by Linda Ruggiero, Ph.D.
As the Indian tradition of practicing yoga becomes increasingly infused into Western culture, people are recognizing the beneficial effects that yoga has on one’s physical and emotional well being. In 2008, Yoga Journal reported that 15.8 million Americans practice yoga. In line with this trend, yoga is becoming more widely accepted as a form of therapy in the medical world, as close to 14 million Americans report that their doctor or therapist has recommended yoga to them. Among the numerous physical benefits seen by yoga practitioners are weight loss, increased muscle strength and reduced joint pain. In addition to the physical benefits, yoga has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety and improve attention, learning and memory. In a study done at the Indian Council of Medical Research Center for Advanced Research in Yoga and Neurophysiology, researchers showed that a yoga practice combining physical asanas, or postures, and breathing exercises led to reduced anxiety and increased attention. In this study, 57 adult males were guided through a series of physical postures followed by relaxation. The researchers assessed memory and anxiety in these individuals through a series of tests and found greater performance on the memory tests by men who had practiced yoga compared to those who did not. In addition, these men also displayed reduced anxiety.
While yoga has positive effects on adult individuals, the practice of yoga is proving to be beneficial to children as well. Research on the effects of yoga among children is minimal, however, a number of anecdotal reports suggest that yoga teaches children to listen to instructions, focus their attention on the pose and develop motor coordination. It also allows them to be still. Yoga focuses on breathing exercises that are taught along with the postures, which helps children to calm down and establishes something for them to focus on. Yoga philosophy stresses the importance of practice, and for children this is important because it teaches them that if they keep trying, they will learn and progress. When a child learns how to do a posture that was at first challenging, he or she begins to develop a positive self-esteem.
Children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are often characterized as having difficulty with social interactions and tend to display repetitive, stereotypic behaviors. Many of these children are unable to divert their attention from an activity or object and display frustrations and anxiety when they are expected to do so. Yoga involves the repetition of asanas and breathing exercises and has become a beneficial therapy for some children with ASDs as it provides a way for these children to establish a routine that allows them to main attention and focus while learning new skills. A number of programs and schools across the country have begun to implement yoga as a means of therapy for ASD children. Molly Kenny who directs the Samarya Center in Seattle, WA, uses Integrated Movement Therapy (IMT), which involves yoga with traditional behavioral, mental, and verbal therapies, to improve symptoms in ASD children. In one report from this Center, 35 children enrolled in the IMT showed improved balance and social interactions. At the Center, children are led through breathing exercises prior to each activity to enable them to regain focus and attention, while calming down. Kenny reports that these self-calming techniques teach the children that being quiet makes them feel good. Parents of these children report that their child’s problem-solving abilities have improved as well as social interactions and how the children feel about themselves.
Yoga as a therapy for children with ASDs is having effective results. Michael Chisick, a yoga instructor at the Yoga School based in the United Kingdom, reports, “I have been teaching yoga to children and teenagers with ASD for 9 years and have seen some remarkable changes in terms of behavior and motivation.” Similarly, Jennifer Cerbasi, special education teacher of ASD children in New Jersey says that classroom yoga helps the children focus and heightens their ability to follow instructions. She has also noticed that the breathing techniques the children learn from their yoga instructor helps to calm them down when they are frustrated.
In their book, Yoga for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents and Caregivers, Dion and Stacey Betts present specific postures and breathing exercises for children with ASDs. Children with ASDs often display frustrations with new tasks and have difficulty with attention. Because children diagnosed with ASDs differ in their symptomology and severity of the disorders, this book provides modifications to accommodate the different needs of children. Parents, teachers and caregivers must teach yoga to children based on their abilities and comfort level. Until there is a cure, it is important to make these children feel comfortable, safe and happy. While yoga is not the answer to completely alleviating the symptoms of ASDs, when integrated with other behavioral therapies, it may provide a useful tool in allowing these children to feel good about themselves.
Betts, D.S. and Betts, S.W. 2006. Yoga for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents and Caregivers. Jessica Kingsley Publshers, Philadelphia, PA.
Kenny, M. 2002. Integrated Movement Therapy™: Yoga-Based Therapy as a Viable and Effective Intervention for Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders. International Journal of Yoga Therapy 12: 71-79.
Lehr, R.P. Brain functions and map. In The Traumatic Brain Injury Resource Guide. URL: http://www.neuroskills.com/tbi/brain.shtml.
Subramanya, P. and Telles, S. 2009. Effect of two yoga-based relaxation techniques on memory scores and state anxiety. BioPsychoSocial Medicine 3: 8.