Himalaya Yoga Valley Centre

International Yoga Training Centres  
Goa | Ireland

Archive for : March, 2018

Arm Balancing Practice With Lalit

Arm Balancing and Core Strengthening Practice with Lalit

Practice with Lalit as he takes you step by step through some of the key poses to build core strength and establish your arm balancing practice.

During this 25 minute practice you’ll flow through:

– Bakasana
– Eka pada koundinyasana a
– Eka pada koundinyasana b
– Parsva bakasana
– Handstand Practice

Not only do Arm balances build strength in the arms, shoulders and core, they also develop focus and cultivate confidence in your practice.

Sometimes we fall over, but through this process we learn to pick ourselves up and try again, and this becomes a metaphor for how we approach challenges and obstacles in our day to day lives.

When teaching arm balances can be great when working with groups that may have low confidence or self-esteem like sufferers of anxiety or panic attacks.

Want more Yoga with Lalit? Subscribe to our YouTube Channel for loads more great practices.

Watch More: Spinal Twisting with Lalit

 Yoga For Insomnia and Sleep Disorders

 

Yoga, Meditation and Pranayama for Insomnia and Sleep Disorders

By Laura Mendez

What is Sleep?

Sleep is defined in Wikipedia as a “naturally recurring state characterised by reduced or absent consciousness, relatively suspended sensory activity, and inactivity of nearly all voluntary muscles”.

Sleep plays a significant role in brain development. Sleep enables the brain to perform vital housekeeping tasks, such as organising long term memory, integrating new information and repairing and renewing tissue and nerve cells. Sleep allows the mind to sort out past, present and future activities and feelings. In other words, we have to sleep in order to maintain normal levels of cognitive skills such as speech, memory, innovative and flexible thinking.

A good way to understand the role of sleep is to look at what would happen if we didn’t sleep. Lack of sleep has serious effects on our brain’s ability to function. Studies have shown that without enough sleep, a persons ability to perform even simple tasks declines dramatically. Persistent sleep deprivation can cause significant mood swings, erratic behavior, hallucinations, and in the most extreme, yet rare cases, death. Research also shows that sleep-deprived individuals often have difficulty in responding to rapidly changing situations and making rational judgements.

How much Sleep Do We Need?

We’ve all been told that we should get eight hours of sleep per night. This information is an average, and might not be a perfect fit for everyone. Some may need more sleep, and others less, and our needs may change through the years.

Everyone has a sleep need that is likely determined by our genes. This need is the amount of sleep our body requires for us to wake up feeling refreshed. This likely occurs across a spectrum, with “short-sleepers” needing less than average and “long-sleepers” needing more. The average amount of sleep needed changes over our lifetime.

What is insomnia?

According to Timothy McCall M.D in his book “Yoga as a medicine”, the definition of insomnia is “the inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep long enough to feel rested”. It is the most common sleep complaint. Insomnia is often a symptom of another problem, such as stress, anxiety, depression, or an underlying health condition, like heartburn or chronic pain. People with insomnia have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • difficulty falling asleep
  • waking up often during the night and having trouble going back to sleep
  • waking up too early in the morning
  • having un-refreshing sleep
  • having at least one daytime problem such as fatigue, sleepiness, mood swings, lack of concentration, etc.

Insomnia varies in how long it lasts and how often it occurs. Insomnia can be short-term (acute insomnia) or can last a long time (chronic insomnia). It can also come and go, with periods of time when a person has no sleep problems. Acute insomnia can last from one night to a few weeks. Insomnia is called chronic when a person has insomnia at least three nights a week for a month or longer.

What can cause sleep disorders?

Poor sleep can be the result of a variety of medical conditions ranging from depression to chronic pain. Hormonal changes and heartburn can cause insomnia. Working on rotating shifts or travelling across time zones also contribute to sleeplessness. Other factors that lead to poor sleep quality are major life changes, good and bad, such as the death of a loved one, getting a new job or losing your job.

What you ingest can also affect your sleep. Caffeine is a stimulant that can interfere with sleep and it is found not only in coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate, but also in some nonprescription pain relievers. Prescription medication, like blood pressure pills or anti-depressants like Prozac, can all contribute to insomnia. Nicotine and alcohol are other common culprits in sleep problems. Although alcohol may help you drop off, it acts as a stimulant after a few hours, contributing to early morning waking and unrefreshing sleep.
The most common cause for insomnia is stress, causing an hyperarousal of the nervous system and activating the sympathetic nervous system.

