A Yoga-Based Program for Regular and Exceptional Student Education
(This article was published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, IAYT in 2004.)
School is a stressful place, especially for those with special needs. Sitting still, paying attention, staying on task are not skills that come easily to anxious learners, yet classroom learning is very difficult without these constraints. There are few opportunities in most educational curricula to train students in the skills required for self-control and focusing the mind. Any Yoga teacher knows, however, that control of the body and mind are skills that one can learn with instruction and practice. Creative RelaxationSM is a Yoga-based program designed to teach students to strengthen, stretch, and calm the body, quiet the mind, and control the breathing. The teaching principles of Creative Relaxationare as follows: make a sacred space, engage the student, provide tools for success, and create opportunities for independence. This article will demonstrate ways to apply these principles in an educational setting for regular and exceptional student education, based on the experience of the author as a consultant in the public school system since 1981. Anecdotal data and examples will be given from the author’s work with children in regular education, as well as with those with autism and related disabilities, emotional handicaps, ADHD, and learning disabilities, and with anxious learners.
In addition, the author collaborated with school professionals in a study to evaluate the effectiveness of a Yoga-based relaxation program for six children with autism over an eight-week period. A summary of the group’s findings is presented in this article.
When I first began teaching Yoga in the physical education department at a southern Florida community college in 1980, I was concurrently teaching freshman English composition. In my English classes, my students strived to complete the perfect sentence, to distinguish between subject and object pronouns, and to eliminate passive voice from their writing. Across campus in the gymnasium, my Yoga students perfected their breathing, distinguished between downward and upward facing dog, and worked to quiet their minds. My Yoga students left class humming and serene; my English students were drenched in sweat and growing increasingly tense. It did not seem fair. There had to be some way to make English composition, a subject nearly as dear to my heart as Yoga, less painful. One test day, I began class by guiding my students through simple neck rotations, shoulder shrugs, and abdominal breathing exercises. The students looked at one another in bewilderment, but I noticed a slight lessening of the tension level in the room. I began teaching abdominal breathing and progressive muscle relaxation before writing assignments, and I watched my students’ faces relax as their breathing deepened. In time, my students regularly began to request these relaxation techniques at the beginning of class. Bringing Yoga into a conventional classroom was the beginning of my work in Creative Relaxation.
Since that time, I have taught Yoga-based exercise in scores of classrooms and provided trainings to hundreds of teachers, therapists, and other school staff in varying forms of Yoga-based therapies.
Yoga is a complex and magnificent life study. Its rich and varied postures, philosophic depths, and codes of conduct make it an art, a science, a way of being. Just as teaching Yoga to special needs children does not make one an expert on exceptional children, teaching Yoga-based exercise to children does not make a classroom teacher into a Yoga teacher. Teaching Yoga requires a lifetime commitment to practice and study. Nonetheless, most of us who do practice and teach Yoga while living in this demanding world have improvised ways to incorporate our practice into unlikely settings. My teacher recommends practicing balance poses while standing in line at the grocery store. Breathing practices anchor us while waiting in a hospital for news about a loved one. Finding a way to liberate one’s spine on an airplane is a lesson in adaptability. A yogin cannot always assume sarvângâsana, (shoulder stand), even when he knows it is the posture most needed at a given moment. Instead we find shortcuts and variations that suit the demands of the moment.
Similarly, Creative Relaxationadapts Yoga exercises, including the elements of body awareness and control, strength, flexibility, balance, breathing, and relaxation, for use in public school education. Training classroom teachers who are generally not Yoga teachers to implement this program has brought the principles of Yoga into a large sector that might otherwise not have been so disposed. The components of Creative Relaxation include creating a sacred space, engaging the student, providing tools for success, and providing opportunities for independence.
Most schools are noisy, busy, demanding places—bells ring, walkie-talkies squawk, kids and teachers yell. There is always somewhere one is expected to be and something one is expected to do. There is little time that belongs to the student—the adults around him determine his activities. The student is continually challenged, both intellectually and socially. As observed by one school social worker, “All of the rules that are necessary to maintain order in a classroom are contrary to the instincts of children. Kids are not designed to sit quietly. They jump and scream and dance and kick.” Yet there is scarcely a place inside a school where such activities are acceptable or even tolerated. School imposes restraints on children that are contrary to their nature. The physical environment, lack of control, and continual demands create stress.
