Yoga and Special Needs

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral Palsy is a disorder caused by injury to the motor areas in the brain, affecting muscle tone and the ability to control movement and posture. In most cases, the onset occurs during pregnancy or at childbirth. In other cases, infections such as meningitis or traumatic brain injury may result in Cerebral Palsy. There are three types of movement disturbances associated with CP:
Spastic cerebral palsy - where muscles are tense, contracted, and resistant to movement. This is the most common form of cerebral palsy, especially in low birth weight or premature babies.
Athetoid cerebral palsy - where the affected parts of the body perform involuntary writhing movements, such as turning, twisting, facial grimacing, and drooling. This form of cerebral palsy generally involves damage only to the motor centers, not to other parts of the brain. In the past the "strange" and "unnatural" movements were diagnosed as signs of mental or emotional disturbance.
Ataxic cerebral palsy - where the main characteristic is lack of balance and coordination and altered depth perception, due to damage to the cerebellum. Ataxia involves difficulty maintaining balance and swaying when standing.
Sometimes several areas of the brain are involved, so the description of a particular child's condition may involve several of the above terms and symptoms. Also, the severity of the disability will vary from child to child, ranging from mild awkwardness to inability to walk. Other conditions associated with cerebral palsy may include: seizures, ADHD, learning disabilities, vision problems and speech impairment.

How Yoga helps

The practice of Yoga poses (asanas), followed by deep relaxation, can help to significantly reduce high muscle tone, which is characteristic of most children with CP. Holding an asana gives the muscles and tendons a relaxing stretch, releasing overall stress and tightness throughout the musculature and around the joints. At the same time that asanas are relaxing the body, they also provide just enough resistance to exercise low muscle tone areas of the body. In this way asanas actually improve both high and low muscle tone problems in children with CP.
Perhaps the most important aspect of asana practice for children with CP is its ability to stretch and realign the spine. Asanas flex and twist the spine in all directions. This scientifically designed series of stretches and counter-stretches helps to create more space between the vertebrae and reduce pressure on the disks and nerves that radiate out of the spine. Reducing the pressure on these radial nerves facilitates the release of muscular tension throughout the body and enhances overall nerve function. As a result, the child is able to develop a greater range of movement and coordination, as well as greater independence.


Down's Syndrome

Down's Syndrome is a congenital disability with an overall incidence of one in every 700 births. The chromosomal abnormality involved in most cases is trisomy 21. As a result, the affected person has 47 chromosomes in all body cells, instead of the normal 46.
Persons with Down's Syndrome are shorter than average, and often have with truncated limbs. Some other common characteristics include an epicanthic fold of skin extending from the eyelid over the inner canthus of the eye, strabismus (crossed eyes) and hypotonia (low muscle tone). Motor development is slow; and instead of walking by 12 to 14 months as most children do, children with Down's Syndrome usually learn to walk between 15 to 36 months. Language and cognitive development are also significantly delayed. The majority of children with Down's Syndrome function in the mild to moderate range of mental ability. In addition to these delays, children with Down's Syndrome are also susceptible to certain medical problems, including: congenital heart defects; increased susceptibility to infection; respiratory problems; obstructed digestive tracts and childhood leukaemia.

How Yoga helps

Yoga poses (asanas) help to stretch, tone and strengthen the entire body. Asanas also benefit the internal organs and help to balance and revitalise the endocrine glands. For this reason children with Down's Syndrome who practice Yoga stay slim and flexible, while those who do not practice Yoga tend to put on weight as they age. In conjunction with yogic breathing exercises, which have a beneficial effect on the central nervous system, asanas facilitate the development of body awareness, concentration and memory - vital skills for any child with a developmental disability.


Autism is a developmental disorder that typically appears in the first three years of life. This disorder makes it difficult for children to communicate verbally and non-verbally, to socially interact with others and to relate to the outside world. Many children with autism, however, also exhibit remarkable abilities in the areas of art, music and math. Autism used to be a rare disorder, occurring in about one in 1,500 children. Since the late 1980s, however, the autism rate has risen sharply in the U.S. and other countries. CDC's new numbers for the autism rate are one in 100.
For decades, most psychiatrists considered autism to be a psychological disorder. It is now generally acknowledged that autism is caused by biological factors, but there is little agreement over which factors are most important, and exactly how they cause autism. Unlike other disorders, autism is defined not by its cause, but by its symptoms, which may include purposeless, repetitive behaviours such as hand-flapping, rocking or opening and closing doors. Language skills develop slowly or not at all, the meaning of words is often ignored and gestures are used instead of words. Some individuals with autism may exhibit aggressive or self-injurious behaviour and resistance to change in routine. Others may seem to lack common sense, throw tantrums for no apparent reason or obsess over an idea, object or person. Children with autism may also experience sensitivities to sights, sounds, touch, odours and flavours, and have strong reactions to them.
Although autism is defined by a certain set of behaviours, children and adults may exhibit many different combinations of these behaviours, to any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, may act very differently and have varying aptitudes.

