There are plenty of examples throughout history of individuals doing great things and influencing great change. However, we often feel that a single action that we perform now, would not amount to much. We fail to act because of our perception of the insignificance of a single act from a single person. One thing that we can all benefit from is the knowledge that no kind, compassionate, generous or thoughtful act is ever without value.
Kathryn Otoshi believes in the power of one. As a Japanese girl growing up in a primarily Anglo-saxon neighborhood, the daughter of parents interned in Japanese camps during WWII, she knows what it is like to be different. She also knows what it is like to be afraid to stand up when watching a peer be ostracizedand isolated for being different. She explores these themes, and many more in her wonderful book “One”.
“One” tells the story of Blue, a quiet color that sometimes compared himself to the other colors who were brighter (Green), more regal (Purple), more sunny (yellow), or more outgoing (Orange). Blue was picked on by Red, which caused him to not like himself very much at times. All the colors were afraid of Red and did nothing when he picked on Blue.
“Blue was a quiet color.”
Until 1 came along. One stood up for himself, and for Blue. One by one, the colors changed into numbers and stood tall with One, until they all counted.
“Sometimes it just takes 1.”
For our children, who may be different, the world can be scary or lonely. I wish we lived in a world where differences didn’t matter, where differences didn’t single out people.But perhaps as we raise a more kind and compassionate generation, we will have brave kids who raise their voice for others. One person can make a world of difference to a child.
One day one of my little clients walked into the clinic carrying a book given to him by his teacher. It was worn, some of the pages were torn and taped back together, some pages ripped beyond repair. The whole book was obviously well loved. As I began reading the book, I too fell in love with the story of this very cool cat. Pete the Cat has a brand new pair of white shoes that he loves. He loves them so much he sings a song about them: “I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes.” But as Pete the Cat is walking, he has various encounters that turn his shoes from pristine white to red, blue, brown, etc. Pete is unfazed by each incident. He doesn’t get upset or angry, he doesn’t cry. He just keeps singing his song, embracing the new color of his shoes.
Although I just recently discovered this little gem, this book was first published in 2008. There are now other books, artwork, a website a catchy song, and even a YouTube video.
I like this book for many reasons: it has repeated lines, bright pictures, teaches colors and other language concepts. And there are a ton of crafts to go along with this book on the internet. But beyond that, it offers teachable moments about acceptance. The fact that life can be unpredictable and there is great value in being flexible and adaptable to change. Sometimes life throws curve balls our way, or in this case, a pile of strawberries–and how we react can greatly influence our peace of mind and thus our health and well being. And these are the types of teachable moments I like to bring into my kids yoga classes. Ultimately Pete teaches us to
“keep walking along and singing your song…because it’s all good.”
And it is.
If you are a Pete the Cat fan, you may enjoy these resources:
Their down dogs are barking and jumping, their cats are meowing and their trees are bending and swaying. I am always struck by how difficult it is for some kids to simply be still. In deep relaxation pose, it is not unusual to see eye lids fluttering, legs rocking or fingers tapping. They appear fidgety and ready to spring up at a moment’s notice. Yet, despite this, I am frequently told that deep relaxation is their favorite pose. Is the desire to be still present, but not the ability? Is stillness something that needs to be taught?
So, what of kids and stillness? Kids are by nature energy and movement. And even if the body is still, the mind is often not. With myriads of things to occupy young minds such as play stations, Wii, Facebook, and television, young minds are often engaged and disengagement becomes an unfamiliar idea. How often do today’s kids disconnect and just….be?
Who hasn’t seen a child completely absorbed in cars, the sandbox, puzzles or dolls? In that moment, engrossed in the world of make-believe and pretend….are they practicing stillness? Perhaps. Perhaps in the same way that one finds peace in gardening, knitting or cooking. But from what I see of children in my daily experiences, it may be useful to first teach the art of being still. Just being. Letting the body settle….allowing roots to form and extend, providing stability. Thus creating a safe space in which to let the mind and spirit bask in the here and now. Freeing the body and mind from having to do anything. Just being. And in this way, we can help children to cultivate the awareness of what it is like to be in the present moment. Because before you know it, life creeps in. In the midst of a busy school day or the stress of an exam or chores that must be done, being able to return to the present moment, to find as Erich Schiffman describes, “life in harmony with itself”, becomes a wondrous gift that will serve them throughout life.
