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Yoga For Special Needs

Liz Watson

Written by Liz Watson

Yoga For Special Needs

From my Ashtanga training and regular Ashtanga style classes, how did I come to be standing in front of a class of young people with special needs, waiting for me to teach them their first yoga class? This was definitely outside my comfort zone and a totally different challenge to any type of class I have ever taught before. I do have experience with kids, I have four grown up children of my own and, as a supplement to my teacher training, I completed a Kids Yoga course at The Yoga Space in Leeds.  I had done some teaching in primary schools before, and last summer in the school holidays I found myself crawling as a snake under lots of downward dogs in a mum and child class, which is how I find myself here today. 

One of those mums, a regular at my adult classes, put my name forward to teach yoga at the school she works at. This school is The Percy Hedley School in Newcastle, which caters for children and young adults with varying disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, communication and sensory impairments and complex learning and social needs.

I am told that the group I will be teaching range from the age of 11 up to young adults of 17/18 and have a wide variety of abilities; some are in wheelchairs and will struggle physically, whilst others have attention and communication difficulties. Initially the prospect of catering to such a wide variety of needs seemed daunting, as I had to offer something that they could all benefit from.  I had been told it is best to keep the postures and instructions simple and that repetition and familiarity would help.  The members of staff are very aware of the calming and therapeutic effect of yoga. They are keen to focus on the relaxation aspect of the practice, and to build body awareness and confidence in the children.

After my initial meeting, I agree to go back the next afternoon to observe some of the children doing a stretching class in order to become familiar with them and their needs. But as I arrive I see the sea of expectant faces and the children ask if I am going to teach them yoga today. I look across to Tina, who was going to lead the class, and we quickly agree that I will teach it

So, where to start? I have no knowledge of their capabilities and how they will cope with poses. Some are standing, others are not physically able to stand and are sitting on their mats.  I remember my teacher Brian’s story of teaching a student badly injured in an accident, you don’t focus on what you think they can or can’t do you just get on with it!  Well, as with any yoga class, we start with the breath.  It’s something they can all do and focus on, and then we just carry on building, posture by posture, until suddenly we are at the end, sitting quietly and breathing together once more.

That first class was a real learning curve for me, as well as for the kids. Some of the children drop in and out of the class, some sit and watch and take in the experience.  I’ve found that if we just keep going through the practice they join in when they can, with the staff helping them with postural positions when necessary.   No matter how much they do, they are still experiencing a calming, nurturing effect from the practice and I can see their confidence growing.

I have just finished my first full term of classes and we’ve all made a lot of progress! I have a basic framework of breathing, warm up and postures and gradually over the weeks I’ve changed one or two things to bring in different postures. This helps to keep them engaged and challenged, and they all love the relaxation at the end.  

I have also started to learn about the children as individuals and their characters. There’s Louise, who is in a wheelchair most of the time, but gets onto a mat for her yoga. Although she can’t stand unassisted, with help from the schools physiotherapist she is able to do many of the postures and is requiring less support and becoming more independent every week. When I asked if she enjoyed the classes she said yes because it’s something she can do with her friends.  A few weeks ago, when I arrived, she was in a new yoga kit and was thrilled when I noticed it.   

Tommy comes in to class with his one to one support and stayed for about 5 minutes the first week. Now he stays for longer and does more; he used to drop in and out at least a couple of times during the lesson, but he now only leaves once and only for 5 minutes.

 Joe just comes in towards the end of class for breathing and relaxation which he loves and at times can fall asleep, which is something he can struggle with in the evenings at home. He is using breathing within physiotherapy sessions to stay calm and relaxed when using his standing frame. James is very quiet, he does the whole class with ease smiling throughout.  The staff say it is helping him with his self-confidence, and he will now talk to me a little and tell me his favourite postures

Then there’s Danielle, who for the first few weeks just sat watching nervously. I tried to engage her one week by praising her lovely lotus posture and she quickly shied away. However, a few weeks ago, I noticed she was quietly doing some of the sitting postures when she didn’t think anyone noticed. Another week, she stood up and joined in some of the standing sequence and put in a fantastic eagle posture.  After this, she joined the class late whilst we were doing eagle posture again, but instead of sitting and watching first, she joined straight in.

After a couple of weeks when I arrived, Emma asked me a question, “How’s your melon voice?”,   “My what?” “Your melon voice, it’s like a melon, all round and soft.”  That made me smile but was also very touching; she says she likes yoga because it makes her feel calm and she hopes that she can be a yoga teacher one day.

It’s been a truly heart-warming experience. All of the staff are brilliant and enjoy doing the class too, the kids are lovely and I have definitely seen great progress in so many ways. The best part is that the staff which include support assistants, occupational therapists and physiotherapists, have seen a difference in the kids too and have asked me back again this term.  

Childrens names have been changed for child protection purposes.



Liz Watson

Liz Watson has been practising yoga for over 10 years and teaching for the last 6, she is a Yoga Alliance Teacher Associate Level 2.  Now based in the North East of England she teaches adult and children’s classes in the North Tyneside and Newcastle areas.  For more information contact Liz at www.lizyoga.co.uk

Topics: Benefits Yoga Therapy Kids Yoga Amrita journey yoga teacher teaching