Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Melding Alternative and Traditional: Releasing Fear

Returning to work has been interesting this week, my life has been consumed with policy and promoting the importance of accessing Speech and Language services in French.

As our society becomes more "open" to children with differences and special needs (although not even close to being accepting yet!) parents are feeling more comfortable exploring in community activities that may benefit their child's social and physical development. When I worked in BC, often parents enrolled their children in hockey, soccer, dance and community groups with the children of their community. Expectations for these groups would be that the director/leader/workers would have minimal knowledge with how to support children with special needs as they were programs geared for typically developing children. The parents *knew* that they would be required to help.

In recent years I've seen more and more yoga programs pop-up specifically marketed for children with special or extra needs. This is such a wonderful concept; yoga brings the physical, social and emotional connection for so many people. Although research is limited (whether it exists at all at this point) on whether there are measurable benefits to yoga beyond the physical activity, all alternatives begin somewhere.

I am most certainly not an expert on Yoga, far from it. However, I can with confidence state that I am an expert on communication (when you're called to court as an expert witness, I think that qualifies right? lol). This is where I feel that yoga marketed for children with special needs requires extreme caution.

Historically, parents of children with special needs have been exploited cruelly through bunk "cures" and "treatments". These parents are especially vulnerable to spending money on something that may not benefit their child, and are willing to spend inordinate amounts of money on their children. 

Yoga programs can be expensive, honestly, and many parents already have huge bills related to having a child with health and medical conditions. As Yoga becomes more integrated into our healthcare system, and is increasingly viewed as a legitimate alternative treatment, instructors are soon equated to "expert" status along with other healthcare professionals.

Don't get me wrong, there most certainly are yoga instructors out there who are qualified to set up programs for children with special needs. However, by my standards they would be rare. Further, as Yoga Instructor Certification and Practice is not currently standardized or officially regulated like other health professionals, the onus is on the parent to assure the health and rights of their children are maintained.

Follow this with Best Practice considerations for teaching children with special needs and there you have the word *caution*. The majority of children with special needs have communication disorders or delays, from simple articulation-oral motor concerns, expressive language (including word finding, echolalia, grammatical organization, jargon) and receptive language disorders/delays (including understanding phrases of increasing complexity, "wh" questions, spatial concepts) along with fluency (stuttering), voice (hoarseness, tone, resonance) and social pragmatic concerns (eye contact, appropriate phrases, staying on topic, initiating). 

These are simply a few communication considerations to remember when teaching children with speech and language disorders/delays. A few questions to think about:

  1. How do you teach a child postures if they don't understand spatial concepts (i.e. on, in, under, behind, up, down).
  2. How do you teach a child that may not understand language well at all?
  3. Many children have difficulty understanding language and verbal directions with auditory and visual distractions (i.e. music, many individuals in one room, an echo-y room, mirrors etc). How would you help them?
  4. Many children (not just those with Autism) have difficulty with transitions, how would you help them through poses and finishing the class?
  5. Many children (not just those with Autism) have difficulties with sensory input, easily upset by certain levels of touch, sound and light. 
  6. What would you do if a child becomes upset or wanders off when they (inevitably) don't understand the direction or are challenged?
  7. If a child uses Augmentative Communicative Devices such as PECS, would you know how to communicate with them?
  8. What if the child is hearing impaired and uses hearing aids, a cochlear implant or is a signer. Echo-y rooms are terribly challenging for these children, how would you signal to them without auditory words to change, adjust etc?
  9. Most children (and especially those with receptive language delays) have difficulty attending for longer than 10 minutes... how would you support them?

These are simply some of the communication aspects of working with children with special needs, not to mention physical limitations of children with low tone, fine or gross motor skill delays etc.

I do believe that yoga would be a fantastic benefit to children and their parents. My professional opinion, both ethically and as Best Practice, is that programs should consult closely with other health professionals such as Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists, Psychologists (especially for Autism) and Speech Language Pathologists during creation and for extra training. 

All programs created by health professionals require extensive collaboration with a team, as this is considered evidence based practice and best for the child. Should yoga venture down this path, I don't see why a partnership wouldn't be feasible. We all have something valuable and helpful to offer. Releasing fear of loss of professional scope while recognizing the value and actively encouraging programs that reflect the child as a whole will result in beautiful blossoming of potential and community. The melding of alternative and traditional health together as opposed to one versus the other.

I would recommend this type of program to my clients in a heartbeat. :)

That's my little soap box for the day!


article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. I have a friend, a most amazing woman, who runs The Special Yoga Centre in North London. The centre is used for all kinds of things yoga and therapy, but she specialising in teaching yoga to children and teenagers, especially yoga to special needs kids. Her training is extensive and she runs the centre as a charity. You pay what you can. Nobody is excluded. Ever.

    I did my teaching for children training there although I haven't done the special needs course yet. I hope to one day, especially as my "day job" is working with people with disabilities now.

    I guess what I'm saying is there are a few of them about. Her webpages are here...

    Look under the "Our Charity" tab for her work with children.

    This lady works miracles I tell you.

  2. What a beautiful idea. You are quite the yoga activist! Have you heard of Street Yoga? They are a Portland-based organization that serves homeless and at-risk youth by offering free yoga classes in shelters, detention centers, on the streets, and pretty much anywhere else. Obviously it's a pretty varied population, with many of the difficulties you might also encounter in the kids you work with. It's all about working with the individual and meeting people where they are. Namaste!

  3. Wow, I'm impressed! Those are some interesting points to bring up. I think collaboration between yoga teachers and specialists would be FANTASTIC, and a wonderful way to serve these children!

    And just since you mentioned it...what do you think about the standardization of yoga teacher training?


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