“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” ~~Deepak Chopra
When most people who have ever taken yoga think of a typical class, I would bet that they think of a nice studio, yoga mats aligned in neat rows, soft, earthy music and a nice ambience. The class would likely have a clear beginning, middle and end and include such components as poses, breath work, and/or meditation. The students would remain on their yoga mats and follow the directions of the teacher. Afterwards, students would roll up their yoga mats, return any props, and the session would end.
But when working with kids with special needs, yoga sessions may not contain such structure. In order to maintain interest, increase participation and create something memorable, it is sometimes necessary to enter their world. Yoga poses that may be familiar to you as down dog, warrior I or chair pose, become renamed from the world of Jedi’s, trains and fighter jets. Fantastical new poses are created and other poses take on a new life as they are literally translated. Tree pose, for instance finds real branches. Cats in cat pose meow across the room then stop to bathe themselves. These are the scenarios that bring yoga to life for some kids. And it is inside of the imagination of these kids, that the goals of your yoga session can realized. You’re doing Yoga?! Yep, the best kind of yoga.
So what is a successful yoga session? That answer depends on the child you are working with and their individual goals. But in general, if the child has participated with or without assistance, then that session was successful. Being able to assume a pose independently or associate a pose with a given name are some other ways of seeing success and progress. Over time, you may find that these kids are beginning to internalize some of the teachings you have brought them. Yoga may suddenly pop up in conversation or you may see behavioral changes. A child who initiates deep breathing because he is anxious; a child who begins holding poses for longer periods of time; a child who begins to do some yoga poses with his mom; a child who begins to verbalize insight into their own behavior. These examples are certainly bigger measures of success that take time, patience, and support from the child’s family in order to reach. But as I continue to work with kids with special needs, I remain constantly surprised and amazed at the heights these kids can reach.
Love & Light
“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen, and thinking why nobody has thought.” –Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
“The hardest thing about reality is returning to it after an hour inside your child’s mind.” –Robert Brault
Breathing seems so simple. We breathe in, we breathe out–naturally and without conscious thought. Perhaps we should pay a little more attention to our breath. It is the life force that exists in all of us. Without the breath, there is no essence and there is no life. As babies, our breathing is full, deep and expansive. Somewhere along the way, we adopt less efficient patterns of breathing that contribute to muscular tension, stress and negative effects on our health. Efficient breathing has been found to have positive effects on anxiety, stress, asthma, panic attacks, chronic pain and high blood pressure. Donna Farhi in The Breathing Book reports that breathing in a relaxed fashion can “increase the production of cells for immune system activation, promote bone repair and growth, as well as enhance the cellular, hormonal, and psychological processes”. Take a moment to pay attention to the way you breathe and notice:
Where do you breath? High in your chest? Low in your belly?
Is your breathing fast or slow?
Are you inhalations and exhalations the same length?
Are your breaths smooth and even? Jerky?
Do your breaths feel shallow? Or deep?
Does your breathing feel effortless? Labored?
Beginning to notice some the the characteristics of our breath helps to increase awareness. With awareness comes the ability to change habitual breathing patterns for the better.
The primary muscles used in respiration are the diaphragm, the small muscles between the ribs called the intercostals, and the abdominals. The secondary muscles used in breathing include muscles higher in the neck, chest and back. A healthy breathing pattern is relaxed, slow and wavelike. It arises in the diaphragm and is seen in the in-and-out movement of our stomachs. In a moment, we will explore diaphragmatic breathing.
Many of us tend to carry tension in our upper back, neck and shoulder. This can be exacerbated by prolonged sitting with forward rounding of the shoulders which tends to tighten the front of our body and overstretch our backs. Performing yoga poses that help to open the front of our body and loosen up the spine can be helpful before engaging in breathing practices.
Seated Cross-Legged Twist: Sit in a comfortable cross legged position. Elevate your hips by sitting on a folded blanket or small cushion if your pelvis tends to tilt backwards. Place your right hand on your left knee and your left hand behind your left hip. Take a deep breath in through your nose, as you exhale turn towards the left, feeling the twist starting in your pelvis, then moving up through your abdomen, chest and head. Repeat on the opposite side.
Passive Back Bend: Placed a rolled blanket, bolster or firm pillow on the floor horizontally. Lie back over the blanket/bolster/pillow with your shoulder blades aligned at the top. Bring your arms up to rest by your head, extend your legs. Allow your chest to expand.