Meditation for Insomnia

– It stops an overactive brain – it slows down your constant irritating thought processes which makes it much easier to fall asleep

– The stress hormones in your body are significantly reduced, which makes it easier to rest/fall asleep. This should stop the “(too) early morning wakefulness” too

– As meditation is a relaxation exercise, it greatly stimulates your body and minds natural relaxation response, which makes all kinds of rest(/sleep) come that much easier.

Patanjali advises meditation to stop restlessness. In this state, the mind goes to the root of each problem and finishes with it, and then sleep gives complete rest to the organism. But not all meditative techniques will help you to sleep. Some will actually cause further stimulation and keep you awake.

An example of meditation that can help you to sleep is the mindful breathing meditation:

Lying in bed, keep your awareness focused on the sensations of the breath in your belly, observing the rise and fall of the abdominal muscles.

It’s important to keep your awareness focused on the belly rather than any other part of the breathing process, because this is the most calming place to observe your breathing. The sensations in the chest, throat, and head are actively stimulating, and so observing the breath in those places would be counter-productive.

Pay more attention to the exhale rather than the inhale. The easy way to do this is to count to the end of each exhale, and by consciously making the exhale slightly longer than the inhale. You can also mentally say the word “exhale” as you exhale. The exhale is more relaxing, while the in-breath is more stimulating.

Another meditation you can try before bedtime is focus on your third eye or ajna chakra. This is said to stimulate the pineal gland and, thus, the production of melatonin, a sleep inducing hormone.

Headspace also has a great series of guided meditations for sleep.

Pranayama for Insomnia

Pranayama is the science of breath control. In pranayama, the mind and consciousness is withdrawn deep inside to the core of the being. This stabilises and optimises all functions of the body. Only in this stillness can energy levels of the body be harmonised.

Normally, our thoughts and our breathing are directly related, when we are angry or restless, the number of breaths per minute increases rapidly. By controlling breathing one can control the emotions and reduce unnecessary thoughts.

Here are some great pranayama exercises to promote sleep:

Ujjayi breath

sit in a comfortable position or lie on your back. Inhale and exhale through your nose making a deep, sibilant breath noise, a sound like the one made when you fog a mirror with your breath. Feel the air as it passes the back of your throat. Close your eyes and focus your attention on the sound of the breath in your throat. Allow this attention to take you away from any sounds around you. Continue the practice for a minute or two.

Nadi Sodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing

sit in a comfortable position with a straight spine and keep your eyes closed. Exhale deeply and close your right nostril with the thumb of your right hand. Inhale through your left nostril counting until five. Close your left nostril with the ring finger of your right hand and exhale through the right nostril counting five. Inhale through your right nostril, close the right nostril with the thumb and exhale through your left nostril counting five. This is one cycle. Do as many cycles as it feels comfortable.

Brahmari

sit in a comfortable position. Plug your ears using your index or your middle finger, your forearms are parallel to the floor. After a full inhalation, begin making a gentle buzzing sound as you slowly exhale. The sound should come from the lower throat and should be soothing. Allow your attention to become fully absorbed in the sound of the vibration. When you run out of air, inhale slowly and deeply. Repeat the cycle.
Another breathing routine you can try is slow breathing with the emphasis on gradually lengthening the exhalation. This practice can be done lying in bed. Breathing through the nose, inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of four. Do that twice, then inhale for four and exhale for six. After two times, increase the count of the exhalation to eight and so on, going up to ten and twelve as tolerated. Never stretch the exhalation any longer than is perfectly comfortable, or you will activate your sympathetic nervous system. Once you reach the maximum exhalation length at which you are comfortable, you can continue until you fall asleep.

