Special Yoga Case Study – LD

Somerset College of Art and Technology

“To see even the most difficult to engage students taking part in the yoga class was really quite amazing and everyone noticed the positive impact it has had on their confidence and behaviour.”

Ali Stokes, SCAT Learning Co-ordinator.

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 – teenagers with learning disabilities. 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 was so impressed that she has lobbied to have it put on the curriculum.