What is Stress?
Hans Selye described stress as the “non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” There are certain alarms that most humans respond to consistently, yet we are all subject to unexpected reactions that upset the internal equilibrium. “Stress is caused by many things, both pleasant and unpleasant . . . [Even] “such essentially different things as cold, heat . . . sorrow and joy . . . provoke an identical biochemical reaction in the body.”1 Yet not all stress impacts equally on the body: Mental frustration can be destructive and far more likely to produce disease, whereas the exertion of physical exercise can “relax and help us withstand mental frustration.”2
Learning, Stress, and the Brain
Research shows that stimulation and exercise enhance learning. Adult mice that are moved from a sterile, simple cage to a larger one with running wheels and toys, for example, will experience a “significant increase in neurogenesis,” the production of new brain cells.3 Experiments show that this type of increase “gave rise to enhanced memory and motor coordination.”4
Learning, exercise, and environmental enrichment can all stimulate an increase in brain cells in the hippocampus, where the brain stores information.5 However, “stress is known to restrict the number of newly generated neurons in the hippocampus.”6 This helps explain why anxious individuals have such difficulty learning and retaining information.
Individuals under extreme stress often become physically aggressive. “Anxiety seems to wreak havoc in the limbic system, the brain region concerned with emotion,” explains Robert Sapolsky. The amygdala, the portion of the brain that responds to fear, “is also central to aggression, underlying the fact that aggression can be rooted in fear.”7
Making sense of the world is often challenging to those with special needs. Anxious learners are extremely vulnerable to stress, and the sources of their stress may be less predictable and less consistent than those of others. Children with ADHD are characterized as impulsive, inattentive, and hyperactive8 in varying combinations. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), they may be “easily distracted, have difficulties with concentration . . . [and] have outbursts of temper . . . due to anxiety or depression.”9 Those with emotional handicaps often exhibit “hostile aggressiveness” and have “short attention spans and unrealistic fears.”10 Children with learning disabilities are often distractible11 and “may vent their frustration by acting out.”12 They often have perceptual problems, making it difficult to learn by visual and auditory means.13 Children within the autism spectrum14 may exhibit aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior, resistance to change, anxiety . . . and over- or under-sensitivity.15 “Most people automatically know when their stress is so high that they must get out of a situation quickly, . . . but those with autism must be taught . . . ways to escape overwhelming stress before they lose control.”16
As varied as children with special needs are, they may share common responses to stress. “Symptoms exhibited by an anxious learner include bodily sensations such as irregular breathing, churning stomach, sweating, trembling, racing heart, nervousness, sweaty palms, nausea . . . etc.” Anxious learners are encouraged to “[Do] something physical . . . notice body posture and tense muscles and . . . make an effort to change the posture and relax the muscles by taking deep controlled breaths, tensing and relaxing neck, arm and back muscles, stretch, bend forward, backward, sideways . . .”17
Yoga Calms the Body
“Science shows that meditation, massage, yoga—even laughter—can change bad habits in the brain.” Methods such as Herbert Benson’s “relaxation response” for controlling the breath and focusing the mind lower blood pressure, slow breathing, and create an overall calm. However, “if sitting in one position for more than five minutes sounds impossible, you might try yoga,” suggests Newsweek. One anxious individual describes the stretching and deep breathing of Yoga as her “tranquilizer.”18
I have observed Yoga’s calming effects on hundreds of children with severe emotional disturbances. Kids who were so guarded that they wore heavy down vests and flannel shirts even in the south Florida tropical heat would begin to soften. They would open themselves in matsyâsana (fish pose) and even allow me, after I asked and they had learned to trust me, to lift them by the torso, to open them more. They would peel off their jackets during balâsana (child’s pose) so they could feel a caring hand on their back, and as soon as that was over, they would put back on all the layers they had been wearing. This willingness by children—some of whom had lived with abuse, and some of whom had in many cases perpetrated abuse— to be touched, to connect with another human in a way that could not be misconstrued, was a vivid lesson in Yoga’s relaxing properties.