Watch: Evening Meditation and Pranayama with Lalit

Here are some other simple steps you can take to improve your sleep:

  • Acupuncture is useful in some cases of chronic insomnia.
  • Valerian root, an herbal remedy, appears to be safe for short term use. Other safe herbal sleep aids include passion flower, lemon balm and hops.
  • Studies have found that aromatherapy using diffused essential lavender oil helped elderly patients to sleep longer with fewer periods of restlessness.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and chemicals that interfere with sleep for four to six hours before bedtime. Although alcohol may help bring on sleep, after a few hours it acts as a stimulant, decreasing the quality of sleep later in the night.
  • A quiet, dark and cool environment can help promote sound sleep.
  • Avoid stressful, stimulating activities, like working or discussing emotional issues. If you tend to take your problems to bed, try writing them down, and them putting them aside.
  • If your clock is visible in the dark, turn it to face the wall. Watching the clock during wakeful periods may make you more anxious and less likely to sleep.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep in about 20 minutes, get up and engage in a quiet, restful activity such as reading or listening to music. Keep the lights dim as bright light can stimulate your internal clock. When your eyelids are dropping and you are ready to sleep, return to bed.
  • Finish dinner several hours before bedtime and avoid foods that cause indigestion.
  • Exercise can help you fall asleep and sleep more soundly, but try to finish exercising at least three hours before going to bed.
  • To keep your internal clock set correctly, go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Try to stick as closely as possible to your routine also on weekends.

Taken from Himalaya Yoga Valley Internship assignment ‘Yoga for the Treatment of Sleep Disorders’ By Laura Mendez – Himalaya Yoga Valley Graduate and Intern

You can find about Laura’s teaching by visiting her website

Yoga for PTSD

Yoga and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Amy Bernard

“Recent Research has unveiled the fact that our bodies have great capacity, when it comes to storing bad memories. The body processes some of these memories and the rest is passed onto our nervous system where it rests on our spine untreated for several years to come, until one takes a conscious step to get rid of it” – Christopher Jacoby

In this article, we will be looking at an alternative approach to treating symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Many people throughout the world are afflicted with PTSD and most people are unaware of the steps that they can take in order to treat themselves. Throughout this article we will explore the body’s capability to store trauma and how we can treat their symptoms by practicing components of the sacred science of Yoga.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event resulting in psychological trauma. Such events are usually those that lead the victim to feel that his or her life is in danger. Common traumatic events leading to a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder can be; rape or other forms of sexual assault, war/combat, physical abuse, abandonment early on in life, natural disasters, major accidents, and the death of a loved one.

According to the National Center for PTSD, in the United States, 70% of adults have experienced some sort of trauma in their lifetime with 20% going on to develop PTSD. That means that as many as 31.3 million people in the US suffer from PTSD. It is also estimated that 5% of Americans suffer from PTSD at any given time, that’s 11.2 million people. In the past year alone, the rate of diagnosed veterans has gone up by 50% with 1 in 5 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan having a diagnosis of PTSD.

There are many symptoms for those who suffer from PTSD and not all victims suffer from all symptoms. The symptoms include:

Disassociation – When people experience high levels of fear or anxiety associated with a traumatic situation, one of the mind’s natural defence mechanism to an overwhelming traumatic experience is to separate itself from the experience in order to survive. People have reported, “feeling numb” or, disassociating. This can lead to a person who suffers from PTSD to lack the feeling of connectedness and feeling grounded.

Depression: Most sufferers of PTSD report feeling a sense of worthlessness, a lack of interest in daily activities, sadness, hopelessness and helplessness and overall symptoms of depression.

Panic attacks: These can occur in a victim if they experience similar stimuli to the initial trauma. The breath can quicken and become shallower, the victim can suffer from brief feelings of intense fear, heart palpitations, and nausea.

Flash-backs: These can also occur in a victim if they experience similar stimuli to the initial trauma. Vivid memories of the initial trauma come into the victim’s mind, causing them to feel as if the trauma is taking place at that present moment.

Disturbed sleep patterns: When people suffer from PTSD, they can have racing thoughts, particularly at night time when the mind tries to rest. It may be difficult for the victim to fall asleep and nightmares associated with the trauma may interfere with the victim’s ability to stay asleep.

Feelings of powerlessness: Feeling powerless is very common in those afflicted with PTSD. Since the victim was unable stop the traumatic experience from occurring, especially if it occurred repetitively, the victim is left feeling that he is unable to control anything in his life since he was unable to do so during the event.

