Where special needs pose no barriers to yoga
Movement, stretching, breathing and relaxation can help participants release pent-up tension
Yoga teacher Nicola Foxe (left) giving a yoga class to students from Blossom Ireland group at the Raheny Dance Studio, in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ciara Hurley, a primary school teacher, with Sean Wheeler, student from Blossom Ireland group, at Raheny Dance Studio, in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Yoga teacher Nicola Foxe giving class to students from Blossom Ireland group, with Rory Bell, at Raheny Dance Studio, in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
From left, Alicia Moore, Haile Harton, Ciara Hurley (primary school teacher) and Sean Wheeler, Blossom Ireland group, at Raheny Dance Studio, in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Most people view yoga as a practice that requires quite a bit of self-discipline and focus to master. So to consider it an appropriate form of activity for children and adults with special needs requires both a leap of faith and an open mind.
Auveen Bell, one of the founders of Blossom Ireland, describes herself as a “total convert” to yoga for people with special needs. “I enjoy yoga myself, but I couldn’t see how my son [who has special needs] would follow instructions in yoga. I thought they’d be too abstract for him,” she says.
Blossom Ireland first contacted yoga teacher Nicola Foxe to run yoga as part of the holiday camps the organisation offers to children with special needs in north Dublin. “We employ professionals such as occupational therapists, special education teachers and educational psychologists, so we decided to include yoga in one of the summer camps,” says Bell.
Such was the success of the yoga that Blossom Ireland then asked Foxe to provide two classes throughout the year for the children. “We provide two support staff in each class so that Nicola can focus on delivering yoga,” says Bell.
One of the children attending the yoga classes has, well, blossomed as a result. “She had high anxiety levels and was quite distressed at first but after six months of yoga, the family have been able to go out for Sunday lunch for the first time. She uses yoga breathing to cope and calm herself.”
Foxe has completed yoga training for people with special needs and is very enthusiastic about the possibilities. In some classes, she is led by the participants, offering them pictures of the different poses to choose from. In other classes, she follows a very simple structure. “We use number cards – 1 for warm-ups, 2 for yoga poses, 3 for breath work and 4 for blanket time – which helps them know what’s coming up and what they’ve done. It’s all about being creative. Yoga can be adapted for anyone,” she explains.
For the younger children, Foxe introduces new names for the poses including seahorse pose (eagle pose in yoga) and hyper and lazy frogs (chakti jumps in yoga).
“Children with special needs have fewer coping resources, so some need a more playful class with in-depth breathing, while others need to hold stretches and poses longer. I aim to have a maximum of six in each special-needs class,” she explains.
Having assistants in the class to help the participants into their poses is useful for some groups and can allow classes to have a few extra participants.
Adults with autismClaudia Gutierrez teaches yoga to a group of young adults with autism. “At the beginning it was really tough as people with autism hold a lot of tension in their bodies and don’t like being touched. But slowly they allow me to touch them and adjust their poses,” she explains.
Care assistants stay throughout the class, offering support to Gutierrez when she needs it. “Relaxation is crucial for trust and I can see how the behaviour of some of the participants has changed since we’ve started. It’s all about them gaining trust in me and opening up their chests, shoulders and necks so that they lift their heads, look at me and breathe.”
Gutierrez also runs a yoga class for adults with Down syndrome. “These are totally different classes. For the younger age group, it’s more playful but for older adults with Down syndrome, it’s more like restorative yoga, making the poses accessible to them, rather than focusing on the poses themselves. We are not looking for precision; just movement, relaxation and stretching.”
For many parents of children with special needs, yoga is an affordable activity that helps their children in different ways. Helena Hasler’s son Michael has been attending yoga classes since he was three.
“A lot of people don’t have patience with him, but the yoga teacher was able to read him. He’s a lot calmer and can sit still more and self-regulate since he’s started yoga. Helen Noble’s children also attend a special-needs class. “My daughter had low muscle tone, poor co-ordination and hyper-mobility. Swimming was recommended to her, but she had a fear of water. Yoga has helped her core strength, her posture and concentration. It has helped with her swimming and cycling too.”
Bell adds: “People often don’t understand that there’s not a lot out there for children with special needs. A lot of barriers exist that don’t even come into people’s minds, so yoga has become a great activity.”
World Yoga Day is on Sunday, June 21st; see yogatherapyireland.com For more information about Blossom Ireland, see blossomireland.ie
What the children say about yoga Niamh Kiernan (12): “It’s fun and it calms me down.”
Declan Kiernan (10): “I feel very relaxed after yoga. I’m always stressed and yoga helps with that.”
Olivia Hasler (7): “I love sitting on the balls and doing lots. I’ve so much energy after yoga that I want to play outside.”