Autism meet yoga. New doors are opening in the U.S for alternative healing modalities to physical, psychological, social and learning ailments. As autism is becoming more widespread and common, new treatment methods are being discovered (Betts & Betts, 2006). There is a new relationship that is developing between yoga and autism. Yoga is an Indian healing method that has gained some popularity in the Western culture. In recent findings, Yoga has been proven to be a powerful healing tool for the autistic child. Through the consistent practice of yoga, an autistic child can learn social and spatial skills. Their learning and attention difficulties can also improve (Radhkrishna, Nagarathna & Nagendra, 2010).
I chose this paper topic because I’ve been working with adults with disabilities at my internship for two semesters. Most of those adults have autism and we have a yoga teacher that comes once a week. I always appreciated that the clients were able to experience yoga every week. During the yoga session, I help the clients get into the different yoga postures. It is a very different kind of yoga instruction. The teacher needs to cater to the physical barriers of each client. It’s been interesting to notice how the autistic clients respond to the class. The autistic clients that participate, have a hard time focusing on the instructor. The teacher has a great method of using a visual and playful aspect to each pose. For instance, when we do side stretches , the teacher says that we are picking apples. We also use visual play when we “stir a pot of soup” as were doing arm streches. This seemed to give an interactive aspect to the class. The clients are able to bring their attention back to the class and they are able to choose what fruit we are picking or what soup we are stirring. Through these weekly classes I was curious to know more about using yoga for autistic clients. Most of the research that I found was about yoga for children with autism. I did not find as many sources on the use of yoga for autistic adults so I decided to see the benefits of this practice for autistic children instead.
Yoga in Western Culture
Over the years, yoga has acquired numerous definitions, depends on where you are from. In India, yoga is an umbrella term for numerous practices. There is Hatha, which contains the physical practices nof yoga. Mantra yoga, is the repetition of saying different mantras or songs (Ravindra, 2006). In North America, we have fused the ideas of Eastern and Western cultures to develop our own forms of yoga. There is hot yoga, power yoga, restorative yoga and many more. Emerging from our Western scientific and practical mentalities, came a form of yoga that focuses on treatment. I think that the practical and physical approach to yoga plays an important role on our society. I think that yoga in Europe and America represents a union of eastern and western culture; the literal translation from sanskrit of yoga means “to join” or “union” (Caoul & Cohen, 2010). I find that we loose some of the spiritual aspects of yoga when we look at it practically. It does not necessarily take away from the power of the practice, it just becomes something a little bit different. In the “classical” practice of yoga, there are aspects of the practice that are seen as “healing” or “purifying” the body, mind and spirit (Ravindra, 2006).
Yoga is now becoming more widespread as a treatment for numerous psychological, emotional, behavioral, physical, and developmental ailments. It is now part of a new healing category called “Mind-Body” (Caoul & Cohen, 2010) . There is a slowly increasing body of literature on yoga’s therapeutic benefits with numerous diseases and disabilities (Bower et. al. (2005) & Gordon (2008). Autism is one of the most rapidly growing disabilities in the U.S (Autism Society Organization). Since it is a much more widespread condition, health care professionals and frustrated parents are exploring effective treatment methods. Using yoga to help treat autism, like any illness, utilizes the physical and mental healing properties of yoga (Betts & Betts, 2006).
The growth of autism is occurring at an approximate rate of 10 to 17 percent per year. The current statistics of autism in the U.S is 1.5 million (Autism Society Organization, 2009). The common symptoms of an autistic individual include a wide range of impairments. Throughout my experience with working with autistic clients at my internships, I found that autism manifested very differently for each client. Each client experienced his or her own unique autism. Someone with autism often has obsessive attachments and has a hard time focusing. Autistic people also have uneven gross motor skills and instead of words they may use gestures to express their needs. Their sensory experience is quite different from someone without autism (Autism Society Organization, 2009). Autistic children also struggle with initiating eye contact and their social skills are underdeveloped. They also tend to obsess over one particular object or subject (Radhakrishna, 2010). For instance, I know an autistic 22 year old that carries around a cartoon book all the time, he constantly refers to this book.