Yoga Quiets the Mind
Drugs such as tranquilizers work in part by relaxing muscles, as well as by curbing the stress reactions of the brain. “The result is a calm body—and a less anxious body means a less anxious brain.” The challenge is to achieve this state of release without risking the “sedating and addictive” properties of medications.19 Since ancient times, Yoga scholars have been keenly aware of the interconnection of body and mind. Patanjali, the sage who is believed to have codified the system of Yoga in the second century20 identified this corollary: “(Mental) pain, despair, nervousness, and hard breathing are the symptoms of a distracted condition of mind.” 21 Patanjali’s instructions for stilling the mind include âsana (Yoga posture) and prânâyâma (breath control).22 This is the reason yogins and yoginîs work so hard to hone the body, making it pliable and strong, to do the more demanding work of sitting and quieting the mind.23
Yoga Increases Strength, Flexibility, Balance
B. K. S. Iyengar reports, “Yoga, unlike other forms of exercise, keeps the nervous system elastic and capable of bearing stress . . . Yoga involves the equal exertion of all parts of the body and does not overstrain any one part.” 24 According to The Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, “Standing postures develop overall strength and flexibility . . .”25 Backbending is “invigorating . . . stimulating the sympathetic nervous system . . .”26 Forward bending . . . tends to quiet rather than stimulate . . . enhancing digestion . . . [and providing] training for meditation.”27 Twisting helps in “improving circulation in the great supportive systems of the body . . .”28 Iyengar believes that inversions “simultaneously calm and stimulate the brain . . . activate glands and vital organs for supplying fresh blood to the brain, making it alert but calm.”29
Yoga Breathing Fosters Self-control
Anxious students often breathe shallowly, heaving the chest. This is functional for short-term responses to stress, but habitually breathing in this manner predisposes the body toward an activated sympathetic nervous system. In fact, chest (thoracic) breathing is directly related to the activation of the fight or flight syndrome. However, “the workload of the cardio-respiratory system may be reduced by as much as 50% by changing from thoracic to diaphragmatic breathing.”30 With coaching, students can learn to observe and gradually deepen their breathing.
As one is able to change the breath, often the mind will follow into a more relaxed state.
Early in my teaching career, I had a Yoga student who had severe asthma. At the end of the semester, she approached me nearly in tears. All her life, she explained, people had been telling her to relax. “Try to relax when you can’t breathe,” she laughed. “And the more I panicked because I couldn’t calm down, the more breathless I became. In my 19 years of struggling with this condition, it wasn’t until now, through Yoga, that anyone ever taught me how to relax.”
Creative Relaxation: Bringing Yoga into the School Setting
Creative Relaxation adapts Yoga âsanas and prânâyama to suit the special needs of children and the physical environment of the classroom. The author has conducted trainings for hundreds of educators since 1981, helping them implement these techniques into their own lives and their curricula. The teaching principles of Creative Relaxation are as follows: create a sacred space, engage the student, provide tools for success, and provide opportunities for independence.
Creating Sacred Space
Feeling safe is essential to relaxation. Rules must be clear and enforced without judgment. Mats, carpet samples, or masking tape help children identify their personal space. Start with individual students or small groups of two or three in brief sessions to assure safety and quiet. To make Creative Relaxation a quiet time, ask students to hold questions and comments until a designated time in the session; let them speak with permission before they lose control. By carefully observing the students, the teacher can extend the periods between talk at a pace that is tolerable for them.
Soft music, soft lights, quiet voices can change the atmosphere of even the most ordinary room. An attitude of ahimsâ (do no harm) on the part of the teacher creates a mood within the classroom as well. As long as a child is not hurting himself or another, his efforts are acceptable. Creative Relaxation is NEVER a punishment. If a child is noncompliant, he may be asked to sit out so that his actions do not prevent others from participating. Praise quiet in the room, and include those who appear not to be participating when they are quiet, too.