Read More: How Yoga can help treat Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Trauma can very easily be stored in both the brain and the body. When a situation is life threatening, often times the victim holds their breath. During this hold, the energetic imprint of the scenario; sight, smell, sound are energetically recorded in the Body. The body and brain then mobilise a great amount of energy to prepare to fight or escape. The brain sends a signal from the heart to the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in ordewr to stimulate the cells in preparation for the flight or fight response. If it is impossible for a person to remedy their situation through the fight or flight response, the mind then kicks into survival mode. Instead of fighting or fleeing, the mind and body may freeze and disassociate from emotional and physical sensations, as such sensations are beyond a person’s capacity to process. If these stress hormones are not properly released through some kind of action, the body and mind can get stuck in this state of high of alertness, and fear and toxins that are created in abundance during the trauma get stored in the body. (Levine)

During the initial trauma, the sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated and very easily becomes accustomed to responding to similar situations in the same way later on. If the sympathetic nervous system continues to over-activate in this manner, neural cell degeneration can occur which can result in disturbed sleep patterns, nightmares, problems with attention, and increased startle responses. Respiratory patterns can be thrown off balance as well resulting in the breath becoming shallower. This decrease in oxygen to the brain can cause anxiety attacks. People that suffer from PTSD typically live in a state of heightened arousal, as their sympathetic nervous system is continuously activated and cortisol and adrenaline is constantly being generated.

How Yoga Can Help

So how can yoga help with symptoms of PTSD? There has been a lot of research conducted about the calming effects of breath work, meditation, and physical exercise, all of which are components of Yoga.

Yoga means union, union of the body, mind, and spirit. When one suffers from a traumatic event, the body and mind often become separated as a survival mechanism. Through yoga, those afflicted with PTSD can bring those components of the Self back together. Yoga helps the practitioner to stay in the moment through focus in the asana and focus during meditation. Yoga inspires the practitioner to bring awareness to how their body is feeling and how they can create quiet and calm in the body through the breath.

In a study conducted in 2005, survivors of the 2004 tsunami in the Andaman Islands were assessed before and after participation in a one week Yoga program. The assessment included polygraph tests of heart rate and breath rate, EKG testing, and self reporting of anxiety, fear and sadness. Over 8 days, 47 survivors participated in 60 minutes of Vivekananda Yoga daily. The regimen included 10 minutes of warm-ups, 20 minutes of asanas, 15 minutes of pranayama, and 15 minutes of guided relaxation.

After completing the final assessment, the polygraph findings showed an overall decrease in heart and breath rate while the overall reports of fear, sadness and anxiety were also less.

More and more trauma centres throughout the United States are introducing Yoga programs into their milieu. Yoga Warriors is a Yoga program offered to war veterans through a trauma centre in Massachusetts. Many veterans suffer from PTSD, having vivid flashbacks that come about due to various triggers. Participants of Yoga Warriors have noted the calming effects of yoga, reporting feeling more present and grounded, experiencing fewer flashbacks, and feeling peace in their minds.

Trauma at the energetic level

Chakras, or energy centers, are found throughout the body and are connected with energy channels called Nadis. There are 7 primary chakras that run along the sushumna nadi (throughout the spine). These energy centers govern different emotions and hold the energy of events that occur throughout one’s life. For the purpose of holding trauma, we will just talk about the first 5 chakras and the effects of trauma on them.

  • Muladhara Chakra is a located at the base of the spine and is the root chakra. It governs all things related to survival. This chakra is influenced by early relationships and how one feels in their environment. The feeling of groundedness comes from this energetic center so if one holds trauma, the root chakra governs the symptoms of disassociating, feeling unsafe, and feeling unbalanced.
  • Swadisthana Chakra is located an inch or two below the navel and is the pleasure center. It governs people’s sense of self worth, attitude toward sex, and is one of the emotional centers. If one holds trauma in the body, swadisthana governs the symptoms of fear, being self negating and overly sensitive. People who suffer from PTSD as a result of rape or other forms of sexual abuse could suffer from an overactive or deficient swadisthana chakra.
  • Manipura Chakra is located above the navel and is the center of personal power. It is influenced by self esteem. People tend to hold their traumas in the Manipura chakra. Those suffering from PTSD often feel like they have no power, no strength in decision making and who they are and these symptoms are governed by this energy center.
  • Anahata Chakra is the located at the heart center and governs compassion, unconditional love, and grief. It is said to be the most vulnerable of all energy centers. Those who suffer from PTSD as a result of not receiving unconditional love early on in life or from losing a loved one will build walls around their Anahata chakra and suffer symptoms governed by this chakra.
  • Vishudha Chakra is located at the throat and governs self expression. Those who suffer from PTSD as a result of emotional abuse often have blockages in their Vishudha Chakra, causing fear around speaking, self expression, and perhaps could be related to a sufferer having a hard time seeking out help.

