It was a warm day in London, on Harley Street and I remembered a vague recollection of knowing this was where people came for cosmetic transformation. I found that word ‘transformation’ a little ironic today, and far removed from the cosmetic sense, since I was here to learn about how yoga can be used as a method of transforming the lives of people with autism and ADHD - or at the very least how it can help manage the symptoms of these conditions.
I wondered to what extent yoga could be transformational for these kinds of conditions. As a yoga teacher and practitioner for many years, I knew already the subtle transformations that yoga can bring to many peoples’ lives…transformations that happen over time to change habits, patterns, and in some cases can be a platform for significant positive change…but I was curious to understand the methods that can be used when dealing with hyperactivity and autism…something of which I had zero experience in.
I was greeted by Cathy Underwood, a Senior Yoga Teacher for Yoga Alliance Professionals - she had an immediate sense of warmth and enthusiasm which was delightful! The group was intimate - with 12 people and the workshop began with Mikaela, an Occupational Therapist explaining in detail the conditions we were looking at.
I found this fascinating as Mikaela delved into what autism and ADHD is and what kind of emotional and physical regulation issues children with these conditions can have. She explained that children with autism generally have a heightened or reduced sensory response in one or more of the main senses. She touched on what signs to look for to detect autism and ADHD symptoms, which provided an insight to me into an understanding of how these could connect to yoga. We looked at the vestibular system, which gives us information about our sense of balance and coordinates our eye movements. We also looked at proprioception, which allows for manipulation of objects with an appropriate amount of force. The body depends on the smooth processing of sensory information in order to function normally and most children develop this naturally through routine exploration of the world but autistic or ADHD children struggle with these.
Mikaela looked at various conditions, symptoms and possible treatment options. For instance, listening to music or sounds that match beats per minute to either relax or stimulate the child. A typical calm child usually has 70-80 heartbeats per minute, so for a hyper child, it can be beneficial for them to listen to music that matches the 70-80 beats per minute. This was also linked to sound and chanting. The noise of chanting ‘OM’ had been seen to be extremely effective in relaxing hyperactivity in children with these conditions. I actually tested this the following week on my friends crying baby. When I chanted OM, the infant stopped crying. Fascinating!
Something which was highlighted as significant and termed the ‘Golden Key’ was the importance of respiration and regulating this when a child is anxious. Cathy explained how yoga techniques could be used to aid some of these symptoms and help the child become more reliant on recognising their own symptoms and starting to self-regulate through these learned techniques. Teaching breathing techniques was understood to be a fantastic way to regulate a hyper child.
Cathy highlighted that movement is also key to sensory integration. She explained that it is important to first understand the person with autism or ADHD and instruct them to use asanas to help them communicate in a way that their repetitive restrictive behaviours become channelled. This allows the nervous system to settle and social engagement can begin.
The workshop was led from the theory into the practical with Cathy exploring games, pair work and lesson planning. I found this stage of the workshop to be great fun on two counts. It gave the group first-hand experience of playing the games and it allowed the group to integrate with each other. We practised on each other and interestingly, as a yoga teacher myself, I struggled with giving limited instructions. Autistic children tend only to hear the last word that you say, so giving complex instructions would not work.
The majority of the participants at the workshop were care workers for autistic clients, so understanding how to teach them yoga techniques was very relevant to how they could integrate what they had learned into their vocation.
It was fantastic to hear how they could take what they have learned and use it immediately with their clients. As for the yoga teachers amongst us, it allowed us to consider how we teach, the instructions we give and how movement, breath and chanting are indeed therapeutic to all yoga practitioners.
Working with such a small group allowed everyone to feel comfortable and open. I felt honoured to spend time with a group of people who spend their livelihood dedicated to helping others in what seems to me to be a very challenging role. I take my hats off to each of them and most of all to Cathy and the presenters of this workshop. Sharing yoga techniques with people who can genuinely help individuals with autism or ADHD is a wonderful gift, especially with a course that was so well executed.