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Yoga for the Special Child

Hatha Yoga, Integral Yoga Teachings   |   July 24, 2014  |   by Brenda Bakke  ~Yogaville

I had been working as a pediatric physical therapist for about 17 years when I attended Yoga for the Special Child (YSC) Teachers Training program. As a physical therapist, I had been interested in combining Yoga with physical therapy but had only done so for a few clients. While reading Yoga Journal, I came across an advertisement for YSC. The ad was quite intriguing so I sent away for more information. With the support of my school district in Everett, Washington and a grant I received from Target, in September 1999, I was off to Yogaville in Buckingham, Virginia to begin my journey into yoga for the special child.

When I decided to enroll in YSC, I hoped to learn yogic techniques to help the children I work with develop better balance, strength, and flexibility and to progress in their motor development. I had no idea that I would gain so much more.It’s hard to explain in words what I received from the experience in Virginia. It was truly a life-changing week. Not only in how I now work with children and their families, but also in the impact the week in Virginia had on my life. When I returned to my job in the school district, I was inspired to begin integrating my new skills. The first difference I noticed was that I was not ‘doing’ the physical therapy ‘to’ the child, but now the child was more involved and participating in their own program. There was a true connection between the child and me. Yoga means union, and in my work with children, I was clearly seeing the joining of the body, mind, and spirit.

As my work evolved, I began to focus on the breath and the impact it has on motor control. I work with a wide range of children; from birth through 17 years old. One day, I was working with an eight-year-old boy with Autism, and he got a sharp pain in his side when we were in the middle of an asana. He wanted to quit, so I encouraged him to sit up tall and do some deep breathing. After a couple of breaths, the pain went away. He got a big smile on his face, and said “Brenda the breath made me better,” and he stood up and gave me a big hug! I’ve have had many experiences like these that bring chills through my body.

I also work with two-year-old twins who have cerebral palsy. The yoga therapy has improved their balance, strength and flexibility and, equally as important, it has given them the ability to develop stillness in their mind and body. They have increased muscle tone throughout their body, and they are learning to release and not hold on to the tension. As they are releasing the tension, there is an observable difference in their breathing, speech control, attention, and overall awareness. Using the breath, or prana, with movement has an incredible effect on individuals with neurodevelopmental delays.The breath impacts all types of muscle tone. It helps the child with hypotonicity (decreased muscle tone) receive more energy to improve posture, strength, and overall body awareness. It helps the child with hypertonicity (increased muscle tone) become more controlled and fluid in movement and overcome blocks in movement patterns.

I’ve also become much more aware of the effect that gravity has on our bodies. With an intact nervous system, we are generally able to overcome these effects and maintain good spinal alignment, demonstrate adequate posture, and walk and perform movements automatically and without pain. With abnormal development, gravity has many adverse effects on the body, including our neuromuscular system, skeletal system, and internal organs. Through practicing Yoga, especially inversions and extension postures, the pull of gravity is reversed and the body becomes stronger. Muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue all develop more integrity and the digestive, respiratory, and circulatory systems all function more optimally.

Many children with developmental delays are unable to independently explore their environment as most children do. They miss out on normal play activities where their body is inverted in space, such as tumbling and hanging upside down from jungle gyms. Because of the lack of movement experiences early in their development, these children may be more fearful of movement, become easily disoriented, and demonstrate a decreased awareness of where their body is in space. Their brain is unable to gather, organize, and integrate sensory information from their environment, which may lead to sensory processing problems. Through inversion postures, the blood flow to the brain is increased, which has an integrative and stabilizing effect on the sensory motor system.

The involvement that I now have with families is different than it had been with more traditional physical therapy programs. I have found Yoga to benefit not only the child, but also the parents and siblings. Some of the parents I work with have already been practicing Yoga while others have developed an interest since beginning the program with their child. I have observed the influence of Yoga to expand and affect the health and well being of the entire family.

In addition to the children I have been seeing individually for Yoga therapy, I also work as a physical therapist in a school district. I work with early childhood programs, and have integrated many of the Yoga techniques into my caseload at school. I have taught teachers activities which promote increased attention, relaxation, improved balance and coordination. There are many activities that are easily integrated into their group circle times, such as vision and breathing exercises and group asana practice. As the physical therapist on the team, I am in the classroom frequently throughout the week to offer support and to assist with their Yoga program.

Since attending YSC in November 1999, I have been fortunate to attend both a refresher course last summer, and the Advanced Level One course this past November. This continuing education has helped me develop my skills with the children and has strengthened all aspects of my personal yogic practice. The support and camaraderie I have received from Sivakami and fellow graduates has been extremely beneficial. Integrating what I learned in the Yoga and the Special Child training with my physical therapy programs has had profound effects for the children I work with. The joining of mind, body, and spirit through Yoga has given me the tools to connect to children in a more compassionate and holistic manner. Thank you Sivakami.

Brenda Bakke, Med, PT is a Licensed Physical Therapist specializing in pediatrics. She lives in Bothell, WA. Brenda works as a Physical Therapist in the Everett Public Schools System and also has a private practice.

(by Brenda Bakke, from the May 2001, IYTA Newsletter)

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