Photographs Courtesy of Erin Williams
For many parents, the notion of their child sitting quietly in a yoga class is about as believable as the United Nations successfully shutting down Iran’s nuclear programs. It could happen, but not without a tremendous amount of coaxing and pleading.
Two yogis can make believers out of the biggest skeptics; Danielle Doria, a yoga therapist at Evergreen Yoga Center, and Erin Williams, a physical education teacher and yoga specialist at Madonna Learning Center. Both have learned how to incorporate challenging movements into their yoga instruction while still keeping it fun for their students.
Getting Calm & Centered
Williams teaches yoga to children with special needs children ages 5 to 10, as well as adults with special needs. The themes of Williams’ classes range from focusing on the emotional and mental facets of yoga, such as breathing techniques or team work exercises, to the physical facets of yoga where students play games that involve running, skipping, and galloping.
“I always begin each class by bringing awareness to the breath, which helps students focus and gets them centered and calm,” Williams says.
When the students are more energized and playful, Williams adjusts her lesson plan to go with the mood of the day. “One day I had a handful of giggling students and instead of trying to get them to stop laughing, I just went with the flow and instructed them to laugh while doing different poses,” Williams says. “They had fun and worked their abdominals without even realizing it.”
A favorite game is something she calls “yoga-go,” where students stand in a line until Williams calls out a pose such as “savasana” or “downward dog.” When they hear their cue, the kids dart toward the mat and assume the pose, the first to perform the move correctly gets to call out the next pose.
Another game is Musical Mats, a hybrid of yoga-go and musical chairs. Williams turns on music as students run, skip, or gallop to a yoga mat. When they arrive at their destination, they assume the pose specified on a card. Deciphering the pictures helps develop cognitive skills and student build confidence by knowing they can identify certain poses.
“This is a great way for them to learn the poses, as well as get out all of their energy before we move into the more relaxing poses,” Williams says. “If we need to calm down, we just come back to focusing on our breath. By the time we have finished the game, they are usually ready for the relaxation part.”
Games Help Kids Learn
Doria is trained as an occupational therapist as well as yoga therapist, and incorporates yoga into training students who struggle with deficiencies in fine motor skills, anxiety disorders, and physical handicaps like cerebral palsy.
“One of my students, Ben, has trouble with things like tying his shoes and unbuttoning his clothes,” says Doria. “I invented a game to help him practice unbuttoning where I button a shirt over a cardboard box and have him crabwalk through a tunnel and do a yoga pose before he unbuttons the box.”
Michelle Main, Ben’s mom, says sessions with Doria are fun instead of work. “Ben’s fine motor skills have improved greatly, he is zipping up his jacket for the first time and his handwriting is better,” Main says. “Danielle has provided him with more help than anything we have tried, and he is more relaxed after yoga sessions.”
Doria attributed the calming effects produced by yoga to the deep breathing exercises, which activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
“The breathing in and out changes the physiological function of the body, releasing calming hormones and reducing heart rate,” she says. “It also helps strengthen the auto-immune system. The energizing movements in yoga release endorphins.”
For Williams’ students in particular, the weight-bearing movements are beneficial to improving muscle tone. “People with Down syndrome are generally pretty flexible, but do not have enough muscle to support the joint, so the low impact movements are great for helping them improve their strength and stability,” says Williams.
The calming effects don’t just occur immediately after yoga sessions, they disseminate into everyday life as a stress and anxiety management tool. “In my adolescent students with high anxiety levels, I teach them to watch for fearful thoughts and when these thoughts come up, practice breathing in and out,” says Doria.
The “Take 5” approach Doria uses for Ben helps him refocus and calm down when he starts to feel upset. “Focusing on the rhythm of breath is a great tool to mitigate temper tantrums in children, younger children tend to relate more to different sensations within the body and how they are feeling instead of how to identify destructive thoughts.”
Building Body Awareness
Barbara Farrar sought yoga to help her 13-year-old daughter Geneva cope with anxiety brought about by digestive issues. Stress and anxiety can aggravate Geneva’s symptoms. Farrar, who also practices yoga, wanted to give her daughter tools to subdue her mental anguish.
“Kids can be anxious about a lot of things, especially teenagers. Everyone has their crosses to bear,” Farrar says. “Geneva’s just happens to be health issues, yoga has helped her feel like the illness won’t overcome her.”
Initially, Geneva was apprehensive, but she grew to value the therapy sessions.
“Danielle is very good at what she does, she really eased Geneva into the practice by being so attentive and helpful,” Farrar says. “Geneva is a little shy and might hesitate if something made her uncomfortable, but Doria has knack for intuitively sensing that.”
Geneva feels more connected and appreciative of her body because of yoga. “My yoga practice with Danielle has given me more awareness of my body, it makes me feel more grounded and tall,” she says. “It is an amazing workout and really fun.”
“Teaching children these complex movements helps them respect their bodies. They gain confidence when they can master challenging poses,” Doria says.
For Williams, the rewards of yoga can go beyond her classroom instruction.
“The confidence gained by my students emanates in their posture and their improved concentration in other classes,” Williams says. “Yoga adds to the tools kids have in their box, it helps them be the best they can be.”