Cobra: Start lying on your stomach, legs extended. Bring the palms of your hands alongside your chest, elbows hugging in towards your body. Press your hips and legs into the mat at you lengthen through the top of your head. On an inhale, bring first your belly, then chest and shoulders off the ground, allowing your chest to open.
Now that the body is ready, try this exercise in belly breathing, taken from Yoga As Medicine by Timothy McCall, M.D.;
Lie on your back or find a comfortable seated position. Observe your breath, without attempting to change it. Then, inhale, and on the next exhalation gently contract your abdominal muscles, bringing your navel in the direction of your spine. With little or no muscular effort, let your abdomen gently lift as you inhale. Breathe this way for a minute or so, then pause to observe any changes in your mind or body.
Other ways of lengthening our inhalations:
In the next post, I will provide ways in which we can help children deepen their breath.
Breath of Life
I breathe in All That Is—
to take everything in,
as if my heart beats
the world into being.
From the unnamed
vastness beneath the
mind, I breathe my
way to wholeness
Each breath a “yes,”
and a letting go,
a journey, and a
By Danna Faulds, from her book Go In and In: Poems From the Heart of Yoga (Peaceable Kingdom Books, 2002).
Children are said to be born yogis. Observing a 2 year old girl as she played in the sand, I watched as she moved effortlessly in and out of cat/cow pose, downward facing dog and dolphin pose. I work with a beautiful 21 month old girl with Down Syndrome who frequently sits in butterfly pose. Yesterday, she found downward facing dog and later, with her right leg stretched out in front of her, bent her left leg, grabbed her foot and extended it up towards the sky into a beautiful Heron Pose. I have to admit to being a little envious with that one! Many yoga poses are mirrored in the positions children naturally assume as they develop and learn how their bodies move. If you have any familiarity with yoga poses, just watch a young child play and notice how many “yoga poses” you see them do. So if children do yoga naturally, why introduce them to yoga as a specific practice? There is so much more to yoga than just assuming a pose although that is the place where most of us start. Then we notice that our balance is better; that we seem to be able to concentrate and focus for longer periods of time; that we are stronger in our legs, arms, back and core. We might notice that we are sleeping better; our awareness of our body has improved so our posture has improved and in general, we are calmer and better able to deal with the challenges and stumbling blocks that life throws our way. We might feel an overall sense of connection with others, fostering a sense of community and compassion. By introducing yoga to children early in life, you give them the gift of a practice that they can grow with, a practice that can help them blossom.
Yoga with children takes different forms according to the age of the child. Betsy Boyd-Strong teaches a Mommy and Me class with infants as young as 6 weeks. The class address the needs of the moms and the needs of the babies equally. The moms get strengthening, rediscovery of a body that has been shaped and changed by pregnancy, bonding with their baby and interaction with other moms. The babies receive loving and nurturing touch, eye contact, new ways of playing with mom, bonding, communication and sensory, visual and motor stimulation. Betsy creates a safe, nurturing space that welcomes pacifiers, rattles, baby bottles. A space where everyone understands that babies cry and may need to be nursed and that is okay. Once a child begins to crawl, they graduate and move up to the Mommy and Me Crawlers class. The babies become even more interactive and may start to imitate some of the poses they see their moms doing.
As babies grow into toddlers and preschoolers, they continue to benefit from watching an adult practice and being encouraged to participate as they are able. They may come and go from the yoga mat, but it is surprising how much they are really taking in they will spontaneously appear hours, days or weeks later! Toddlers and preschoolers learn best by imitation, repetition and clear, simple directions. As they grow into kindergarteners, they may enjoy a group class with other kids their age with or without a parent.
No matter the age, when teaching yoga to kids, it should be presented in a way that is fun and engaging. Most classes for kids include songs, games, rhymes and poses may be given kid-friendly names such as “waterfall” (forward fold), “rock” (child’s pose) or “river” (seated forward bend). Little “dogs” and “cats” may be encouraged to bark, meow or wag their tails. Yoga related activities can be used to learn about the body, sharing, community, emotions and more.
