How to Modify Yoga Poses for Children with Motor Impairments

Are you struggling to figure out how to modify yoga poses for your students or children with motor impairments? Students with motor impairments may not be able to do yoga poses that look that what we often see on the internet- and that's perfectly wonderful! We love to help our kiddos get the best they can. Which often means that they get something a bit different than the mainstream. 

Yoga is NOT about what the pose looks like. Yoga is about how the pose makes you FEEL. If we can step away from what we see on Instagram, we can start to really tailor yoga to our students with motor impairments.

T.K.V.Desikchar (one of the most prominent yoga gurus that shaped what yoga is today) said "“The SUCCESS of yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships."

Every time I start to plan a yoga session for a student, I always have to think about their needs, abilities, and limitations. What can they do? What support do they need? 

Let's take a student with Cerebral Palsy who is in a wheelchair. You have a student, Anna, who has Cerebral Palsy that affects her right side and she is in a wheelchair. Her right arm is constantly tensed up at her side because the muscles are very tight. You really think she would benefit from yoga, but everything you see is either standing or using both arms in unison. 

What do you do?

How to modify yoga poses for your students or children with motor impairments. 

1.Identify the purpose of each pose. What are you targeting? What is the purpose behind the pose? 

For each pose you choose, know the purpose behind it. Are you working towards the student being able to bear weight on their hands? Are you working towards the student with Cerebral Palsy having more flexibility or use of their affected arm? Know what you want to focus on. 

For Anna, we want to focus on increasing the range of motion in her right arm. 

2. Does the unmodified pose suit your student's needs?

If you don't know what the pose does, practice it yourself. Where do you feel your muscles engaging? Can your student engage those muscles independently? If not, how can they be assisted in the least intrusive way, so that they can still be successful? (Hint- it's probably some version of Hand-Under-Hand.)

If your student is wheelchair bound, then Mountain Pose performed standing up does not meet their needs. #duh

When you practice Mountain, you feel your chest lift, and your feet feet grounded. 

THAT is what you focus on with Anna. Have her lift her chest and feel her feet on the foot pedals of her wheelchair. 

 

3. Individualize each pose for each student. 

Include variations and adaptations! The purpose of yoga poses is not their look. It's about how they feel. For mobility practitioners, they are also about the muscle movements that we are looking to incorporate. 

Here are some common variations (different ways to do the pose) and adaptations (for students seated in a chair):

Common Variations:

  • Have student sit on a towel if their back is rounded in Easy Pose. 
  • Bring the legs in closer together if the pose has them far apart.
  • Instead of leaning all the way down to the toes, reach for the knees instead. 

 

 Dinosaur Pose. Image 1: Standing with knees coming to hands. Image 2: Hands on knees. Image 3: Hands on ankles.

Dinosaur Pose. Image 1: Standing with knees coming to hands. Image 2: Hands on knees. Image 3: Hands on ankles.

For students in a chair, try these easy adaptations:

  • For Tadasana, have the student sit up tall and feel their spine/chest lift. 
  • For Butterfly, have the student bring their knees out to the side, as much as possible, and then back in. 
  • For Cat/Cow, have the student perform the same spinal motions seated in the chair.
  • For Relaxation (Savasana), have the student simply close their eyes and relax their head. With permission, you can use a weighted blanket or lavender lotion for a more calming affect. 

It may take a few weeks to figure out exactly how a pose may work for one of your students. Give yourself, them, and the entire team a little bit of grace when figuring it out. 

How do you modify yoga poses for your students with motor impairments? 

 

If you want a really fun, simple yoga sequence that you can do with students with motor impairments, I have a special gift for you! 

Check out the Silly Animal Yoga sequence in the Activity Library. It is a really fun yoga sequence that any student can do! 

 Child is seated on a yoga mat with her legs straight out in front of her. A woman is helping the child reach her toes.