Children With Disabilities Get Into Yoga Poses

Baltimore Sun

Riley Jackson and Shane Perlow, both 7 and ordinarily full of energy, were lying on their backs and taking deep yoga breaths while little plastic frogs on their bellies steadily rose and fell.

Soon, they were wobbling and grinning through "tree pose" and hissing enthusiastically for "cat pose."

Riley, who has missing front teeth, gaily sang "London Bridge is Falling Down" as he wiggled into bridge posture.

Yoga is a part of the occupational therapy the boys do at Hands On Therapy in Pikesville, Md., where Riley is being treated for a sensory disorder and Shane gets help for handwriting problems and some related spatial issues.

As the half-hour yoga session wrapped up, Shane, a sweetly polite kid with wavy brown hair, declared that he felt good. "I feel more quieter," he said. "More calmed down."

Giggling and croaking like frogs may not be precisely what ancient Hindu practitioners had in mind, but as yoga continues to boom in popularity in the West, a new sort of follower is getting onto mats and into downward-facing dog position: children with disabilities.

Around Maryland and beyond, growing numbers of kids with attention, anxiety and learning disorders, as well as diseases such as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, are embracing yoga. Their parents are reporting physical, mental and emotional benefits.

"People are calling about kids with almost every kind of diagnoses," said Annie Mahon, who offers what she calls "therapeutic yoga" for children at her Chevy Chase studio, Circle Yoga. "It's definitely blossoming."

Yoga teachers are beginning to add a "special needs welcome" tag on their advertisements, and a variety of pediatric therapists are integrating yoga into their treatments.

The Maryland chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society just held a workshop on teaching yoga to people -- children and adults -- with the disease.

The family center at Kennedy Krieger Institute is about to start yoga groups for children with attention disorder, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"There are so many parents with kids with special needs. I don't want to say they're desperate, but they really want to find ways to help their kids," Mahon said. "They may want to find complements to medication, to find natural ways to help them, and ways the kids can be empowered too."

Some of the "yoga" done with children often resembles plain old playing: running, wriggling, pretending to be animals. But many of the postures adults do are embedded -- just with extra barking and snorting and chants with Sesame Street overtones.

And just like adults ensconced in an incense haze, children learn to meditate and to pay attention to their breathing. Teachers sneak in some strands of yoga philosophy, reminding children to breathe through the scary parts or to be present in the moment.

"We feel like all our kids are true yogis. We see in them a sense of their belonging in this world, and that they are valued in this world," said Molly Kenny, a Seattle-based pioneer in the field, who has trained many of the people who work with disabled children in Maryland and Washington.

Susan Whelan found out about yoga for disabled children from another parent in her knitting group. She enrolled her two children in individual cases. Her 10-year-old daughter has a yet-unlabeled condition that may be cerebral palsy, and her 12-year-old son has autism.

"Because there's no known cure for autism, I have always looked at all alternative and on-the-edge therapies," Whelan said. She said yoga helped her son focus and he had learned to use the breathing techniques to calm himself. He recently breathed his way out of a tantrum at a swimming lesson, Whelan said.

Her daughter, who has trouble running, gained considerable flexibility through yoga. The class also boosted her self-confidence and even helped with a speech problem that often leaves her struggling to find words.

"Something happens with the brain that frees up language," Whelan said. "She's a motor mouth during yoga."

A couple of weeks ago, her daughter uncharacteristically decided to join her school swim team.

"I wonder if any of that has to do with yoga and being more comfortable with her body," Whelan said.

Julie Peoples-Clark was suffering from postpartum depression when she saw an ad in the back of a yoga magazine for "yoga for the special child." Her daughter, Ella, who is now 3, has cerebral palsy due to a birth injury.

She took a weeklong course and started practicing with her daughter every day.

"It was a wonderful way for me to connect with Ella," said Peoples-Clark, who recently moved from Maryland to Vermont. "Finally, I felt like I had a sense of power over her recovery." Her depression lifted.

Other teachers and parents say yoga can help kids with concentration, balance, sleep, muscle development and brain function.

It also can be a useful social outlet for the sort of child who is often left out at recess.

Karen Soltes, a clinical social worker from Chevy Chase, Md., does some conventional talk therapy during her yoga classes.

"This was a surprising byproduct," she said. "Most adolescents don't want to come and talk to you a lot about what's bothering them. Through a lot of movement and sun salutations, all of the sudden they'd be talking about their lives."

In addition to introducing yoga to children with severe disabilities, Soltes has worked with "regular stressed-out kids" doing yoga and yoganidra, which resembles a guided relaxation.

"There's an enormous increase in anxiety in children," Soltes said. "We can help kids find better ways to relax so it's not taking a toll on their physiology."

Research on yoga's effect on children is scarce because the practice is fairly new, but the health benefits for adults are well-documented, said William R. Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist in Silver Spring. He often recommends yoga to anxious children he sees in his private practice.

"For kids in general, stress is terrible for learning," he said. "My emphasis on yoga and meditation is to minimize the extent to which stress molds their brains in such a way that they're vulnerable to ongoing anxiety and recurrent depression."

David Hinds, a bouncy 6-year-old with a gorilla T-shirt, didn't seem the least bit stressed at a recent yoga class at Funfit Family Fitness Center in Rockville, Md. But he was abuzz -- squirming, chattering, getting lost in the rain outside and the dust bunny on the ground.

David doesn't have a technical diagnosis, but he is rambunctious and very distractible. "A handful," as his mother put it. His parents are reluctant to turn to drugs and thought yoga might offer him some tools to help him calm himself.

The payoff was almost immediate: David practiced the meditation he learned in class when he was in bed at night. Typically, he is so wound up it can take him an hour to fall asleep, but to his parents' relief, the meditation seems to help.

Celia Kibler, the president of Funfit, has been sprinkling yoga into many of her exercise classes for kids. In one recent class, she and David flapped their wings like hummingbirds, snorted like dragons and crawled like caterpillars.

Eventually, Kibler put on tinkling music that sounded half New Age and half "Barney." David lay down, closed his eyes and started counting on his fingers.

"One-two-three-four," he whispered. "One-two-three-four."

And then, like magic, the room that had been filled with the clamor of one little boy grew quiet. David lay very, very still.

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