Yoga therapy, through asanas and chanting, helps children with special needs cope with physical and behavioural problems, says Hema Vijay

Yoga is known to alleviate worry, aggressiveness and depression that we all experience. But could it help ease these problems among intellectually or physically challenged children? And how do you get an intellectually challenged child to listen and respond to instructions and execute an asana? The answer lies in simplified yoga therapy where such children learn elementary movements, and are gradually introduced to a routine that improves body coordination and psychological wellness.

Depression, worry and behavioural problems can inhibit special children from attending school or responding to discipline. “Inducing behavioural change in them is crucial, because even just going to school is a therapy for them. Yoga can help achieve this behavioural change. However, we cannot rely on yoga therapy alone. It is useful as an added treatment. The parents have to find out what works best for their child.

Integrated approach

“An integrated approach helps,” says Dr. V. Murugan, senior consultant paediatric neurologist, adding, “While we don’t have a scientific study on the impact of yoga therapy on intellectually challenged kids, we already know it brings about a definite improvement in conditions such as depression, anxiety, behaviour and chronic pain that trouble kids with autism or ADHD.”

Special children tend to have less body perception and self-awareness. Getting them to do simple asanas goes a long way towards improving body perception, especially as they get to flex various parts of their body consciously during a yoga session. “With the help of yoga, the children hold their bodies in a particular position for a longer period, which gives time for their brain to register information,” explains Mythili Chari, autism expert and education specialist.

Toilet training can be achieved by insisting that children practise yoga only if they have emptied their bowels before a session. Children will comply, because they enjoy trying out asanas. Incidentally, a study conducted by Mythili at Delhi’s Tamana School of Hope for Exceptional Children (through drawings by the kids of themselves before and after a yoga session), found that children showed improved self-awareness and body-perception after a yoga session.

To begin with, special children are helped to do asanas with the parent or therapist moving the child’s body parts according to the instructions. “Later they begin to do the exercises on their own. Using pictorial charts helps too,” she adds. “I have found that yoga calms hyperactive kids; they become less aggressive,” says Mythili.

Manifold benefits

“Yoga improves posture, balance, flexibility of the spine, arms and legs, and mind-body co-ordination. Sounds are also used to stimulate the children’s interest so they can let out their pent-up emotions. Thus, there is release of physical tension,” says Geetha Srikanth, director, We CAN, yoga therapist and special educator at APL Global School. In addition, chanting may be used as a therapy.

Positive effects of chanting

“Some of these children are aggressive and can’t be asked to do breathing exercises. Chanting helps here as it establishes continuity. It calms their mind, their attention span and focus improves. Chanting improves breathing too, which in turn improves their mental state,” says Geetha, who has used yoga therapy on children with autism, who are non-verbal and can’t communicate or even maintain eye contact. “They can’t be asked to imitate postures. We hold their hands and help them as they learn different postures, modifying the exercises according to the child’s need and ability,” she explains.

Incidentally, challenged children need yoga more than others because they don’t have the luxury of participating in sports or any such physical activity. Finally, parents should remember that results can’t be achieved overnight. It takes time and parental support, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Parents should also insist that special kids are taught only by a trained yoga therapist.

THE PLUSES

* Children with intellectual or physical challenges can be taught to do simplified yoga.

* Special children need to be taught by a trained yoga therapist.

* Yoga improves body-perception, self-awareness, focus, impulse control and pain management.

* It reduces stress, worry, depression, aggression, and hyperactivity.

* It improves interpersonal skills like listening skills.

* The stretches help relieve physical stress.

* It improves circulation, breathing, posture, balance, flexibility of the spine, arms and legs, and mind-body co-ordination.