From Our Members
At 32, I was divorced and mother to an autistic 8-year-old daughter. Physically, I felt like I was 90 years old; emotionally I felt very low. Spiritually, I knew I needed hope and direction. I was searching for a new way to live. The way I was going about things was not working anymore.
As the parent of a child with special needs, my life revolved around abnormal behaviors and confusion about what to do. Over the years I had sought many options for my daughter, Christine: physical therapy, occupational therapy, behavior modification techniques, etc.—more than I can list. It seemed that the more I looked, the more lost I felt.
A friend listened to how I felt and supported my idea of trying Yoga; it would help me relax and focus. I had never practiced but was curious. She gave me a “Yoga for the Special Child” brochure which described the work of Sonia Sumar, who used Integral Hatha Yoga techniques: mantra, pranayama, asana, and deep relaxation, with her Down Syndrome daughter. I could hardly believe such a program existed—Yoga for me with my daughter? The brochure advertised an upcoming basic certification course in our area. I remember telling my friend, “It sounds like a dream job—to work with children and Yoga.” Her response was, “Then do it!”
Opening day of the program, I was the first student to arrive. Sonia greeted me with a huge hug, and in that moment the door of Yoga opened up for me. The week long program was filled with, among others, parents, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and special education teachers. I felt honored to be among them. The students’ embrace and Sonia’s unconditional love started to repair my damaged self-image, and Yoga began to seep into my pores.
Other mothers in my group had children with greater physical challenges than I had ever seen, and Sonia worked with these mothers and their children in such a deep and effective way, I was in awe.
This was my first experience chanting mantra. How powerful it was to chant “Om” with a group, lead by such a spiritual teacher! Then we learned to chant “Hari Om” with the children. During the program, the children remarked that the mantra stayed with them day and night—that they were hearing Sonia’s voice even in daydreams.
The pranayama portion of the program was more challenging than I had expected, and it prompted the deepest looking into myself. I learned the importance of the breath for children with special needs: improving physical and emotional strength by increasing lung capacity and correcting the breath’s rhythm. I could feel how much the pranayama increased my energy level and relieved the fatigue I had felt before practicing it. As Sonia said, “Breath is the door and the key.”
The asanas were basic to start, but with Sonia’s guidance, they became a beautiful and humbling journey into my body and soul. I knew I wanted to teach like her and be like her. I also knew that was going to take a long time, but I could think of no better way to spend the rest of my life.
My daughter Christine came into the program as a demonstration student for Sonia. Christine did not really cooperate much physically, but that did not matter; Sonia made a connection with her that went beyond the physical level. It was a perfect example of how Yoga is limitless.
Observing Sonia working with the children was the most amazing part of the week. Her program made me realize that personal growth is necessary in order to work effectively with children. The “Yoga for the Special Child” program offered tools to help create that change in mind, body, and soul.
Throughout the course, Sonia shared her personal accounts of working with special children, as well as the teachings of her guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda Maharaj. What an amazing combination of knowledge! Immediately after the basic program, I began to read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda and prepared to attend the Advanced Level 1 course just one month later. Some of the other students from my basic class did the same. It was nice moving through the program levels with familiar faces, bonding and learning from and about each other.
Every one of us spoke of the changes we had made in our lives since taking the program. We began to understand more about ourselves: the traits we wanted to change and the traits we could value more. My values began to shift toward the ones taught by Sonia: love, detachment, connection of souls, patience, trust, and fearless careful work. She asked us to allow these values into our everyday life; the more they manifest in our behavior,the more successful we can be with the children we teach. As Sonia would say, ”You cannot give to someone else what you do not have yourself.”
Nearly six years later I have seen an incalculable number of changes in Christine and in myself. She has gained self-help skills that she could not master before we started our Yoga practice, such as using the toilet. She is a calmer, easier-tempered young lady, expressing real emotion at the appropriate time. She smiles a real smile; her happy face can light up a room! She has a much more open attitude toward other children; she used to avoid them but now she seeks out the interaction. Both of us have changed our diets, and we are rarely ill. I now serve my daughter as a better parent, being more understanding. I now allow life to happen, since I’m not trying to control what I can’t anymore. I’m not constantly planning and worrying, or chasing the next cure for autism.
I follow a teacher that keeps me on the path of Truth. “Yoga for the Special Child” is special. I thank Sonia from the bottom of my heart for all she gives me, more than mere words can describe.
Michelle Demes is a Registered Yoga Teacher, a Certified Yoga for the Special Child™Instructor, and a licensed Yoga for the Special Child™ Basic Certification Program Instructor. She is currently the Director of Chidambaram Yoga Center in Evanston, Illinois.
(By Michelle Demes, from the IYTA Newsletter, August, 2006)