Knowledge of the chakras can aid the process of treating symptoms of PTSD. Different asanas can be prescribed for balancing and toning the chakras. For example, asanas like Tadasana can be prescribed for balancing the Muladhara chakra, giving the practitioner a sense of balance and becoming grounded. Meditation can also be focused on opening the chakras. Each chakra has its own seed sound, or mantra that can be chanted to stimulate the chakra. They also each have a colour associated with them that can also be visualised when picturing the chakra during a chakra meditation.

Knowledge of Pranayama can also aid the process of treating symptoms of PTSD. Pranayama is a yogic practice of breath work that helps to clear energy channels in the body so that life force energy can flow freely without blockages. Pranayama practice has great effects on the nervous system. Inhalations tend to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system while exhalations tend to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. If the symptoms of PTSD are anxiety and fear, those who practice pranayama will want to focus on deep, prolonged exhalations. For example, the practice of Nadi Sodhana can be used for reducing stress and anxiety. The purpose of practicing this technique is to clear the way for energy to flow more freely. The technique involves breathing through alternate nostrils, one nostril at a time, bringing a sense of calm to the body and mind.

Yoga Class for PTSD

There are many things to be considered if one is going to lead a yoga program for those who suffer from PTSD. Teachers should not do physical adjustments on the students under any circumstances. If the student is putting their body in danger due to misalignment, the teacher should give verbal cues or instruct the student to come out of the pose all together. The space in which the classes are to be conducted should promote feelings of safety and comfort. Teachers should perhaps consider the use of calming colours, aromas, and music in their space as well. It may be a good idea to have chakra themed classes over a 5 week program with one chakra being the focus of the meditation and asana portion of the class.

The following is a suggested outline for a class to be taught to those who suffer from PTSD:

Centering: The students should start in a comfortable seated position and teachers can begin by emphasizing the importance of being present while on the mat. They can begin by visualizing a safe place-maybe somewhere that they go when feeling unsafe, or maybe just a place where they feel loved. With this in mind they should scan throughout the body from head to toe to find out if there invite the student to set an intention of respecting their bodies and the body’s limitations. A talk about respect and compassion for the Self may be introduced.

Pranayama: The teacher can then ask the students to bring awareness to the breath. Nadi Sodhana can be taught here. The teacher can explain to the students the technique of practicing alternate nostril breathing and the benefits of balancing the nadis. The practice should be on 1:1:2 ration with a count of 5 on the inhalation, a count of 5 on the retention, and a count of 10 on the exhalation. After 5 rounds of Nadi Sodhana, the teacher may ask the students to take a few moments in silence and in regular breath to notice if there are any differences in the body and mind after practicing. Ask them to take note of their state of mind before entering the room and now that their practice is complete.

Meditation: A specific chakra can be the focus of a meditation. It may even be a good idea to have a 5 week program with each week having the focus of meditation and asana be a specific chakra. For example, if the theme of the class is to balance the Manipura chakra, the student can start by visualising in their mind’s eye a spinning disc of yellow. They can mentally chant the seed letter, “Ram”. After doing this for a period of time, the teacher can then ask the students to cultivate feelings of personal power and love for themselves.

Warm-Ups: For a safe asana practice, the students should be led through a brief series of warming up the joints. The teacher can introduce the practice of matching movement with breath at this time, again reminding the student how breathing can keep the mind calm while practicing various activities. This should be emphasised throughout the entire practice.