How Yoga helps

The first step in teaching Yoga to a student with autism is to establish a strong bond with the child. To do this the practitioner will need to enter the world that the child lives in - to meet the child on his or her own level, so to speak. Only then will the teacher be able to gain the child’s complete confidence. Massage, music, dance, rhymes and stories are some of the different techniques that the teacher can use to connect with the child.
As student and teacher gradually develop a foundation of mutual trust and friendship, the practitioner can introduce some of the Yoga poses (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama) that will help to bring the child with autism out of his or her shell and into the world of social interaction. After the student becomes familiar with these introductory poses, the practitioner may progressively add more asanas to the routine, as well as deep relaxation. The combination of asanas, pranayama and deep relaxation will strengthen the child’s nervous system, increase overall health and facilitate the development of body awareness and concentration. By establishing optimal physiological and psychological integrity, Yoga therapy helps children with autism gain new motor, communication and social skills. The end result is an overall improvement in their quality of life.


Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) 

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is a behavioural disorder formally defined as a significant deficiency in age-appropriate attention, impulse control and rule-governed behaviour, which manifests in early childhood. Associated behaviours include: difficulty with following instructions; speaking or acting before thinking; poor organisational skills; restlessness; impatience; forgetfulness; low self-esteem; and, in the case of children with ADHD, hyperactivity.
Some experts believe that attention deficit disorder is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but there is no documented proof that this is actually the case. The incidence of attention deficit disorder varies from 3-5% for school-age population, depending on the strictness of the diagnosis. Sometimes referred to as ADD or ADD/WO (attention deficit disorder without hyperactivity), children with this disorder generally do not perform well in school, though most of them test at average or above average intelligence.

How Yoga helps

Since breath is deeply connected to the emotions, teaching yogic breathing exercises (pranayama) is an ideal way to start working with children who have ADD. However, it is important for the practitioner to first find a way to create a strong bond with the child, in order to gain the child's trust and attention. Then the exercises will progress more rapidly. In addition to its positive effect on the emotions, pranayama stimulates vital areas of the brain and central nervous system. By combining pranayama with Yoga poses (asanas) and deep relaxation, the benefits are greatly enhanced. With regular Yoga practice, children with attention deficit disorder develop greater body awareness, emotional balance and concentration - increasing their capacity for schoolwork and creative play. As overall performance improves, so does their self-esteem.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a behavioural disorder formally defined as a significant deficiency in age-appropriate attention, impulse control and rule-governed behaviour, which, like ADD,  manifests in early childhood. Associated behaviours include: hyperactivity; speaking or acting before one thinks; difficulty in following instructions; poor organisational skills; restlessness; impatience; forgetfulness; low self-esteem; and poor social skills. Children with ADHD find it difficult to slow down, even when they want to; often they are so hurried that they seem clumsy and uncoordinated.
As with ADD, some experts believe that ADHD is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but there is no documented proof that this is actually the case. The incidence of ADHD varies from 3-5% for school-age population, depending on the strictness of the diagnosis. Sometimes referred to as ADD/WH or "minimal brain dysfunction," children with ADHD generally do not perform well in school, though most of them test at average or above average intelligence.
ADHD is the most common behavioural disorder in the UK. It's unknown exactly how many people have the condition, but most estimates suggest if affects around 2-5% of school-aged children and young people. There are many factors contributing to this behavioural disorder: TV violence; poor nutrition; prenatal drug use by parents; sensory overload; pollution; crowding; and the breakdown of the family structure. Yoga uses physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama) and deep relaxation techniques to calm and strengthen the central nervous system. It helps children and teenagers with ADHD get in touch with their bodies in a relaxed and non-competitive way. There is also a spiritual side to Yoga that grounds its practitioners in their own silence and internal awareness - something that is becoming increasingly difficult to experience with the frenzied pace of life today.


How Yoga helps

Children with ADHD often experience learning delays due to their hyperactivity and distractibility. Special Yoga practitioners will usually find it easiest to introduce pranayama and a few asanas to these children before attempting to teach them an entire Yoga routine. This will help them to calm down enough to follow instructions. Alternate nostril breathing will be of particular benefit to children with ADHD because of its ability to calm the mind and to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Teaching these children proper respiration is an important aspect of their Yoga training. Once the child with ADHD is able to follow instructions, the Yoga practitioner can gradually introduce more asanas and the deep relaxation portion of the Yoga routine.