There are a vast array of resources for parents interested in doing yoga with their babies/young children. Locally, there are Mommy and Me classes and Kid’s Yoga classes on Hilton Head (Jiva Yoga Center: http://www.jivayogacenter.com), in Savannah (Betsy Boyd-Strong teaches at Savannah Yoga Center: http://www.savannahyoga.com) and in Beaufort (Dancing Dogs Yoga). A google search will turn up pages of books, DVD’s, and CD’s. One of my favorites is a small book of black and white photographs of babies and kids doing yoga called Born Yogis by Susie Arnett and Doug Kim. It is not a how-to book but will provide much inspiration. It is from this book that I leave you with the following words…
“The ancient scriptures say that babies perform the 108 postures of yoga while in the womb. One of our jobs as teachers and parents is to remind our young ones of what they already know and help them develop this inner wisdom.” Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa
“Yoga is an innate exercise on a child’s journey to becoming vertical, as it is our conscious practice along a journey to self-realization. Whether it’s flexibility we strive for or deep, deep focus (there’s no one more present than an infant gazing into her mother’s eyes), yoga helps us regain what we were born with and what we gradually lose as we age.” Susie Arnett and Doug Kim
This is the sense that helps us to know where our body parts are in space. In yoga, proprioception can be enhanced by the choice of postures in a sequence and the use of props. Weight bearing and “heavy work” activities give the proprioceptors the added input to increase body awareness. The more our weight is borne by the hands, feet or other body part, the greater the weight bearing and hence, the greater the input to the proprioceptors. Tree pose, Downward facing dog, headstand, hand stand and shoulder stand are all examples. Consider eye pillows placed over the eyes in savasana (deep relaxation), weights worn on the ankles or wrists, or a light weight sand bag placed on the stomach during pranayama (breathing exercises).
The receptors for the vestibular system are tiny hair cells in the inner ear which are activated when movement of the head causes them to bend. Movement, and therefore stimulation of the vestibular system is inherent in an asana based yoga practice. A rigorous practice such as power yoga will be more stimulating than a restorative type practice. Consider the degree of sensation experienced with inversions such as downward facing dog or headstand vs triangle pose. Consider the number of times the head changes position during sun salutations or when a sequence of yoga postures are performed slowly versus rapidly.
Yoga provides a lot of sensory rich information to the body that can help improve one’s ability to process and interpret information from our senses more effectively. If you or your child has difficulty with one or more senses, trying making some changes to either minimize or enhance that sensory component….then experience the difference…
“The senses are the primary way that the earth has of informing our thoughts and of guiding our actions.”
In the previous post, I discussed two senses that most people do not think about, yet have a profound impact on how we move and interact in the world. The asanas, or physical postures, of yoga inherently provide a great deal of rich information to the senses. Below, I will suggest ways in which yoga can be used to stimulate many of our senses.
In yoga, a drishti is a visual focus point. In tree pose for instance, the drishti might be a non-moving object at eye level. In warrior 1, it may be on the fingers which are stretched up to the sky. Using a drishti helps us balance and focus, corralling our random thoughts and helping with concentration.
Although a drishti can help us focus, try performing some yoga poses with eyes closed. Experience the difference that makes–on your mind, on your ability to journey inwards, on your balance, on your awareness of your own body.
Our sense of hearing can be stimulated in numerous ways during the practice of yoga. The sound of our breath as we inhale and exhale in concert with our movements or while engaging in specific pranayama (breathing) practice is not only beautiful, but can be powerful in finding the stillness within. Counting the breaths is often used as a beginning meditation technique and helps to increase awareness of ourselves and our bodies.
I love music in my yoga classes. Music has a powerful affect on our emotions. Whether it’s “The Wind Beneath My Wings”, ABBA or Mozart, music can be used creatively to create specific moods, feelings or states of being. For example, kids with ADHD/ADD, the steady, predictable drum beats of “Sacred Earth Drums” can be calming. From joy to peace and everything in between, music can be used with great effect.
Touch is one way that we connect..to the earth, to other people, even to ourselves. Touch abounds in yoga, starting with the feet. Yoga is typically performed in bare feet enhancing our efforts to find stability by grounding down through our feet. In standing poses, it is this grounding or rooting that allows us to move the upper body lightly and fluidly. Or as Irene Dowd so beautifully expresses, “taking root to fly”.
In poses such as downward facing dog, our hands are also connecting to earth, helping us find the space within to elongate. In savasana or deep relaxation, we feel supported as our entire back body makes contact with the floor. And on deeper level, the gentle pressure of palm against palm in anjali mudra to contribute to the connection to ourself.