While working with a class of middle school children with varying exceptionalities, I noticed a subtle form of participation among one of the children with autism. He had very limited oral language and needed lots of coaching to stay on his mat and within his personal space. The other students in the class were able to enjoy a five-minute shavâsana (corpse pose), but this student never actually lay down. During this portion of class, he was welcome to sit in a chair close to me, as long as he was quiet. He often began pacing, but could usually be coaxed into sitting again. This student, a heavy mouth breather, frequently panted with mounting frustration throughout the day. I noticed that while I guided the other students through shavâsana, his breathing became slower and quieter. Although it might appear that he was not participating in the activity, the audible change in his breathing suggested otherwise.
Noting improved flexibility can be motivating for some. High school aged students at a center for severely emotionally disturbed children were sometimes reluctant to participate in Yoga practice.31 My colleague and I engaged them by measuring where their hands touched their bodies in uttanâsana (“weeping willow” pose) or pascimottânâsana (“folded leaf” pose) on the first day of class. Waiting for us to come around the room, students held this stretch and their hamstrings lengthened. As they became more comfortable in the pose, the hold became self-rewarding. Periodically, we would remeasure, especially when we noted significant increases in flexibility among reluctant participants. Soon students began to point out and share their own “landmarks” of progress in their postures.
Engaging students is facilitated by speaking the language of the child—adapting the teaching style to that which most closely matches the child’s learning style. In schools, most information is presented orally. Children with autism, however, tend to be visual learners,32 and those with learning disabilities and attention deficits are often kinesthetic/tactile learners.33 In Creative Relaxation, as in Yoga, we combine learning modes.
Yoga is ideal for visual learners because the teacher positions herself “on the student’s eye level,” using the “body as a visual tool.” 34 Visual aids such as drawings of poses are especially helpful for children with autism.
By breaking the process into steps that address each modality, the teacher engages diverse learners.
In teaching pascimottânâsana (“folded leaf” pose), for example, the student first learns to sweep the arms up and down while sitting in dandâsana (staff pose). The teacher may tap the hands to cue the motion or move the child’s arm.This kinesthetic/tactile experience helps clarify “up” and “down,” challenging concepts for some children.To help the child coordinate the upward movement with the inhalation and the downward with the exhalation, the teacher sits alongside the child and breathes audibly. Next add the chant, “hands go up, hands go down,” in rhythm with the motion and breath. As the child follows the movement of his body, the feeling of his breath, the sound of his own voice guiding him, and the teacher’s visual instructions, he is learning with all his senses. I have seen many “distracted” learners totally absorbed in this manner.
Making it fun
Making Yoga fun is even more important than form in Creative Relaxation. “Shared laughter,” according to Steven Gutstein, “becomes a motivating factor” in early childhood development. He believes that this skill can be taught through “experience sharing.” 35 In marjariâsana (cat pose), for example, move from happy cat—look up, smile, and say “meow”—to angry cat—look down, round up your back, and don’t say a word. By switching from noisy to quiet and back, the teacher maintains control, yet students still have a chance to play. Simhâsana (lion pose, or facial stretch) can be done with a roar or silently. In sarvângâsana (shoulder stand or candle), the teacher “lights” each candle and then gently blows them out. Children may do the candle by lying on their backs, raising one leg at a time. All effort is praised—as the Bhagavad-Gîtâ (2:50)says, “The wise man lets go of all results, whether good or bad, and is focused on the action alone . . .”36
Providing Tools for Success
Providing stimulation and challenge within the framework of the familiar is helpful for anxious children, who often dislike change. “Organization and structure reduce anxiety from distractions and overwhelming sensory stimulation” writes Janice Janzen. To help learners “gain control . . . include frequent opportunities to move about and engage in strenuous exercise” and a “balance of activities that are . . . familiar and new, . . . active and quiet.”37 Gutstein suggests working “within expandable, evolving frameworks.” 38 In Yoga we build on basic structures. Vîrabhadrâsana (warrior pose) is the starting point for many standing poses, just as sukhâsana (easy pose) is when seated. When working with children with anxiety, keep to a routine. I begin and end every class with the HUH breath (inhale, shoulders up; exhale, drop shoulders). Simple, systematic repetition enables students to feel successful and comfortable.