Suggested Asanas: Teachers should keep in mind that people that have been exposed to high degrees of violence, like war veterans hold a different kind of trauma than those who have experienced trauma through sexual abuse. Someone that has experienced the latter may have a more difficult time in postures such as ustrasana or “happy baby” pose due to their vulnerable physical position. The teacher can start the asana portion of the class by cueing Tadasana, or the mountain pose. This pose draws the students focus to their foundation, rooting them into the earth, where they can feel a sense of support, grounding, and a connection to the universe through their feet. So many people feel disconnected from others and the world when they suffer from PTSD and such postures can assist with this. This posture balances the Muladhara (root) Chakra. Other standing postures, such as Vrksasana can be introduced for grounding. During Vrksasana, or the tree pose, the teacher can ask the students to visualize that they have roots coming out of their standing leg, connecting them with the earth and that they are growing up and out of those roots.

Strong asana poses such as Virabhadrasana can be introduced to give the student a sense of power and inner strength. It may be beneficial for the teacher to tell the students about how the name of the pose, warrior, came about. This may further inspire the student to feel empowered and strong while practicing this pose. Balancing postures such as Bakasana and Garudasana can be prescribed as they demand concentration and calm, smooth breath work to hold the pose. Achievement of such postures can also bring about a sense of accomplishment, which does not come easy for those who suffer from PTSD. Students can also make the connection that when faced with a strenuous task, they can get through it with calm and steady breath, concentration, and awareness.

Twisting postures can be introduced as they help to eliminate toxins from the organs, toxins that can be generated from the body’s stress response. Spinal twists also help to balance the Manipura chakra. Pravrita Trikonasana can be introduced here. Forward folds can be introduced to balance the swadisthana chakra. Although the student may not be able to feel the effects of this, the benefits can still be described while practicing the asana. Sarvangasana can be introduced as this posture has so many physical and mental benefits. While the student is in their shoulder stand, the teacher can explain how the inversion is giving rest to the heart while pumping nutrient rich blood to the thyroid gland, calming the nervous system, benefitting sleep patterns, assisting with anxiety, and giving relief to headaches. This posture also stimulates the Vishudha Chakra. The counter position, Matsyasana can be prescribed after as a heart opening asana.

Throughout the asana portion, the teacher should continuously bring the student’s awareness to their breathing. Bringing attention to the fact that holding the breath causes students to easily become unbalanced or panic in their mind therefore talking themselves out of the pose. The teacher should also continue to remind the student about their initial intention to respect and care for their bodies and to treat themselves with love and compassion.

Deep Relaxation: The teacher can end the class with the students in Savasana position. They can be given the option of having their eyes open or closed. The teacher can guide the students through another body scan to release any tension leftover in the body.

There is no evidence that suggests that Yoga alone can cure a person from suffering from PTSD. In fact, this may be a controversial issue to those who believe that only traditional clinical therapy alone will benefit those who suffer from PTSD. The truth is, not everyone is cut out for traditional clinical therapy. But it is clear through my research that Yoga can have great benefits to people suffering from PTSD. It is seen that the practices of Yoga acts directly on the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, the very system that will sooth the nervous system by balancing out the over activity of the sympathetic nervous system. As an added benefit, Yoga is available to everyone. Some people are afraid to talk about things that have happened to them due to feelings of shame and guilt. Others are unable to seek the help of professional clinicians due to finances or health insurance. Perhaps by introducing yoga to those individuals, they can come to a place where they have a little more respect for themselves, understand that they deserve to be well, and find the power to move forward in seeking out further assistance with their issues.

By Amy Bernard – Himalaya Yoga Valley Graduate

 

Works Cited

1. Jacoby, Christopher. Releasing Trauma. The mind, Body, Spirit Connection. www.healthguidance.org
2. Levine, Peter. How Trauma Affects the Body
3. Telles, Shirley. Yoga Reduces Symptoms of Distress in Tsunami Survivors in the Andaman Islands.
4. yogawarriors.com
5. healmyptsd.com

Yoga For Children With Autism

An article on the benefits of Yoga for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

By Anna McColl

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (also known as ASD) is a range of highly complex, lifelong developmental difficulties which affect how a child (or adult) relates to and communicates with other people and how he or she sees the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that although two children with autism may have similar difficulties, it will be to different degrees of severity and are likely to show these with very different behavior.

The most common symptoms and characteristics of Autisms

  • Difficulty with social communication and interaction. Some children are unable to communicate verbally
  • Delayed motor skills
  • Issues with sensitivity especially to noise and light
  • Hyperactivity
  • Repetitive behavior such as flapping or headbanging
  • Language delays or echoing what other people say, known as echolalia
  • Low muscle tone
  • Impaired coordination
  • Anxiety and poor sleep
  • Likes routine and finds it difficult to adapt to change

These symptoms may then cause low self esteem and lack of confidence and often children will be lonely as they find it more difficult to interact with other children and form friendships.

