Yoga has many powerful and varied tools for us to use to help us navigate life and our emotions.
It was morning break when I arrived at the school for the first time. There was a lack of childhood laughter and buzzing common at the other schools I teach at. There were no lively conversations, no group play activities that kids make up amongst themselves – in fact it was unusually quiet. This was a special school, a school for children with ‘special needs’.
My heart opened as soon as I saw the children. Some have such severe disabilities that their faces are disfigured, they are unable to communicate, interact with the other children, or understand basic things. There was no interaction with others as most played on their own, sat in wheelchairs, or followed staff around in circles. The doors are all securely locked with child proof locks and some have simple codes next to them that the kids or teens cannot read.
The journey that led me here began in a yoga class. I was packing up to leave when someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I know you; aren’t you in the children’s yoga DVD?” Yes, I replied. “You know, they use your DVD at Sydney’s Fisher Road special needs school at least three times a week?” I was astounded. The DVD was never intended for use with special needs kids and I was curious to see how they responded. After a brief conversation with the deputy principal, who told me how much the children enjoyed it, I was invited to watch a class. On arrival at the school, one of the boys with severe autism shouted out ‘yoga!’ This astonished both the teacher and me. We were amazed that he was able to recognise me from the DVD. A few of the kids then shouted out fish, crab – presumably poses they liked.
Then came one of the most magical moments in my 15 years of teaching – watching a class in action. I witnessed seven children with severe intellectual disabilities, mesmerised by a yoga DVD for an entire 45 minutes. I watched as they connected outside to the screen and then back to themselves. The joy they got was priceless, and it melted my heart.
The next week it was my turn to teach. I felt like a new teacher again, unsure whether the students would respond, would it be too difficult, how would I modify, how simple should my instructions be, and what would I do if there were behavioural issues in the class? The big challenge was: would they be able to follow instructions from a real person as opposed to having the comfort of a screen? The answer was yes!
From the moment we started the class, nine year old Harry’s face lit up. What a delight! It was pure joy to be doing something he loved and considered fun. Rob wanted to show me that he could do his yoga moves well and that he was one step ahead of everyone else – including me! Ellie needed a lot of encouragement and Tom was really well behaved and participated to the best of his ability – which was apparently surprising as he can react badly to anything new.
As we all know, yoga teaches us to be present and adaptable, and I saw many moments of this in class. The kids went with the changes I made. Occasionally I saw a second of internal struggle, then they let it go and continued. I also saw many moments of presence: a smile, a laugh, a look, watching me closely as they followed.
Teaching these students is easily the highlight of my week, and every week I learn something new. After many years of teaching I’m learning to delight in small things that for them are monumental shifts. It’s the moments of pure connection; seeing them balance in a pose as our eyes connect; an autistic girl usually stuck fast in the thought pattern “I can’t” finally follows my lead and says aloud “I can” – and succeeds at balancing in Tree Pose. Wow! And when I tell them that they are amazing, their happiness is palpable.
I am amazed at how effective breathing is with this group of children, and how powerful the out breath is at letting go of tension and built up emotion. I noticed that one of the boys, who is unable to communicate thoughts and feelings, had a visible release of pent up emotion – tears began pouring down his face. I watched as he stayed with the breathing and emotion until it was gone. Tom was a different child after that, he stopped hitting his head when frustrated and hasn’t done it since.
Yoga has many powerful and varied tools for us to use to help us navigate life and our emotions. Over the years, I’ve found that we can use them to benefit children – children of all ages and all kinds of needs. The key is being able to adapt them to suit the age, ability and need of each child. The wonder is that it works every time!
Australian Yoga Life: Sept-Nov 2013 -Issue 40