Peeping through the classroom window I see the tutor delivering a simple sequence of postures and breathing techniques to the pupil. The atmosphere is calm, the session gentle. A lovely rapport is developing between the two as they mirror each other's flowing movements. The pupil is asked to recline and once snuggled up in a blanket is offered a series of squishes and massages. It's a wonderful moment and for the pupil a huge achievement because he has complex Autism combined with other challenging behaviours. Witnessing him enjoying a moment of calm in an otherwise tumultuous existence is an exciting moment for me.
It was 2014 when I was invited to work alongside specialist tutors at TreeHouse, the flagship school of Ambitious about Autism: the UK’s national charity for the education and support of children and families living with Autism.
I was to develop a yoga curriculum for the school and although I have a wealth of experience as a therapist with care facilities specialising in yoga and exercise for people with learning disabilities and mental health conditions, I had little experience with Autism. This was a wonderful opportunity to develop something special.
What is Autism?
- Autism is a lifelong developmental disability, which affects 1 in 100 people in the UK
- It affects the way a person communicates and how they experience the world around them
- Autism is described as a spectrum condition, sharing certain characteristics
- Early intervention, education and support are crucial in enabling children and young people with autism to lead fulfilling lives
Benefits of yoga for Autism
- Activates calming hormones, such as serotonin
- Focus on breath and movement offering self-regulation tools
- Bilateral movements help balance brain hemispheres to calm mood
- Helps organise and relax nervous system
- Non – competitive nature builds self-esteem
- Enhances physical activity, core strength and flexibility
- Enhances spatial awareness, gross and fine motor skills
- Helps coordination, postural alignment and balance
- Builds trust between classmates and tutors
- Grows emotional strength and play
Once purpose and objective were agreed, I began developing a practice that offered pupils and tutors ways of regulating agitated states and challenging behaviour in the classroom. Working in small groups and one-to-one sessions, we built a suitable programme to support their specific needs. Included were some simple breathing techniques, yoga postures and relaxation exercises to form the basis of our programme. I also included some deep touch pressure techniques that help those with sensory processing. Yoga mats, blankets, eye pillows, soothing music and visual prompts were all used as props to enhance the experience.
The pupils took to yoga instantly, rushing into the space, kicking off shoes, rolling out mats and snuggling under blankets. The coming months were a joy and the most delightful outcome for me was the connection between pupil and tutor. The calm, gentle nature of yoga was clearly a welcomed change from classroom targets and enabled everyone to begin the day refreshed and happy.
Tutors often remarked on the positive changes and the enjoyment the children gained from these sessions. One said with tears in his eyes, ‘It’s very moving to see my pupil previously unable to regulate his mood, leave a yoga session feeling happy and calm. It’s magic!’
Aims and goals
- Yoga sessions aim to reduce hyperactivity and thereby improve concentration and the ability to relax
- The goal is to encourage a mindful, non-competitive approach to physicality, to enhance mood, confidence and neurological development
- Yoga promotes relaxation as part of a self management strategy
- Yoga is a way of learning about oneself and others in a calm environment and at a steady pace
- Pupils explore movement to enhance self-awareness, strength and flexibility
- The flowing moves are practiced to encourage solo, partner and ultimately group participation
I developed training modules for the tutors that included the philosophy of yoga, its benefits, how to plan a lesson, classroom targets, scheduling and consistency of sessions. A groundbreaking moment for me was subsequently observing tutors putting the module into practice and exploring the new ideas.
It dawned on me that I was observing the culmination of all my years of study with my own teachers, coming together in this very significant moment. I was sharing my love of yoga, something dear to my heart and maybe passing on a little legacy of my own?
Three years on and I am now the yoga and dance tutor for TreeHouse, developing their curriculum to include fun therapeutic movement based modules for the pupils and tutors.
Delivering a session is a very personal experience and it takes time to find your unique approach and style. Being flexible in your leadership is key to having fun no matter what may occur. Keep the structure of your session simple. Avoid overloading students with too many different elements.
My basic lesson plan
- A welcome song/register
- Explain what you are going to do and why
- Establish yoga set up: collect your mat and blanket, take off shoes, turn off the lights, sit on the mat
- Use visual aids such as PEC’s – Picture education cards
- Ask/inform the pupil prior to making any physical contact or adjustment
- Focus on relaxation and deep touch pressure element
- Recap on what we have done and why
- Finish song or story
Tips for effective delivery
- Be clear and direct
- Map out the class – Now we are going to do...then we are going to do...
- Use visual aids and short key words
- Speak with a positive voice
- Make the session fun
- Familiarise yourself with behaviours strategies and pupil reinforcements
Cathy provides consultancy for organisations needing help tailoring movement and wellbeing programmes for those living with Autism, learning disabilities and mental health conditions.
To find out more about Cathy's three-stage approach (self-awareness, partnerships and team skills) call: 07957 272066
This article has been taken from the 3rd issue of Amrita Yoga Magazine released in 2017. If you are interested in buying this magazine, you can do so from here!