From the Inside Out: Yoga for the Special Child
An Interview with Sivakami Sonia Sumar
Science confirms that Yoga works on deep levels and in all systems of the body and mind—essentially, it works from the inside out! That is just one reason that it has proven so effective in helping children with special needs. Sonia Sumar (Sivakami) began teaching Yoga for children with special needs after her daughter Roberta was born with Down Syndrome in 1972. Sonia noticed many positive changes in Roberta from teaching her Yoga, so in 1975 she became a certified Yoga teacher and went on to develop Yoga for the Special Child, a program designed to share her methods with parents, therapists, and other Yoga teachers who would like to make a difference in the lives of children with special needs. In the following interview, Sivakami shares her heart-warming story and discusses what makes Yoga for the Special Child unique.
Can you tell us a bit about how Yoga for the Special Child was developed? How did Yoga benefit your daughter, Roberta?
Yoga for the Special Child is an early-intervention pioneer program that is completely based in Yoga and which I developed with the intention of helping my daughter. Roberta was born 46 years ago, and at that time the life of a child with special needs was totally limited. Most children would not be accepted into therapeutic programs until age seven. Then, they would attend a school for children with special needs, but that could sometimes prove to be a great challenge for them because many people did not believe that they could learn anything.
That is why it sounded like an eternity when Roberta’s physician told me that I had to wait seven years to put my daughter in a school for individuals with special needs. I wanted to figure out what I could do for my child immediately! By that time, I was already practicing some Yoga by myself with a book that was written by Indra Devi, whom I later learned was a great friend of Gurudev’s (Swami Satchidananda), but at that time of course I didn’t know Gurudev. I really wanted to offer my daughter something that could benefit her from the inside out and would prepare her to face the challenges that she would have in the world, so I thought about Yoga. I said to myself, “Why not? There’s nothing to lose. I can try.” But, I really didn’t know what to do or where to start. Just imagine: we didn’t have internet, we didn’t have any place to research what to do. I was on my own. My husband was an alcoholic, so I had to take care of Renata, my first daughter, and Roberta. We began our Yoga adventure with a great attitude of trust that it would be very beneficial for her.
Roberta had many respiratory problems, and I was also searching for how to help her breathe freely. Once again, the arrow turned to Yoga! First I tried to find a way to teach breathing through traditional practices, but I soon realized that I didn’t need to worry about her breathing. Depending on the movements that I was doing with her body, she would naturally follow with the right breath. All I had to do was pay attention to how long she could hold herself in a position without strain. Being connected with her allowed me to become more and more familiar with the way she was breathing. Though in the beginning she was not very cooperative, I continued to work with her every day for at least 30 minutes and I noticed that she began to be more present and more aware of her body.
I was taking her every month to the physician, the same one who told me that there was nothing to do for my child until she was seven, and he was so surprised. He would say, “Wow, I don’t know what you are doing with your daughter, but she is improving.” I told the doctor that I was teaching her Yoga, but he never asked me what it was. He just said, “Keep on doing it, because she’s doing great.”
At birth, it was suspected that Roberta, in addition to her diagnosis of Down Syndrome (DS), also had incurred brain damage due to a lack of oxygen during labor. In fact, she had to stay three and a half days in an incubator with oxygen after her birth. But after I had been working with Roberta for some time—she was 9 or 10 months old—the doctor told me she perhaps only had DS and not brain damage, because of how well she was doing. Nowadays, neuroplasticity is proven. I’ve been told that it’s possible that she could have had some brain damage but, because I was stimulating different areas of her brain every day through Yoga, her brain healed.
When Roberta was growing up and improving, I started introducing some asanas (postures). Her health improved greatly; her muscle tone improved, her lungs healed completely, and she no longer had any kind of respiratory concerns.
The Yoga for the Special Child method is very unique. We don’t use toys or tools—it’s just Yoga. It’s just you and the child interacting, so you have to develop lots of connection with the child. Yoga for the Special Child is about creativity, connection, and developing a relationship with the child you are working with. Asanas are also an amazing way to work the body from inside out and can be very healing for the body.
What conditions do you work with in children?
Well, in the beginning I was only working with my daughter. To be honest with you, I had never planned anything in my life as it is now, although I certainly do love it. I never intended to write a book, I never planned to teach classes, none of it was planned. It just started with trying to help my daughter. People started to notice the difference that Yoga was making for Roberta, and that was when I began to receive invitations to teach others.
By the time Roberta was seven, she didn’t need any additional kinds of therapy. Yoga had done it all. She had spectacular muscle tone, amazing concentration—she was just amazing for a seven-year-old child with Down Syndrome. So, I began to work with in other places when I was invited. I gladly accepted an invitation to teach at a school for children with special needs, thinking that it would be easy because I wouldn’t have to play the role of teacher and mother at the same time, which could be often be challenging for me.
That was when I started to work with kids of all ages and abilities; I worked with kids with autism, ADHD, and ADD, Cerebral Palsy (CP), and many other conditions. It challenged my creativity to work with them and allowed me to realize how unique each of them were.
Now I work with all conditions. There are conditions that I encounter as I travel around the world that I have never seen before, and I have to constantly adapt my methods. This makes Yoga for the Special Child an eternal learning process to discover how to help each amazing individual. I am always learning about the conditions that I work with. This is a method for people of all ages and abilities.
