Yoga can be a fun, engaging, and motivating way for our students to gain better motor, literacy, and self-determination skills. We can use yoga to help our students increase their sensory integration. Yoga can be used to help our students increase their communication skills, their development of language, and even help them increase their technology skills.
Because we can incorporate yoga in to so many aspects of our students’ life, it can be hard to know where to start teaching yoga to students with disabilities if you aren’t a yoga teacher. Where do we start? How do we modify poses? What songs should we use?
I totally get it. When I first started teaching yoga to students with visual impairments, you should have seen the mistakes I made! If you have ever been to one of my presentations, you have probably seen the video of a group yoga class where all of the other adults are sitting in chairs watching me run around like a crazy woman. It’s pretty hilarious when I look back on it. Luckily, none of the kids were ever hurt. Surprisingly, not even the ones who tried to do handstands and climb the padded 8 foot wall.
If you aren’t a yoga teacher, it can be hard to know where to start teaching yoga to students with special needs. There has been a big disconnect between when people first decide they want to start sharing yoga with their students and them actually feeling confident in their yoga sessions. This post should help you start sharing yoga with your students.
How to teach yoga to students with disabilities.
Know Their Needs
Honestly, first it’s with their IEP. I know, I know, that may not be what you wanted to hear. If you work for a very strict school district, you at least have to know WHY you are teaching yoga to that student.
Do they need better spatial awareness skills? Do they constantly turn the wrong direction? Do they need a few poses to increase their confidence before a big street crossing?
If you are hoping to snag a kiddo for an entire class period every week, you probably want to make sure that their needs are detailed in their IEP or their assessment somewhere. If you work for a place that has an abundance of resources, this level of rigor may not be necessary.
For motor skills: Check their reflex integration, their sensory integration, body awareness, spatial awareness, laterality, and directionality concepts. You will also want to check their motor development and motor patterns.
For behavioral skills: Assess whether they need knowledge about their body in order to help calm themselves down, increase confidence, or learn to assess their own behavioral state.
For literacy, technology, self-determination, communication, or other skills: Determine what their areas of need are and how you can incorporate yoga to increase their skills in that area.
If you have a student with multiple needs, determine where your focus will be. Try not to focus on too many things at once.
2. Determine Your Routine.
Every routine needs to be A. Safe, B. Predictable, and C. Fun!
In order for the routine to be safe, make sure that it has a warm up, the standing poses, and a cool down. Check to make sure that the moves you are doing with your student are not causing pain or issues for them in any way. You can refer to the book or google most poses on Yoga Journal if you have concerns about a student.
According to Mille Smith’s article “Routines”, TSBVI, In order for a routine to be predictable, it needs to have:
A clear beginning (tuning in)
The steps of the activity occur in the same sequence.*
Each step is done is the same way each time (same materials, same person, same place).
Assistance is given the same way each time until the student is ready for a lower level of prompt.
The pacing of instruction is precisely maintained until the activity is finished (no side conversations, going off to get something you forgot, or spontaneously adding new or different steps that won't happen the next time the activity is done).
There is a clear signal to the student that the activity is finished. (Valediction)
*I disagree a bit on the fact that the steps of the activity have to occur in the same sequence each time. For students with atypical social development- YES. You can add a “Choice” pose in the sequence to add some variation in to the sequence. But, I would not just randomly choose poses for those students.
For students typical social development- feel free to change it up when the students are getting bored. We often pay “Pick a Pose” game where we have a bunch of yoga cards Brailled out and each student picks a pose. Then each student goes in order and teaches the pose they picked. We never know what is going to happen. It’s kind of fun that way. Sidenote: If we need a calming day, I make sure to take out the energizing poses from the bucket.
Lastly, each routine needs to be fun!
This can be broken up in to: Does your student like silly songs or not? If they like silly songs, google “Children’s Yoga and Meditation Music” by Shakta Kaur Khalsa and add it to the Silly Animal Yoga sequence.
If not, then have some calming music playing in the background. I love this 528hz youtube video or calming guitar music.
3. Pick Your Environment.
You want your environment to be quiet, free of obstacles, and (if possible), away from strong smells. This will help your student be able to focus on your class. So just don’t reheat last night’s salmon right before your yoga class, mmmkay?!
4. Finally, enlist the help of other adults!
If you are going to have a bunch of students at one time, make sure you enlist the help of other adults and train them as to what you want them to do. Don’t be the person running between each student while everyone else sits there and stares at you.
Try this sequence, Silly Animal Yoga:
Sidenote: These instructions are meant as a starting place for you to verbally help your students get in to the poses. Each student will need individualized attention to help them achieve their best pose.
Begin seated in Easy Pose.
Bring your hands to your heart. Clap and GLUE your hands together.
Take a deep breath in and say "Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo" three times.
("Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo" means "I honor the teacher within me.")
Begin seated in Easy Pose.
Place your right hand on the ground behind your right hip.
Place your left hand on your right knee.
Twist to the right.
Hold this pose for 3 breaths and then complete on the other side.
Start from standing.
Glue your hands together.
Straighten your arms.
Bend forward and reach your hands down to the ground, like an elephant's trunk!
Swing your trunk left and right like an elephant!
Put your hands on your knees.
Stomp forward on your mat.
Stomp backward on your mat. What kind of dinosaur are you today? RAAWWWRR!
Place your palms on the ground behind you.
Place the bottoms of your feet on the ground in front of you, as wide as your hips.
Lift your belly up in the air. Now walk around like a crab!
Start seated in Easy Pose
Interlace your fingers below your chin.
Breathe in and lift your elbows up towards the sky.
Breathe out and bring your elbows back down.
Breathe in and out for at least 6 breaths.
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What ideas do you have about teaching yoga to students with disabilities?