent of her students practicing yoga. “They learn breathing techniques, concentration, and it really helps focus energy,” she says. “If they do a 5 to10 minute session of yoga then they can sit down and focus at the table for anything from handwriting, or working on manipulatives or sitting down focusing on a story and really engaging with their teachers.”

That’s why the Rise School has teamed up with We Yogis, a yoga studio in Dallas that offers several different types of classes and focuses on their motto, “Yoga for All,” Each week; We Yogis offers a class for special needs children, taught by Taylor Anne Muntz. In addition to the yoga classes the students are participating in school, they can also join these classes at We Yogis for an after school activity.  

 Muntz completed her 200-hour certification through the “Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind” teacher training at Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Los Angeles. “The training that I went through did a wonderful job of elucidating the elements of psychology, neuroscience and all of these modern studies on how yoga helps regulate the central nervous system, nourish the brain and provide tools for children with special needs to take off of the mat and into their daily lives to help facilitate that mind body balance,” she says. “I feel like yoga is really accessible to everyone and should be accessible to everyone.”

A Special Youngster

One recent Saturday, the Rise School had a full morning of classes set up at We Yogis specifically for its students. Three-year-old Luke Davis came to take a class with his mom, Elena. In his red monkey shirt and little cargo pants, he spends most of the time before class running around chatting with his friends and their parents. Luke is quite enamored with my video camera and studies it for a really long time. As soon as class starts, he sits on the mat with his mom and takes full advantage of any opportunity he has for a hug or a kiss.

Luke’s mom, Elena Davis, read articles before he was born about the benefits yoga can have on children with Down syndrome and when this class became available, she didn’t hesitate to sign up. Davis says that while Luke may still be a little young for the classes, she will try to make this a part of his lifestyle not only for the benefits of yoga, but also to help incorporate Luke into real life classes and settings. “The real world is not a special world, the real world is mixed,” says Davis. “The sooner they get mixed in, the better their life is going to be.”

In an article on National Down Syndrome Center website, authors Megan-Lynette Richmond and Kimberly Mielke say that yoga improves strength and promotes body awareness: “As a child practices a posture, it increases muscle strength, range of motion and flexibility. Yoga uses slow and fluid movements, which brings awareness to the muscles we use when practicing different postures. When a child feels a muscle working while stretching and holding postures, it reinforces awareness of the body and what it is doing.”

On this day, toddlers and their moms form a semi-circle on their yoga mats around the room. Luke, like most of the other children, is seated in between his mom’s legs in order for her to help guide him through the postures. In addition helping him get through the class, it is also helping to create stronger a parent-child bond.

Strengthening  the Children

Muntz begins the yoga class with breathing postures. She uses two main methods that are specific for children with special needs-“Every Kid’s Yoga” and “Yoga for the Special Child.” Both methods focus on breathing exercises, improving focus and concentration, gaining new motor, communication and social skills, while also building strength and self-esteem.

Craig Hanauer, developed “Every Kid’s Yoga,” a program that “integrates the creative arts, yoga, and play.” He teaches yoga three days a week to children with speech and language disabilities and some wi
th high functioning autism. He believes that one of the most beneficial parts of the class is the breathing exercises to help strengthen a child’s core because most children with special needs have very little strength.

“I see all of the children getting much stronger and developing core strength. Core strength provides postural support which allows kids to hold up their bodies. Kids with poor core strength often have poor self-regulation. When they develop this it frees up mechanisms of breathing which support self-regulation and speech and language,” says Hanauer.

Zerbe agrees. She says that she can tell a difference when the kids at the Rise School are practicing yoga because they seem to be more aware of what is going on and it makes a noticeable difference in their strength and muscle coordination.

Throughout class, Muntz has the children build off of simple sequencing, beginning with mountain pose, going into downward-facing dog, up to cobra and back to mountain pose. Hanauer says this is important because many kids with special needs have difficulties with sequencing. For example, “telling a story, following a recipe, performing a series of moments, a sequence of movements, motor planning, getting your body from point A to point B, oral motor skills, how to move your mouth in order to say what you want to say,” he says. “There are many opportunities in yoga to work on sequencing.”

The moms help their kids get into certain postures and follow Muntz’s instruction. One little girl in her princess dress really seems to be getting the hang of things as her mom guides her legs into a stretch. She is completely focused on Muntz and you can tell she is trying to do each posture just right. The toddlers have got the hang of downward dogs-a posture on all fours with your bottom lifted high in the air-and are proud of themselves every time they do it.

Creating a Connection

It is important for yoga classes created for special needs kids to incorporate music, dance, rhymes and stories as techniques to keep the children focused on what is going on in the room, building concentration. This also creates a connection between the instructor and the child. By having fun with the kids, the instructor is forming a sense of trust between them.

Hanauer says he tries to make connections between his yoga classes and what kids are studying in school.  For example, he tries to teach his classes with a theme. Just this week, his theme was spring. He incorporated breathing exercises through “smelling the flowers and spreading the seeds.”

Muntz’s class structure is much along the same lines. “Who needs some cheese on their pizza? Let’s reach over to the other side to get some cheese and put it on the pizza,” she says to the class in an upbeat voice while the toddlers are stretching in a straddled position. They find this quite hilarious and are giggling while clapping and stretching without realizing they are both exercising and engaging in sequencing.

Muntz believes that yoga really is one of the best things that these children can do. “The structure is important and being able to work within in a system where they are familiar and where they can adapt in a non-competitive and comfortable way…it is a great activity for them to have outside of therapy and outside of school,” she says.

Towards the end of her class, the toddlers are starting to get distracted and are wandering around the room as their moms pull them back to the mat. To re-engage their attention, Munoz reads a book about “Peace” in a lively voice as the children circle around her to listen. The book is a very short story with a lot of colorful pictures to keep their attention. “Peace is keeping the water blue for all the fish,” Muntz reads. “Can everybody do a fish?” The class breaks out into kissy fish faces. Without even realizing it, the kids are learning new things in a fun, entertaining way.

A Mind-Body Balance

“Self-regulation teaches you to learn how to utilize the breath, calm the body, center the mind. That is one of the best things that we as humans can do for ourselves to cultivate that mind-body balance. Presence is just being aware of your body, of being in the moment and being aware of your own capabilities. It’s huge, especially for children that are often inundated with lots of different stimulations, and this is a way where they can become calm and centered and comfortable with themselves. The most powerful tool that kids with special needs can get from yoga is feeling good in their own bodies. The union of mind, body and spirit can help a child be happier, freer, and more comfortable with themselves,” Muntz says.

When I was leaving the Rise School, I asked the students “Who loves yoga?” They all jumped up and down, screaming “ME, ME, ME!” Little did they know they just did something really good for their mind, body, heart and self-esteem.

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