Yoga: Teaching a group of very special people…

KeepCalmYogaOnEyePillowCloseUpWhen they say that those who need healing will come to you, they truly weren’t kidding. Never in a million years could I have imagined finding myself standing in front of a class of very special people.  It all came about rather by chance as a friend suggested coming with me to canvass some of the local colleges to run yoga classes. I rocked up at the reception desk at SCAT, asking to speak to someone about running yoga and met Dawn Gardner who invited me to come down to their fresher’s fair last September. 4 months later (things move slowly in Somerset) I began a class at  which was originally intended to be open to all but due to problems with timing and rooms, it just didn’t take off.

A friend happened to mention that she knew Ali Stokes who co-ordinates activities and learning for a group of youths with learning difficulties who was always looking for good things for her guys to take part in. I bit my lip, dug deep, thought, “How hard can it be?” and suggested we give it a shot.

Waiting in a classroom with too few mats and too little space I had no idea what to expect when in filed 20 odd people decked out in their armour of trainers and baseball caps with about equal numbers of boys and girls. A few stood moodily on the sidelines, pretending indifference as the rest of the group removed their jackets shoes and socks before bantering over whether to take a pink or a blue mat.  I could barely hear myself think as they scuffled around to their places, laughing and joking. Some stood waiting expectantly whilst one or two made it clear what role they were there in although beneath it all, I knew that they all sought love and attention.

Almost all of them were coaxed into joining in save one or two. As I asked them to sit, they all listened attentively as I explained some of what yoga is really about; using breath to unite body, mind and spirit and learning techniques to find our true selves, learning to shut out that voice of our ego – the voice in our head that tells us we aren’t good enough or makes us feel bad about ourselves or sometimes, makes us feel like we are better than other people when in fact we aren’t. We are all the same. As I looked around the class, I could see that some of them could really relate to what I was saying while others fiddled with their toes or sniggered in the corner.

Moving into teaching ujjayi breath, I expected to encounter further challenges but was pleasantly surprised at how many of them picked it up. The style of yoga I teach is ashtanga which I adapt each time according the ability and needs of the groups who come to me. Although I am not able to individualise in the way that a mysore class might, I retain the core elements – mula bhanda, ujjayi breath and a shortened sequence of poses, beginning with the highly important, salutation to the sun. It would have been tempting to ditch all of this and go for a more iyengar or hatha based approach but I feel that these elements are so powerful it would be a travesty to let them go and I figured that it would be wrong to underestimate them and assume that they simply wouldn’t be able to grasp it.

I was right. Although in the first class, it took the best part of the hour to show them two sun salutations as downward dog was a struggle and at times I felt as though I were trying to herd monkeys, they took on board more than anyone could have expected. To begin with, I found that as fast as I adjusted two or three students into the correct pose, those that had managed it had already sat down whilst others were rolling around giggling, by the time I came to teaching the second class, they had begun to get the idea that we were aiming to hold a pose and breathe through it. To be honest, when my yoga teacher first explained that the idea of mula bhanda is to tighten our perineum, I too had to laugh. The most awkward bit was knowing that it would be pointless using that word and the only other substitute I could think of was bum which brought a ripple of mirth all round.

By the second class, the students had begun to look like a yoga class although I did very much feel that I wished I could clone myself. They ranged from students looking for approval as they mastered a pose and those who were too shy to ask. I flitted around the room giving each of them as much assistance as possible whilst their support workers assisted where they could. I even managed to surreptitiously involve one of the ‘abstainers’ who had barely even realised that he’d been duped into taking part.

As our second class ended, Ali remarked to me how wonderful it was to see even the most boisterous of the boys who were sometimes known to be a bit of trouble, genuinely seeking my help and approval. Kids that they’d struggled to reach through other means were becoming part of a ‘social’ activity and in her years of experience, it was remarkable.  There were two little nuts left to crack and Ali and I shook hands that we’d get them on their mats. Their disabilities ranged throughout the spectrum from extremely autistic to very mild but the point to note was that there was nothing hindering them from taking part.

Academic recognition of the benefits of yoga is constantly growing and with it I hope, more opportunities for funding, “Yoga helps to increase self-regulation, which is often a problem; it helps with attention issues and body awareness and is a way of self-calming. It also gives kids who are often not involved in sports another way to have physical movement,” said Karen Soltes, a psychotherapist who teaches young special needs students at Circle Yoga in Northwest Washington, D.C.

By the third class, we’d succeeded as each and every one of them, in their own way, took part. I had even begun to show them the second version of the sun salutation so they got to show off their ‘warrior’ side and as they all meditated at the end of class, I shared more love massaging their shoulders with my hands and hearts with my love. Ali is so impressed that she has lobbied to have it put on the curriculum so this week we posed as models for the college prospectus.

In the meantime, I aim to find funding to purchase more yoga mats, eye pillows and to set up further learning disability yoga classes in Exeter, learning disability yoga in Devon and Somerset. I would also like to find funding for further training (the special yoga centre in London runs a course to equip yoga teachers with techniques to engage special needs kids and adults that’s around £250 plus travel and expenses). If you’re interested in helping fund this, please get in touch.

Watch this space as I write and post more about yoga’s effects and their wonderful progress.