Yoga and autism

Yesterday I posted about Spectrum Yoga Training. Today I write more about why I see yoga as beneficial for those on the autism spectrum. I have no scientific backing, but rather my own experience.

Autism is a learning development disorder that effects a 1 in 88 children in the US (CDC). It occurs on a spectrum, meaning it effects people on different degrees, allowing for high functioning and lower functioning individuals. It does not discriminate based on race or economic background, but perhaps by gender; the prevalence appears to be greater among boys. Autism is usually diagnosed as children reach school age and the symptoms vary from case to case. (See the CDC webpage for more information on statistics and diagnosis.)

There are many theories on the cause of the disorder and scientists and psychologists alike are engrossed in the study of how this disorder develops. Though a cure would be ideal, treatment of the symptoms is where the focus is for most people. For those living with autism or with a family member with autism, simple life tasks can be out of reach. Social interaction is difficult for many on the spectrum as social cues, such as facial expressions and sarcasm, can escape them. Motor function is often limited.

All this being true, how does yoga fit into the life of someone with autism? Isn’t yoga a fitness routine? Can individuals with autism really follow and benefit from the poses? Is it necessary?

No yoga is not only a fitness routine. Yes individuals on the autism spectrum are able follow and benefit from the poses. And no it is not necessary but it has been witnessed to be an effective therapy, a great tool, to help start to bring more peace into the lives of all.

Research is beginning in the field of yoga for autism. There are other programs out there besides Ashrams, all pioneering the way through alternative therapies. The most powerful measure, though, comes from the parents and teachers, those who witness the changes in the children they love and admire.

Yoga is thought I be a highly developed science. Through research people are coming to realize how much wisdom the ancient kriyas (cleansing techniques), asanas (postures) and other meditative techniques hold. If done correctly and practiced over long periods of time, yoga has the power to heal ailments and bring the body back into balance.

Balance is one thing a body that carries autism seems to lack. The nervous system, digestive system and most likely other organ systems have become unbalanced and processing information becomes difficult. Through specifically tailored yoga sequences, we can help restore some balance to the brain and help to calm the nervous system. Te digestive system is aided through light twists and compression postures. The same benefit that our bodies receive from these postures can be modified for those on the spectrum, as well as adding movement and dancing to integrate both sides of the brain and release excess tension and energy.

Speaking from my own experience, I see not only physical improvement in my students as the weeks progress but behavioral improvement as well. In class, they have the freedom to explore techniques that will make them feel more relaxed. They are also interacting with peers in a safe environment. It is a great social tool in addition to the individual benefits.

Every time I walk into class I am amazed at how excited everyone is to start. It has become part of the routine and thy look forward to it. The class is a set series of poses that we rarely ever stray from, save for a few interchangeable poses. There is also a time for chanting (my favorite part) and for final relaxation. In some classes we dance. This all depends on the sensitivities of the class. In some classes we perform reiki on the participants as they lie in savasana.

Teachers and parents are amazed to see the children sit calmly and participate. They marvel at how stims(stimulating behaviors such as writing in the air or flapping the hands) often lessen or completely subside in final relaxation. It is truly miraculous.

So I don’t have much proof but I know that yoga helps. Sharon hopes to continue research through ashrams. She is interested in the healing practice of yoga and expands on this through diet and nutrition. Eventually she hopes to build an ashram, a place where people on the spectrum and those who love them can come together in fellowship. She wants to bring information and programs to as many people as possible as autism does not only effect the body that is hosting it but family and friends as well. Visit Ashrams for Autism for more information.

Please feel free to ask any questions or leave comments below.


Getting Personal: Spectrum Yoga Training

This weekend I attended Level 1 of Spectrum Yoga run and developed by Sharon Manner and Margabandhu of Ashrams for Autism.  This is yoga specifically adapted and designed for the challenges that face those on the Autism spectrum.  This course is a 20 hour Continuing Education course through Samadhi Sun Teacher Training school.  Teaching this community has become a passion and one that has been growing since childhood.

My history of working with autistic and other populations with learning differences is long and varied.  In middle school, there was a special education teacher name Mrs. Kaplan in our school to help the students who were being mainstreamed.  Twice a year or so, she would run trips to a school for children with Cerebral Palsy.  I can still vividly picture making s’mores with the kids there, some my age, some probably much older.  They had this awesome machine with a small bucket where we placed our marshmallows and then pushed a button.  Slowly the bucket would turn over and dump the marshmallow on the graham cracker.  A few seconds in the microwave and all of us were enjoying a gooey sticky mess!

