Have you ever had a day when you just felt a little bit ‘off balance’? Bumping into things, clumsy and awkward? Or perhaps you felt overwhelmed and found yourself strangely stimulated, obsessing over a task? During these challenging times you probably noticed a change in your mood and how you responded to situations or other people?
We are constantly processing information from both outside and inside our bodies. What we touch, hear, see, smell and taste impacts how we function. The brain processes multiple sensory inputs and the nervous system responds accordingly. Chewing a pen to concentrate, fiddling with your hair or rocking back and forth on a chair, these are all indications that the brain and nervous system are processing sensory information.
Most of us learn how to cope and filter out hyper stimuli. We’re able to make sense of our situation and surroundings and therefore self regulate accordingly. Adopting a mindful approach to the situation and using calming breathing techniques, gentle stretches and meditation can help restore calm.
Sensory processing disorder, SPD
However, there are many who live with a condition called sensory processing disorder (SPD). It’s a condition in which the brain has difficulty receiving and responding to the information that comes in through the senses. Commonly this is found in individuals living with Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities but it can be a symptom of trauma, stress and anxiety. Individuals with the disorder experience the world very differently and can experience extreme variations in the way they behave.
Children and adults with SPD often have difficulty filtering the non-essential information, such as background noises, and so they begin to manifest sensory behaviours. Anxiety, restlessness, irregular sleep patterns, agitated states, difficulty sitting still or participating in and completing simple tasks make it a challenge for them to integrate into social settings.
Common characteristics in those with specific sensory behavioursLow registration: Passive, uninterested, low energy, appearing lazy
Sensory Avoiding: Appears emotional, stubborn, controlling, intentional withdrawal from activity
Sensory Sensitive: Easily distracted, hyper active, complains
Sensory Seeking: ‘On the go’ excitable and fearless
Sensory integration is the theory and treatment of people experiencing SPD. It is the brainchild of pioneering neuroscientist and Occupational Therapist, Dr Jean Ayres. She devised an intervention system that included devising client specific activities to integrate the senses, enabling a person to feel more calm, alert and ready to engage in daily life.
Today this has become a growing area of practice for many occupational therapists and is thought to be one of the most effective interventions for behaviors that challenge when the behavior has a sensory function.
With this in mind it is easy to see how effective yoga as a sensory intervention strategy can be.
The 8 senses
In sensory integration we take into consideration all 8 senses. As well as the more common five senses sound, smell, taste and sight there are three ‘inner’ senses known as proprioception, vestibular and interoception. These last three senses are particularly interesting when tailoring a yoga module for an individual or group as it can support our assessment and ability to facilitate movement, aid concentration and ultimately boost self-esteem.
Teaching yoga as a sensory intervention strategy
Yoga is a highly effective sensory intervention tool. With its roots in parasympathetic dominance, and body and spatial awareness, the benefits are endless and highly effective. In addition, the use of a deep touch pressure (DTP) massage, to assist in sensory processing across a large area of the body, promotes self-management and regulation.
The benefits of yoga
- Regulates proprioception, joint and muscle sensation and vestibular, balance and eye movements
- Activates calming hormones, such as serotonin
- Focus on breath and movement offers self-regulation
- Use of bilateral movements to create spatial understanding and balance mood
- Helps to organise and relax the nervous system
- Builds self-confidence and self-affirmation
Top tips for delivering yoga
1. Who are you teaching?
Where possible, familiarize yourself with any targets, behavioural plans and strategies for optimum learning. If you have access to an Occupational Therapist, ascertain a sensory profile from the therapist and discuss their sensory preferences and dislikes.
2. Create a safe and sacred space
Risk assessing your space is essential. Be sure to omit objects that may prove too stimulating for our sensory seeking participants including bright lights.
Aromatherapy mists are ideal for scenting the room and encouraging a deeper connection to the breath. Avoid using directly on the skin and be aware that some may be very sensory sensitive to smells.
Communication is key when working with SI. Avoid high demands and be clear in your instruction. Notice your teaching style and the tone of your voice. Some students appreciate a nurturing style where others prefer a direct approach with less eye contact and lots of space. Always be positive and encouraging. Yoga picture cards are very useful for those with auditory and visual issues. Music can be soothing but choose soft, soothing sounds rather than complicated compositions.
4. Meet the energy
When lesson planning, be flexible and prepare to adapt. If your student displays high energy, start your practice with standing sequences to ground them. Meet low energy seated or supine and compliment with DTP or assisted stretching.
5. Frequency, duration and intensity
Yoga is a practice and discipline. Set a regular date and time with your student and work at a level that suits their needs and abilities.
With increasing patient aftercare referrals from General Practitioners and with many of us choosing to work within schools, hospitals and care organisations, our class demographic is expanding to include a wider community base with different needs and abilities. Sensory Integration has relevance in our classes and 1-2-1 training provision as a guide to understanding individuals with particular cognitive and sensory impairment.
Cathy is a Senior Registered Yoga Alliance Professionals Teacher Trainer.
A multi award winning business owner, Cathy provides classes, workshops and teacher training courses. Specialising in inclusive movement therapy for those living with Autism, learning disabilities and complex mental health conditions Cathy currently works for The Priory Hospital Group, DRS Private Care Homes and coordinates the yoga and dance curriculum for Treehouse School, home to Ambitious about Autism.
Cathy has recently launched a number of certified training packages for those looking to teach yoga and sensory integration techniques to those with special educational needs.
This article has been taken from the 3rd issue of Amrita Yoga Magazine released in 2018. If you are interested in buying this magazine, you can do so from here!