Yoga for the Special Child has an amazing reputation all around the world. Not just because of the work that I do, but because of all of the amazing and dedicated people who attend our programs and help share the teachings with integrity and love. They are always reporting to me how people respond to the Yoga for the Special Child techniques so amazingly. The majority of teachers of the program are physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, doctors, and parents; they find that the method works effectively, without the pressure to reach certain goals that comes with other therapies. Of course, we also have wonderful Yoga teachers attending our programs!
Do you incorporate all aspects of Integral Yoga into a class with children?
Definitely. All the components of an Integral Yoga Class are present. Of course, there are adaptations of asanas for every condition. Working with people with severe physical conditions is a very complex field; I constantly adapt and creating bridges in order to comfortably work with all of them.
That is one of the reasons it is very important to really love what you do: to be inspired. My daughter Roberta was my true inspiration and she still is nowadays. However, after she left her body I felt lost and was lacking inspiration. The pain was so huge that I felt it difficult to keep up with my work until I received the gift of a new inspiration sent from the heavens to bring me back on track: I met Master Satchidananda and even now, words cannot express my feelings. His love and light were so intense that I was able to make the transition from confusion and insecurity to the light of a new path. I now feel that Roberta is spiritually present when I am working with the special needs population.
Swami Satchidananda helped me to dissolve all fantasies I used to have about Guru! I thought I was going to meet my Guru at the feet of the Himalayas, at the banks of Ganga river, or inside of a cave. Instead, I met him almost three years after my daughter left her body on the stage of an International Yoga Conference in Buenos Aires. I received my spiritual name Sivakami in the lobby of a hotel in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, surrounded by all those people who went to Brazil with Him, plus several of my own students who were also there.
I broke down into tears at the airport when he left Brazil. It was so difficult to be separated from him again just when I found myself back to the path. I said, crying: “I just met you and you are already leaving? What will I do here without your presence?” He came very close and said, “I will be always with you, closer than your heart. I am not leaving you. You have to come to the USA because there is no one there doing what you are doing here.” We had someone translating for us, as I did not speak English yet! I responded by crying even more. “But how will that be possible if I do not have money and do not speak English?” He came even closer and said firmly: “Money you make. English you learn.” At that point, I couldn’t bear my despair any longer and found myself crying and thinking: Guru Sivananda, what kind of crazy Guru have you sent me? He definitely understands nothing about Brazil! It was like he read my mind—when I looked at him again he said, “Alright, you collect money for your airfare and then you will be my guest at the ashram.” I agreed. And less than one year later I was in the USA to be with my Guruji!
I remember once during a satsang I thought to myself, I don’t know how long he is going to be in his body, but one thing I know for sure is that I want to be around Him. And that is what I did for almost 13 years! Jai Guru!
I ended up becoming a citizen and living in the United States. Before Gurudev passed away, I was telling him that I was kind of scared. I said, “I came here to spend a month with you and now I’m living here. What happened?” By that time I was already speaking English. He just started laughing. He said, “Well Sivakami, I came to the U.S. to spend one week, and I’m still here.” By that time, I think he had been in the States for 35 years.
I eventually had to leave Yogaville because it was getting more and more difficult to fly from the Charlottesville airport as I was traveling more often to teach programs. Gurudev was always very supportive and even told me that I would be famous. He said, “Sivakami, you have to come here every year to teach a program—at least once a year!” I promised him, and I do that still to this day.
How do you modify the yogic practices for your students?
When I teach Yoga to kids with special needs, it doesn’t matter to me how affected they are by their condition. Yoga is not only asanas. We have other ways to practice Yoga because it works on all aspects of an individual. We not only have a body, but also emotions and a mind. When we can keep the mind and emotions in balance, that state will definitely affect the body. Many people using a body with no apparent special needs can be very uncomfortable because of an imbalanced mind and emotions. Through techniques such as breathing, relaxation, and meditation, we can bring all those aspects together. That is one of the reasons we don’t use toys or tools in our method: they could bring the student’s awareness outside rather than within during the classes. As Gurudev once told me: “To practice Yoga all we need is our body and mind.” I completely believe this and always try to go from there. It takes the teacher to guide the student, independent of his or her condition, to that level of connection with who they really are. That is Yoga in my humble understanding of it.
As far as how to adapt the practices, that is going to depend on the condition and abilities of the person, and those techniques come naturally. We don’t use props or toys or wheelchairs. The practice is all done on the Yoga mat. Integral Yoga is a very gentle, slow Hatha practice, whereas some other traditions have a very athletic practice.
I would also like to emphasize that although Yoga for the Special Child is a great complement to other therapies, it has a very specific way of working with each condition. This is the reason why we strongly suggest not to mix it with any other Yoga styles.
Yoga for the Special Child has no pressure of goals or expectations for children that are usually present in other therapies, thus it creates no disappointments and frustrations. Feelings and attitudes like that can have very negative effects in the child’s life. Yoga for the Special Child is a program that allows you to just relax and enjoy the child’s presence.
Want to learn more?
Join Sivakami Sonia Sumar and co-teacher Gita Catherine Brown to discover how to safely and effectively facilitate Yoga practices designed for each stage of a child’s development during Yoga for the Special Child Teacher Training – Basic Part 1 on September 21–27.