Providing students with tools for success requires simplifying the process so that they lose neither enthusiasm nor self-esteem during the learning process. Break each posture into its smallest steps, and provide practice until each step is mastered. Coordinating the motion of the eyes and head as in neck rotation provides practice with maintaining equilibrium during slow, steady motion. Before balancing, practice training the eyes to stay focused on an object such as a focus circle39 or colored paper on the floor. Before raising the foot even an inch off the ground, help the children identify the correct foot by wiggling the toes on that side. Students may use a wall for security and are encouraged to touch down at any point. Part of the teacher’s ability to maintain a sacred space is to inform the students that each variation is a “correct” form of the posture. With this sequential approach, students become proficient with each phase of an âsana and have the choice to further challenge themselves or not.
For many children, there is a physiological reward for further challenge. “Stress affects dopamine, the main currency of the pleasure pathway . . . Moderate and transient amounts of stress . . . increase dopamine release in the pleasure pathways.” 40 Finding the balance between acceptable and unacceptable amounts of stress requires vigilant observation on the part of the teacher. It has been my experience that quitting while the student is feeling successful increases willingness to return to the activity and attempt further challenges in the future. Robert Sapolski’s findings offer an explanation for that pattern: “More dopamine can lead to a feeling of well-being in a situation of moderate . . . stress during which a subject is challenged briefly and not too severely . . .” When the challenge becomes too taxing, however, there is an excess of the stress hormone. Then “dopamine production is curbed and the feelings of pleasure fade.” 41
Opportunities for Independence
Relief through touch pressure
The “modality of touch, . . . along with . . . vision and the vestibular sense, make it possible for us to maintain our balance and equilibrium.” 42 As mentioned, children with special needs often have sensory challenges, including extremes in their sensitivity to touch and poor body awareness. Interestingly, “the autistic child senses input from his muscles and joints better than he does through his eyes and ears . . .” according to Jane Ayres. “Very heavy touch-pressure is the kind of tactile stimulation that often produces a positive response in the autistic child . . . He wants to feel something, but perhaps only very strong sensations register in his brain. Some of these children act as though their . . . [body] felt uncomfortable much of the time, and the hard pressure made them feel better.”43
This characteristic may suit them to Hatha-Yoga. In shalabhâsana (locust pose or “prone boat” pose), one can “feel the contact of the skin on the floor, deep pressure in the abdomen, and awareness of extension in the . . . extremities,”explains David Coulter.Thus strenuous postures enhance an individual’s body awareness through his or her sense of touch. Further, Yoga offers a motivation for stillness because it may offer a respite from sensory input. “Touch receptors adapt even more rapidly than receptors in the vestibular system, which means that they stop sending signals to the CNS after a few seconds of stillness . . . If your posture is stable, the receptors for touch stop sending signals back to the brain . . .”44
I have observed that some of the students with autism prefer to do adhomukha-shvanâsana (downward facing dog pose) with their head on the floor, in a variation of shashankâsana (hare pose) with the legs extended and significant weight placed on the top of the head, and I encourage teachers to cue their students to assume this pose as an alternative to head banging. Perhaps self-injury is the only method some children have to distract themselves from their constant state of hypersensitivity. Yoga postures could provide an independent opportunity for children with extreme tactile sensitivity to experience a reprieve, even if just for a moment.