We also receive a lot of tactile sensation from the tools that we use. Think about and experiment with the differences between practicing on a yoga mat versus a rug, grass or sand. That is something that can easily be changed to minimize or enhance tactile feedback.
“Words fail to convey the total value of yoga. It has to be experienced.” B.K.S. Iyengar
When you think of the body’s senses, do you automatically think of vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell? Most people do. These senses would appear to account for all of the sensory experiences we encounter every day. However, while these senses and how we process them are very important, there are two other senses that greatly affect how we move through life. They are the “hidden senses”.
Proprioception is the sense that tells us where our body is in space and how it moves through space. The receptors for this sense are located in the joints, muscles, ligaments and connective tissues of our bodies. Because proprioception is processed in areas of our brain not associated with conscious awareness, we are usually unaware of these sensations. It is the sense of knowing where our body is in space that keeps us from falling off our chairs, even without paying any attention. Children who have difficulty with the sense of proprioception may move in ways that appear clumsy, slow or uncoordinated. They may use too much force when giving a hug, break pencil tips from pressing to hard when they write or tear bread when spreading jam on bread. They may need to visually monitor there movements to compensate for decreased proprioceptive awareness.
The vestibular sense is our sense of movement and relation to gravity. These receptors are located in the inner ear and tell us whether or not we are moving, how fast we are moving and in what direction we are moving. The vestibular system is a complex system that has an affect upon alertness, muscle tone, posture, vision balance, coordination and even speech & language skills. Depending on whether or not the vestibular system is under or over responsive, children who do not process vestibular information well may constantly seek out movement activities or be fearful of them. They may get dizzy very easily or seem to never get dizzy no matter how much they spin. Because knowing where we are in relation to gravity contributes to our sense of safety, some children may react emotionally or aggressively when movement is forced upon them.
In a very real way, our proprioception and vestibular senses affect how we move through life: clumsily or effortlessly, fearfully or boldly, slowly or rapidly. Yoga is an activity that can have a positive affect of almost all of our senses, but especially on these “hidden senses”. Yoga can be used to provide the input that these senses may need in order help children move more gracefully and confidently. In the next post, I will discuss how yoga can be a total sensory experience.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I see a many kids who have difficulty understanding and using sensory information received from the environment, or from their bodies. This is referred to as sensory processing or sensory integration. I recently read a study looking at the use of Kripalu Yoga as a treatment intervention for a specific sensory processing problem known as overresponsivity. Overresponsivity is an exaggerated response to stimuli. “Persons with sensory overresponsivity respond to typical levels of sensation more quickly, more intensely, and for a longer duration than is usual.” Treatment usually includes occupational therapy that focuses on increasing self-awareness, coping strategies and providing proprioceptive rich activities. (Proprioception is the sense that tells us where our body and limbs are in space.) In this pilot study, the main purpose was to examine the effectiveness of kripalu yoga on decreasing sensory overresponsivity in adults with sensory defensiveness. The subjects were 6 women and 1 man between the ages of 26 and 53. Each subject participated in 6 sessions of kripalu yoga over a 3 week period. The classes were structured with centering activities, a warm up, a series of asana (yoga postures), pranayama (breathing), final relaxation, and closing meditation. The classes began and ended with a “check in” as well. In the end, the subjects showed a decrease in perceived anxiety as well as improved overall sensory processing. Both anxiety and sensory processing were measured by self report questionnaires.
So what doe s all this mean? The results showed that yoga is a beneficial intervention for those with sensory overresponsivenss. In addition, this study also demonstrated what more and more research studies are finding, that yoga decreases a persons perceived anxiety. The reasons why yoga works may be due to the increased proprioceptive awareness, increased overall body awareness and increased motor coordination as well as improved breathing that are benefits of a consistent yoga practice. Although this particular study was done on adults, I believe similar results would be obtained with children, adolescents and teens. Yoga is a sensory-rich activity valuable for children and adults with all types of sensory processing difficulties.
This was a very general synopsis of this research. If you would like more details, the name of the article is: The Use of Kripalu Yoga to Decrease Sensory Overresponsivity: A Pilot Study published in the Special Interest Section Quarterly Sensory Integration. Voulume 31, Number 3, September 2008.