I explored and compared The Spiritual Roots of Yoga according to Ravindra (2006) and our modern idea of yoga as a treatment method for autistic people. Though this exploration I was able to find a good bases for how this approach is based on new and old types of yoga. In Ravindra’s (2006) discussion of yoga as psychotherapy, he describes yoga as a treatment for illness. He also mentioned that yoga is not about personal healing, but rather it is about humanities healing. I think that this idea really illustrates how yoga can be seen as an appropriate healing method for autistic children. They are ill, and we find a treatment method for them. Ravindra (2006) also says that the goal of yoga is can be catered to heal any kind of person, it is not exclusive.
Ravindra (2006) also makes it clear that the aim of yoga is not only mind and body based. He said that it is a goal to transcend the body and mind. I don’t know how this can be achieved with autistic children. The spiritual aspects of yoga are not directly explored in a session with autistic children. It is possible that they may experience some kind of outer body transcendence. Yet it seems that the treatment approach is to actually ground the children in themselves, and help them realize and become aware of their “self” and identity (Radhkrishna, Nagarathna & Nagendra, 2010). According to Ravindra (2006), this is not the goal of yoga, yet it has been shown to be quite effective to have this occur in the yoga practice with autistic children (Radhkrishna, Nagarathna & Nagendra, 2010).
Learning and Education
It is becoming a common trend to bring yoga into the school system. In many schools, yoga is used as a treatment for children with autism and other learning disabilities. Autistic children have an easier time learning and relating to activities that are tactile and visual (Fox News, 2009). On Fox News (2009), there was a short news report about the effectiveness of having yoga classes in schools for autistic children. The teacher used cards with visual images of different yoga posses. The children are then able to visualize and choose what postures or “asanas” they would like to do. This short news clip really illustrates how yoga has been altered to fit the needs and learning styles a variety of populations. This is a very creative approach that can speak to any child, especially an autistic child. Autistic children would especially benefit because they have learning and communicative impairments. In this news clip, there was a brief interview with the academic teacher of the students. The teacher mentioned that the children weren’t struggling with concentration as much in class after their yoga practice. She also said that they were less anxious. The teacher’s observations illustrate effects of yoga on these children from another perspective besides the yoga teacher’s (Fox News, 2009). I found another article that discussed the discovery of yoga for an autistic child (Kailus, n.d). In this story, there was a child who taught himself yoga by using a yoga video tape at home . The boy stumbled across this video in his mother’s collection of yoga videos. The mother discussed how the boy was practicing yoga with this video tape everyday . He always looked for the fitness section of a store to find yoga videos. This is a great example of how the child’s obsessive tendencies brought about very beneficial results in numerous areas in his life (Kailus, n.d).
I interviewed a trained yoga teacher named Alliston Preston. She worked with autistic children for two years. She mentioned how she put together a method of teaching yoga to her clients that would make it easier for them to learn. She would use visual cards of the postures for them to pick from. She also used song and games. When she first taught a pose, she would have them repeat the pose numerous times. Once they got used to the pose, they wouldn’t repeat it as much. She was also able to approach their struggle with change, by gently changing the routine of the poses. In the same interview with Allison, we talked about how yoga was being used in schools to help the teachers work with autistic children. She said that worked at a school that was for children with special needs. They had her show the teachers some yoga relaxation techniques that would help them work with the autistic kids who had trouble focusing and behaving in class.
In a study conducted by Radhakrishna (2010), using yoga with autistic children increased their imitation skills. The average child learns through imitating their parent or teacher. Autistic children have difficulty in this area because they lack social skills right from the beginning of their lives. Parents are looking to find a treatment for the imitation skill deficiency early on. In his study, Radhakrishna (2010) had the children practice yoga along with their parents five times a week for 45 minutes. They had these classes for a span of ten months. I think that it’s important for the parents to participate in the yoga class with their children. If the parents know how to practice yoga with their children at home, the effectiveness of the treatment would strengthen.