Sense of control
Early researchers discovered that “stress is exacerbated if there is no outlet for frustration, no sense of control . . .”45 Among the aims of Creative Relaxation is to give children some experience of control. By associating an action that relieves stress with a particular signal, teachers can cue students as soon as they observe their tension escalate. A teacher may say, “Take five slow deep breaths,”46 for example, as soon as she sees a student exhibiting signs of frustration. In that way, the student begins the process of releasing tension rather than increasing it. By giving the student a picture descriptive of those directions, combining visual and verbal cues, and lots of practice in the stress relieving activity when the student is comfortable, the teacher begins to create an association for the child between the prompt and the calming feelings. In 1978, Cautela and Groden “developed a relaxation program for persons with special needs” to be used at the GrodenCenter. Their goal was to increase “self-control” by substituting a “relaxation response in place of the typical maladaptive behaviors” exhibited during high stress, such as acting out or aggressiveness. In 1988 Groden and Prince reported “44% of the clients are able to relax when given a verbal cue by their teacher . . ., and another 31% were able to use the procedure independently.” 47
1. Selye, Hans. Stress Without Distress. New York: New American Library, 1974, p. 16.
2. Ibid., pp. 73–74.
3. Gage, Fred. Brain, repair yourself. Scientific American, Sep 2003, p. 52.
4. Halloway, Marguerite. The mutable brain. Scientific American, Sep 2003, p. 81.
5. Sapolsky, Robert. Taming Stress. Scientific American, Sep 2003, p. 93.
6. Gage, op. cit., p. 50.
7. Sapolsky, op. cit., pp. 87–90.
8. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). 4th ed. Text revision. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 78.
9. Neuwirth, Sharyn. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health, 1996. URL: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/adhd.cfm.
10. Seefeldt, Carol, and Nita Barbour. Early Childhood Education. New York: Macmillan, 1990, p. 91.
11. Ibid., pp. 84–85.
12. Gorman, Christine. The new science of dyslexia. Time Magazine, 28 Jul 2003, p. 54.
13. Hall, Nancy. RESCUE, a Handbook of Remedial Reading Techniques. Stevenshill, Mich.: Educational Services, 1969, p. 4.
14. For more information, see Molly Kenny, “Integrated Movement TherapyTM: Yoga-based therapy as a viable and effective intervention for autism spectrum and related disorders,” International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 2002, no. 12, p. 71–72.
15. Autism Society of America. Common Characteristics of Autism. URL: http://www.autism-socieyt.org/site/PageServer.
16. Janzen, Janice. Understanding the Nature of Autism. San Antonio, Tex.: Therapy Skill Builders, 1996, pp. 358–359.
17. Child Guidance Clinic, School Based Support Services, Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada. URL: http://www.childguidanceclinic.ca/parents_anxiety.htm.
18. Kalb, Claudia. Coping with anxiety. Newsweek, 24 Feb 2002, p. 54.
19. Sapolski, op. cit., p. 91.
20. Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition. Prescott, Ariz.: Hohm Press, 1998, p. 284.
21. Taimni, I. K.. The Science of Breath. Wheaton, Ill.: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1975, p. 82.
22. Feuerstein, op. cit., p. 299.
23. Taimni, op. cit., pp. 252–253.
24. Iyengar, B. K. S. Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2001, p. 19.
25. Coulter, H. David. The Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. Honesdale, Pa.: Body and Breath, 2001, p. 272.
26. Ibid., p. 324.
27. Ibid., p. 381.
28. Ibid., p. 435.
29. Iyengar, op. cit., p. 11.
30. Nuernberger, Phil. Freedom from Stress, a Holistic Approach. Honesdale, Pa.: The Himalayan International Institute, 1981, pp. 173–178.
31. For more information, see Libby Robold, “Yoga and emotional healing for aggressive youth,” International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 2002, no. 12, p. 83.
32. Hodgdon, Linda. Ten Keys to Becoming a Better Educator: Solving Behavioral Problems in Autism. Troy, Mich.: QuickRoberts Publishing, 1999, pp. 8–9.
33. Hall, op. cit. pp. 9–10.
34. Hodgdon, op. cit., pp. 8–9.
35. Gutstein, Steve, and Rachelle Sheely. Relationship Development Intervention. URL: http://www.connectionscenter.com.
36. Mitchell, Stephen. Bhagavad Gita, a New Translation. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000, p. 55.
37. Janzen, op. cit., p. 152.
38. Gutstein, op. cit.
39. Goldberg, L., S. Miller, D. Collins, and D. Morales. S.T.O.P. and RELAX, a Visual Curriculum. ShawneeMission, Kan.: Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2004.