They do not naturally know how to behave in relation to the world around them, they can often feel or be made to feel as though they are doing something wrong. Yoga offers a structured, focused activity with no right or wrongs.

Children with Autism see the world as a mass of people and places that they find very difficult to make sense of. They struggle to or cannot understand other people’s emotions and may not be able to express their own, causing a lot of frustration which can lead to outbursts.

Facts about Autism

  • From the Greek autos meaning “self,” autism literally means “alone”
  • The cause of Autism is unknown but there is strong evidence to suggest that autism can be caused by a variety of physical factors, all of which affect brain development It is also suggested that genetic factors are responsible for some forms of autism.
  • 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders and almost 5 times more boys (1 in 54) than girls (1 in 252).
  • Some children with ASD have extraordinary talents in Music, Art or Maths, they are referred to as Autistic Savants.

Yoga and Autism

As the popularity of Yoga is rapidly increasing in the West it is also starting to become more and more popular as a coping tool to help children with ASD as it seems to be a suitable and effective activity that directly addresses both their emotional and physical symptoms.

Children with Autism often do not naturally know how to behave in relation to the world around them, they can often feel or be made to feel as though they are doing something wrong. Yoga offers a structured, focused activity with no right or wrongs.
Looking at how Yoga directly impacts on the characteristics of Autism in children

Social Communication and Interaction – the relaxation and calming techniques children learn in yoga can be a useful tool to help them self-regulate in social situations. This helps to build their self esteem and confidence which in turns helps them with interacting with other children and adults.

The child is likely to form a bond of trust and friendship with the teacher which may also aid in shaping relationships with other adults or children

Delayed Motor Skills – Practicing asana helps increases muscle tone, develops balance and stability and improves over all body awareness and self regulation. Sequences and transitions between poses could also help with coordination and the development of motor skills.

Hyperactivity – the breathing techniques and deep relaxation that a child learns in yoga can help to bring calm. Children can use the techniques to calm themselves and self regulate in situations outside of the yoga class.
Again relaxation and deep breathing directly help with anxiety issues which may in turn allow for improved sleep. Mantra CD’s can be used in relaxation and also to help aid sleep as the sounds will be associated with calm and peaceful relaxation.
Chanting can help a child find their voice and encourage improvements in Language delays.  Children respond to music and singing.  Chanting opens the throat and encourages deeper controlled breathing and once a child learns a particular chant their confidence will increase.

For children that respond to routines, Yoga offers an orderly and consistent activity which can become part of their weekly schedule. Repeating postures in the same order every week will increase confidence as they grow to know the sequence and what is coming next.

Preparing for yoga

As every child is different and will have different needs it is important to start slowly and for the teacher get to know and connect with the child and their needs. They will need to form a bond and trust with them before even learning asana, this may take 1 session or it may take weeks. One child may be able to move through an entire sequence within a session or two and it may take another, weeks of massage, chanting and stories before they feel ready. It is important to be patient and adhere to the child’s needs and when they are ready they will participate.

Children with high energy may need to only practice seated and grounding postures to begin with to soothe the nervous system.

Ideally a regular space and a regular time should be made for yoga with mats set up in the same place. A space with low lights, plain walls and nothing around that will cause distraction is best.

In a group class it is important to have assistance and ideally one teacher or assistant per child.

Generally children with ASD tend to learn visually so as well as demonstrating and moving with students, the teacher may like to use Yoga cards or other visual tools.

Useful preparatory tools are massage and music – most children respond well to music and stories, and massage is soothing and calming.

 

Watch: Spinal Twisting Sequence with Lalit

 

Example class designed for children suffering ASD

Simple warm ups – counting fingers, side stretching, seated twists, tapping the body all over to awaken awareness of the body.

Pranayama – Breathing techniques will slowly start to strengthen the nervous system and improve concentration, increase breathing and lung capacity and serve as a useful tool outside of the yoga classroom to calm the system.

Sun Salutations – These should be introduced only when the child is ready and after they have learnt the standing asana.