In the the study, the children practiced yoga in a very calming and beautiful space. The yoga studio overlooked greenery and an ashram. It is interesting to note that simply the change in space may effect the autistic child. Since they experience sensory overload most of the time, this quiet and calm space itself may have effected their capabilities and impairments. The yoga instructor led the children through numerous Asanas and Pranayamas. The study results showed a positive correlation between autistic children’s imitation skills and yoga practice. Throughout the ten months the children were observed. In the beginning there were apparent difficulties with imitation skills. For instance, they struggled with some Pranayama breath exercises. At the end of the ten months, there were many improvements with the interest and imitation skills. For instance, their vocal imitation skills were increased because they would repeat vowels and said “Om” after the teacher would (Radhakrishna, 2010).
A bridge for social gaps
Yoga is shown to be an effective tool to help autistic children with their social impairments (Betts & Betts, 2006). Since yoga usually involves an interaction between the teacher and the student, it is ideal for an autistic child. Yoga is usually practiced in a calm, nonjudgmental and simple space. There is nothing to over-stimulate and distract the child. There is no competition, there is only the gentle presence of the patient yoga instructor. This allows the child to explore their physical capabilities through their interaction with the teacher (Betts & Betts, 2006). I found this to be true at my internship. The autistic clients were able to explore physical postures that they would otherwise avoid. I also interacted with them more while helping them get into certain posses. In a study conducted by Radhakrishna, (2010), there was a teacher that noticed that the children gave her eye contact and greeted her in the beginning of the class. The autistic students were more inclined to sit closer to the teacher after taking a few months worth of classes . According to Fox News (2009), parents and teachers of autistic children are trying to find alternative ways to relate to their children. They see their child’s struggle with relating to others and sitting in the classroom. Yoga can be used to bridge gaps between the parent that is struggling to relate to the unresponsiveness of their autistic child . This relationship development is encouraged by the yoga teachers who tell parents to learn and practice yoga with their children at home (Fox News, 2009).
In my interview with the yoga teacher, Allison Preston, we also discussed how yoga releases the autistic child’s tension, anxiety and frustration. When she stated her intentions for teaching autistic children, she stressed the importance of the calming effects of yoga in every day situations.
The main reason I created a program for kids with special needs (autism, cerebral palsy,
down syndrome) is to teach them how to relax or create focus on their own if they become over stimulated or frustrated and to apply these techniques into real life situations (Preston, 2010).
This teacher, Allison Preston, shared a beautiful example of how yoga can calm the anxiety of an autistic child. In her one-on-one yoga sessions, she often times includes song at different parts of the practice. One of her clients was undergoing a cat scan of his head after falling. The mother told Allison that the child was singing one of the songs that he learned from his yoga practice with her. The mother said that he was singing to calm himself down. This is an inspiring example of how Allison’s relaxation methods in the yoga class has gone beyond the mat for this child. The children are given relaxation tools that they can use at any time outside of the yoga classes. Breathing is a big part of the yoga practice. Breathing is known to release tension and relax the nervous system. The breathing and yoga practice also relieve the sensory overload that the autistic child experiences (Betts & Betts, 2006).
In the exploration of this topic in yoga as therapy, I was able to see how powerful the healing effects of yoga can be on anyone. It does not matter what your physical or mental capabilities are because yoga is a way of life, not only a series of postures. For the autistic children, it is a creative way to transcend their disability and give them a calming technique that can be used beyond the yoga mat. I found that some of the articles and stories were inspiring. In India many ages ago, when yoga was coming to life, I don’t think that they had autism in mind. We have transformed yoga in the modern day. Like an old shirt, re-sewn, to be worn for another occasion; we have re-sewn the original stitching of yoga to fit the needs of the autistic child.
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