40. Sapolski, op. cit., p. 93.
42. Coulter, op. cit., p. 51.
43. Ayres, A. J. Sensory Integration and the Child. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services, 1995, p. 125.
44. Coulter, op. cit., p. 51.
45. Sapolsky, op. cit., p. 88.
46. Goldberg, Miller, Collins and Morales, op. cit.
47. Groden, J., J. R. Cautela, S. Prince, and J. Berryman. The impact of stress and anxiety on individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. In E. Schopler and G. B. Mesibov, eds., Behavioral Issues in Autism (New York: Plenum Press, 1994), p. 186.
Training the Special Needs Child
The following pilot project was conducted in spring 2001 by Louise Goldberg, Sally Miller, Debra Collins, and Daniela Morales.
The purpose was to teach relaxation skills to students with autism so that they could function more productively in stressful situations.
Participants were upper elementary school children with autism from self-contained classes and regular education with support. The six students were chosen because their teachers and parents documented overt signs of anxiety and dysfunction under stress. They would soon make the transition to middle school, and they lacked some or many of the skills needed to cope with changes in their routine. One or more of them were prone to violent outbursts. Students were divided into two groups, and they participated in 30-minute sessions three times a week for approximately eight weeks.
The relaxation program48 included Yoga exercises and breathing, role-playing, guided imagery, discussion, visual aids, music and soft lighting, stories, and mnemonics. I taught each class with the assistance of at least one of the professional team. Each class consisted of exercises to 1) strengthen postural muscles, 2) increase flexibility, 3) improve balance, 4) practice abdominal breathing, and 5) quiet the mind through progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, and periods of silence, as well as 6) generalization—learning to use these skills in other settings, including the classroom and home.
The school staff and I made presentations to parents and teachers so they would be able to reinforce the relaxation skills the children were learning. I taught a relaxation session comparable to the ones the children did in school to interested parents in an evening presentation, and also held trainings for teachers and support staff. I instructed members of the research team in hands-on correction techniques and suitable Yoga exercises. They coached me in approaches specific to the needs of children with autism.
We developed stories based on the concept by Carol Gray49 to help ease anxiety by preparing children for a change in the curriculum or any unfamiliar event. We devised visual cues with words like QUIET ZONE and S.T.O.P.50 to help create an atmosphere conducive to relaxation.
Evaluation was by pre and post rating scales from teachers and parents; measurement of pulse rates before and after sessions; observation of students’ breathing patterns and muscle tone before, during, and after exercises; teachers’ observations of overt signs of stress vs. relaxation in target situations; and anecdotal reports from teachers, parents, and children who participated. Students were videotaped early and late in the training.
Evaluation results: Rating scales completed by parents and teachers demonstrated lower stress levels. In almost every session, pulse rates taken at the end of relaxation class were lower than they were at the beginning of the sessions. 51 The mean pulse rate (based on a 10-second reading) before class was 17.577, and the mean pulse rate after class was 14.954. Using the two-sample-t-test, the difference was found to be statistically significant (p < 0.01) (see Table 1).
In addition, students demonstrated deeper breathing and increased stillness, as evidenced by video clips from early and late in the training. Improved muscle tone enabled students to do more challenging postures and sit straighter. They were successful at following more complex instructions. Students demonstrated increased awareness of the parts of their body and how to move them. Their ability to fix the eyes on one point and balance on one foot increased significantly. Students learned to respond to verbal cues such as “relax” and “breathe.” Classroom teachers reported increased alertness after sessions and more self-monitoring; teachers were able to use the relaxation cues to help children de-escalate in volatile situations.
Parents observed children using relaxation techniques during stressful situations and before bed. Students shared scenarios of using relaxation techniques and mnemonics to help calm themselves. One parent reported that her daughter was having a very difficult time when her dentist attempted to take impressions of her teeth. After several unsuccessful tries, she independently went through the S.T.O.P.mnemonic; she was then able to sit calmly while the dentist completed the impressions.