Standing Poses – Warrior 2 and Utthita Trikonasana are great for strengthening the legs and ankles and making a child feel strong and grounded.

Forward Bends – Seated forward bend (pashimotanasana), Standing forward bend (uttanasana) or childs pose (balasana) – forward bends help to quiet the system and are calming. Particularly good for calming the nervous system of a hyperactive child and also for anxiety.

Backbends – Cobra (bhujangasana) and Bow Pose (dhanurasana) can be very accessible and fun. Backbends open the heart centre, increase positive moods and open the lungs help increase lung capacity. The teacher can support the child in these postures as they may not initially have the strength to come up themselves and will they feel safer and help to build the feeling of trust.

Balancing – tree pose, excellent for helping the child to find balance and to increase concentration. If in a group class the students can be encouraged to stand in a circle and hold hands adding an element of working together.

Spinal Twists – seated twists and supine spinal twists to tone the spine and detoxify the organs and increase mobility of the spine.

Savasana – deep relaxation, may be good to include massage and soothing music.

 

Read More: Yoga as a treatment for Anxiety and Panic Attacks

 

Yoga in Programmes for Children with Autism

Get Ready To Learn is a researched and evaluated classroom yoga curriculum created by Anne Buckley-Reen, that prepares students of all abilities for learning. Get Ready To Learn uses yoga postures, breathing techniques and relaxation in a 20 minute sequence every morning before school activities start.
Implemented in 2008 in New York City special needs classrooms it is now used in 20 US states, 500 New York City Classrooms and is also now being implemented in the UK.

A 2012 study was published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy found yoga helped improve school performance and sustained attention in children with autism.  The Get Ready To Learn programme was conducted in an NY school for 16 weeks and students behaviour was measured before and after showing significant impact on key classroom behaviours.

The Special Yoga Centre in London put together a monitoring and evaluation of the GTRL Programme which showed that more than 68% of the children involved in the programme are showing improvements in one or more of attention, performance, ability to transition, self regulation and communication.
“We have found that children with ASD/developmental challenges, experience the following significant improvements by practising yoga regularly:
Improved sleep, self-regulaton, concentration, ability to transition between activities, behaviour, communication, toileting, awareness, well-being, gross motor skills, balance, coordination and mood” –  The Special Yoga Centre.

Yoga to help children with Autism is still a relatively new concept, so there hasn’t been a lot of research recorded, but judging by the number of organizations beginning to use Yoga as a therapeutic tool, it seems as though it is having very positive effects. Yoga for children has been popular for some time now so it seems to make sense that it is also being used for children with Autism. There are also an increasing number of specialist trainings becoming available;

Samadhi Sun in New Jersey offer a level 1 and 2 Yoga for Autism teacher Training as well as workshops for families and teachers of Individuals on the Autistic Spectrum.

The Yoga for the Special Child programme and training founded by Sonia Sumar in Brasil is now also being taught in New York, London, India, Dubai, California, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Alaska, Denmark, Bahamas, Spain and Australia.

Having successfully used yoga to combat the stress of their own busy lives, Dion and Stacey Betts discovered its potential for their son who has Asperger Syndrome.  They wrote the book “Yoga for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” which is fully illustrated step by step guide for parents and carers  wishing to use simple techniques to calm the symptoms of ASD.

Conclusion

With an increase of 78% in Autism rates from 2002 to 2008 and no known cure it is important to find methods which will assist children and provide them with tools to cope and develop.
What makes Yoga particularly effective not only helps to provide calm, but actually provides the child with tools and techniques that he or she can then take home and use themselves. The three key techniques being;
Pranayama – helps with self regulation and self awareness and regular breathing
Asana – builds strength and flexibility. Increases balance, coordination and helps to develop motor skills and increase concentration and attention span
Relaxation – helps soothe the nervous system, promoting calm and stillness and reduces anxiety
Yoga seems to be a promising therapy as it directly addresses the symptoms of Autism in children. It helps to increase body awareness, improve motor skills, helps with transition and to develop self esteem and communication skills. All of these skills are vital in encouraging children on the Autistic Spectrum to integrate better in to the world around them.

By Anna McColl – Himalaya Yoga Valley Graduate and Intern

You can find out more about Anna’s work as an international Yoga Teacher at her website yogawanders.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.