After college, I was a substitute teachers’ aide at a school for children with varied and multiple learning disabilities.  The children there range in age from 5-21.  Each class had its quirks and there were a few times I did not feel able to handle certain situations.  However, most of the time I spent there was a blast.  Although I do understand how teachers can burn out so fast and become frustrated within the system.

Now I work for Ashrams for Autism.  A lot of my work is behind the scenes, editing the training manuals and creating the newsletters.  All of this I do to support and spread the word of this wonderful program.  What I most love and look forward to are the classes I teach in schools and the community.  I started teaching these classes a few months ago and never have I had such a goofy smile glued to my face for so long, or danced with such abandon in front of other people.

Sharon Manner, the founder of Ashrams, took me under her wing and helped me learn the structure of the classes through an apprenticeship of sort.  I was honored to help out, but glad I got to finally attend the formal training to learn the more nuanced aspects of the program and where she hopes to take Ashrams in the future.

In the training we learned about diet and nutrition from a well-respected Integral Yoga teacher and master herbalist, Margabandhu, Director of Integral Yoga Institute in Fair Lawn NJ.  Margabandhu has studied the effects of the diet on children on the spectrum.  He shared his extensive knowledge with us and answered as many questions as time allowed.

There were also speakers there informing us on behavior and the current theories out there.  We had time to speak with a teacher of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) learning style.  The woman was kind and obviously had a wealth of knowledge and a depth of patience I can only hope to develop.  It was interesting to learn, but at times rubbed me the wrong way.  I have no doubt that ABA is a useful tool when working with children with learning differences.  I am sure there are cases where it has worked wonders with children, where it has helped them grow a relationship with the world around them.  I have difficultly believing that ABA is a cure-all.  Nothing is a cure-all in education.  What works for one may not work for the next.  And speaking from my experience teaching in Namibia, this type of conditioned response has the tendency to stifle creativity.  Children with autism can be as creative or possibly more creative than an average child, if given the chance.

The best part of the weekend had to be participating in a typical Spectrum Class.  Sharon asked us all to channel our best autistic self and try to manage a class with all these different distractions, from our own bodies and mouths as well as from our neighbor.  It was fun to see everyone get into their role and realize that deep down inside of us we all have these oddities that we have suppressed through years of being socially acceptable.  I am by no means implying that we know or can know the deep frustration that those with learning disabilities face on a daily basis, however we are often too quick to separate ourselves from any similarities.  I felt this was a golden exercise.  It was heartwarming to see the level of compassion the exercise brought out.

Tomorrow I will post on why we bring yoga to children on the spectrum and how it helps.  In the meantime, check out Ashrams for Autism for more information or if you would like to attend a future training.  If you are in New Jersey and know someone who has a child with autism, direct them here for special parent workshops.  Please feel free to post any questions or comments you have about the program and I will try to address them in future posts or through comment reply.

And you wonder why there is no peace… [poem]

I am not really a poet, but sometimes I feel things in poetry lines.  I wrote this after watching a documentary called Wretches and Jabberers (see below for the trailer).  It is the story of Tracy and Larry and how they learned to communicate their thoughts with the world.  The poem is also inspired by the young men and women I teach through Ashrams for Autism, a non-profit bringing yoga to children on the spectrum.

And you wonder why there is no peace

I am a wretch
I cannot speak
Speak …
Speak the words bouncing in
This brain machine.

I am your wretch.
You squawk and squeak.
SQUAWK! These thoughts
they jab
jab jabber
at the inside ears.

I am the wretch.
I have no beak
This tongue
So ineffectually blab
Blab blabber

I am her wretch
Do you see me?
Or do you see
My hands nab
Nab nabber.

And all you people DO is gab
And blab
ALL you DO is

And all you people DO is gab
And blab
ALL you DO is

You can squawk
You can squeak
You can speak
You can can
You never,
You (sigh) …won’t


Watch the trailer for Wretches and Jabberers.  The movie is available for viewing on Netflix, or visit the website to find other places to watch this thought-provoking documentary.