What’s Happening Today
In schools I have conducted training programs for over 100 staff members, which includes a video for classroom use. Most recently, the autism specialists and I have led higher-level trainings, preparing autism coaches to train one another. Relaxation programs are taking place in dozens of centers and schools, and S.T.O.P. posters are used in classrooms across the county at students’ desks and on their schedules.
School is a demanding place, and learning is stressful, especially for anxious learners or students with special needs. Yoga enhances learning and self-control by strengthening, stretching, and calming the body, quieting the mind, and controlling the breath. The principles of Creative Relaxation enable classroom teachers to implement aspects of Yoga into their students’ day and turn the classroom into a quiet, safe place, if even just for a few moments. By engaging the student, providing tools for success, and creating opportunities for independence, teachers help students lessen their stress levels. Including Yoga-based Creative Relaxationin school curricula offers students proven techniques to calm down, focus, attend, and experience self-control.
48. Goldberg, Miller, Collins, and Morales, op. cit.
49. Gray, Carol. The GrayCenter for Social Learning and Understanding. URL: http://www.thegraycenter.
50. Goldberg, Miller, Collins, and Morales, op. cit.
© Louise Goldberg 2004
1. CHECK SEATED POSTURE: Form as many right angles as possible.Breathe softly through the nose, keeping belly relaxed.
2. 3 HUH BREATHS: shrug shoulders (or one at time) up to ears with inhalation; release with exhalation.
3. BUTTERFLY HANDS: Shake arms and wiggle hands all around your body as if they were butterflies.(Good alternative to hand flapping or straying hands.)
4. SILENT SCREAM: Open mouth, yawn, and stretch eyes open wide.Exhale with gush.
5. NECK ROLLS: Sitting straight, lower chin to chest.Inhale.With exhalation, roll head right, keeping chin low.Inhale.With exhalation, roll head left.Repeat.
6. SEATED FOLD: Hang forward in chair.Drop arms toward the floor.Roll up slowly.
7. SUPPORTED BACKBEND: Reach each arm around back of chair.Lean back and stretch chest.
8. TWIST: Reach across right side of your body with both hands.Hold onto back or sides of chair and twist upper body toward the right, keeping your seat.Reverse.
9. PUMPING BREATH: Interlace fingers.Bend elbows and place palms behind head with.With inhalation, open elbows.With exhalation, close elbows.
10. SEATED RELAXATION: Tense and relax hands, arms.Tense and relax feet and legs.Tense and relax face.Yawn, stretch face, soften face.Take slow, soft breaths.Feel the abdomen inflate with inhalation, deflate with exhalation.
11. 3 HUH BREATHS
© 2004 Louise Goldberg
Create a Mood
·Soften the lights
·Play relaxing music
·Remove your shoes
·Remember:this is a “QUIET zone”
Rules for Relaxation
·Stay on your own mat or towel (or at your seat)
·Keep your hands and feet to yourself
·Listen and follow directions
·Think about how you are breathing
·Breathe in quietly through the nose
·Feel the belly inflate like a balloon getting filled with air
·Breathe out quietly through the nose
·Feel the belly deflate like a balloon letting the air out
·Keep it safe: use exercises you are comfortable doing and teaching
·Keep it positive: allow students to feel successful by starting with the simplest routines
·Keep it brief:gradually lengthen sessions if desirable
·Model: let students see you using relaxation techniques during stressful moments in the classroom
© 2004 Louise Goldberg, M.A.
Relaxation Now LLC
P.O. Box 93-6123
Pulse Rate Charts
Graphs of Students' Pulse Rates: Pilot Program, 2001
The left axis of each graph shows the number of pulses counted per 10 seconds. The bottom axis shows the sessions attended. The diamond-marked line (blue) indicates the pulse count on entry to the session.The square marked line (pink) indicates the pulse count at the end of the session.
S.T.O.P. and RELAX
© 2001 Goldberg, Miller, Collins, Morales
This article was published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, IAYT in 2004.
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