For some years in the 1980's I was conducting yoga classes through the Satyananda Yoga Ashram in Melbourne, Australia. During this time I had the great opportunity to do some yoga work with disabled children in various institutions, where they either lived full-time or attended on a daily basis.
The physical, mental and emotional states of these children varied immensely, yet there was something endearing about them all. I felt that they endured a lot of suffering not only in a physical way because of their disabilities but, for those who had difficulties in the communication like being unable to speak or being understood, it seemed particularly frustrating. Many of these children were permanently given drugs to calm their emotions or to treat other problems like epilepsy, and they were not without side-effects like dullness and lethargy. Some groups of children were relatively mobile and mentally bright, so they could, after some practice, even do the sequence of asana known as surya namaskara, the movements of which many people who are not disabled have trouble in co-ordinating! We did not try to make the children perfect in the postures, but rather encouraged them all to join in and have fun whilst making an effort move their bodies actively and imitate the teachers.
We conducted these classes with all the students placed in a circle, and the school teachers and helpers, as well as the yoga teachers, spaced in between the children so that immediate assistance could be given to those needing help and the students could have eye contact with other people, and not be isolated. The children enjoyed this. It was like a game for them. Some children who were withdrawn were encouraged to sit in the circle like everyone else even if they didn't join in with the practices. However, it seemed to me that they knew exactly what was going on and after a period of time some of them would externalize suddenly and do the practices exactly right as they had been watching all the time. We could never underestimate the level of understanding of these children even if, superficially, they seemed 'not there'.
Many of the asana were done while standing in a circle holding hands which helped all the children to interact with others and the more able ones to help the others, especially where balance was required as many of them had trouble in simply standing up straight. Those asana helped to increase balance, improve posture and flexibility of the spine, arms and legs.
We used imagination and sounds to stimulate their interest more. For example doing kati chakrasana was likened to washing one's clothes in a washing machine with the sound 'whoosh, whoosh' with each turn. Then we would bend over and touch our toes, doing pada hastasana, and pick up our clothes and stretch up into tadasana to hang them on the clothes line.
Another favourite was 'ringing the bell' where everyone stood in a circle holding each other's hands. They would lift their arms up to pull an imaginary rope and then lower the arms quickly, at the same time going down into a squat and saying 'ding, dong' loudly. This is quite difficult to perform and the school teachers were pleased about the children's increased co-ordination of body and mind displayed when doing this asana.
Tiryaka tadasana was good for stretching and balancing. We did it by imaging that we were wind-blown trees and making the noise of the wind. Another standing asana involved holding each other's hands and trying to balance on one foot which is not easy for children or adults! without their problems, but is very good for developing co-ordination and balancing the nervous system.
Sitting asana included pawanmuktasana part one and rowing the boat and churning the mill. Rowing the boat was enjoyed by singing Row, row, row your boat and joining hands and rowing together. This helped the slow children to be stimulated and join in. Individual assistance was needed in many cases and if there were enough school staff in the class it could work well to stimulate those lesser able students to do more. We did not try to force the children to co-operate, but made the class so enjoyable that they would be encouraged to join in.
Other asana we used were pawanmuktasana part two for the digestion, legs and abdomen, and also marjariasana and vyaghrasana for co-ordination and the back and spine. Sumeru asana was good for stretching the legs and also to bring a rich supply of blood to the brain which is very important for stimulating the brain. The students enjoyed doing simhasana, the lion's pose, and this was very helpful for improving their speech capacities, for releasing pent-up emotions and relieving ear, nose and throat ailments.
We know that breathing normally through the nose stimulates the brain, so as the majority of these children are mouth breathers this further compounded their mental inadequacies. Many of them had problems with excess mucus in their bodies due to bad diet, drugs, allergies and other factors.
The practice of deep breathing through the nose while sitting was useful for relaxation and stimulating the brain, and some of the more able students could learn simplified nadi shodhana which was even more effective. Abdominal breathing lying on the back with hands on the abdomen was taught for those who were able to perceive it, and everyone would enjoy making the noise of a bee in practising bhramari which helped to relax the brain, diminish anger and frustration, and improve the condition of ears, nose and throat which were commonly troublesome.
The best relaxation technique for these students was the communal singing of kirtan; even the most disabled children's eyes lit up when the harmonium was brought out along with percussion instruments. Here they had an opportunity to express themselves in singing (or at least making a happy sound) as well as rhythm, by clapping hands or playing an instrument. This also improved their co-ordination between mind and body and released emotional tension. They enjoyed themselves thoroughly and everyone could join in some way. This was a good way to end the class and leave them relaxed and happy. If the group was particularly dissipated and unruly at the beginning of the class we used kirtan then, to quieten them down in preparation for the other practices.
Formal relaxation in shavasana was used with brevity and imagination as often they were quite restless. We didn't know how much of the speaking through the practice was understood by the children but the tone of voice and rhythm of the words left them relaxed and refreshed.
Short relaxation performed whilst in shashankasana was found to be very useful for calming the mind and energy, reducing anger and emotional extremes, and bringing a rich supply of blood to the head to stimulate the brain. This practice could be used any time during the class, particularly to quieten the children.
Some of the children had such extreme physical problems that they were unable to move very much, or even to sit up or walk or talk things we take for granted. These children were confined to bed or wheelchairs and many had physical deformities that were painful and limiting for their bodily expression even if they may have been relatively mentally alert. With these children we had to work on a one-to-one basis in small groups. At the same time we were training the staff to be able to continue working with them in our absence, if possible on a daily basis, so that the children would get the most benefit from yoga.
In these cases we very gently manipulated parts of their body in yogic movements. This was mostly confined to working with the joints, as in pawanmuktasana part one, whilst the child was lying on a mattress on the floor. We were careful not to cause them pain which they could communicate through their eyes, and we worked very slowly without forcing their bodies in any way. This helped to release physical tension and stimulate free flow of prana throughout their bodies. It was a slow process because some of their limbs were as tense as steel rods, but it was worthwhile in the long-term if they could become more relaxed and their bodily systems could function better.
For them relaxation consisted of us singing slow kirtan whilst gently massaging or stroking their bodies so they would feel that human contact and caring. We also played soothing kirtan cassettes whilst doing the asana with them which helped them to relax more and surrender to the movements.
The effect of mantra was very powerful for relaxing and centring all the children and we practised a loud Aum chanting with them which also benefited their speech, expression and throat problems.
It was a joy to teach yoga to these children as they had no intellectual barriers to break through. They were accepting of us and the yoga, and as soon as we entered the room or school for classes they would come running over to us for embraces, welcoming us to the class. This showed me that they enjoyed the yoga and obviously realized that they felt better from doing it.
The teachers gained more knowledge of the children's capabilities through seeing them practise yoga, and reported that they functioned better and in a more relaxed manner after the yoga class. So we encouraged them to learn to instruct yoga themselves so they could give the children that uplifting experience every day and reap the benefits as well. These teachers were working in very demanding and stressful conditions, so in some situations we were able to give them relaxation (yoga nidra) for themselves and encouraged them to practise yoga for greater understanding and well-being.