What are the benefits of yoga for children with special needs? What is a special needs yoga class like? Is your child expected to lie still on a mat? These are questions that Alex Newell, voted LAFamily.com’s Yoga Teacher of 2010, is happy to answer. As a senior instructor at Yoga Stars in Santa Monica, Newell has been helping to design a yoga program for children and teens with special needs. Recently she began doing classes with highly functioning students with autism (ages 11-16) at some local schools. The key, says Newell, is ”to gather information beforehand in order to tailor the class to the children’s needs and see when it’s good to use auditory and visual stimuli or when it’s too much [for them] to handle and throws them off.”
Yoga classes for children with autism or other special needs usually last 30 minutes and are slower-paced and more repetitive than other children’s yoga classes to ensure that “the kids really get it,” as Newell says. She wants them to “feel empowered,” without any judgment as to whether they are doing the movements correctly. Newell explains that these classes encourage the children to have their own experiences, rather than encourage them to participate in group or partner activities. For children with autism, the social interactions can be a bit more difficult, so Newell says she will gradually work up to that in her classes.
Aside from the rhythm of the class and the careful use of auditory or visual tools, yoga for children with special needs is not so different from typically developing children’s classes. Newell structures her lessons into three parts, with the first third arranged to be more energetic, encouraging creativity in her students, sometimes by using music. A popular activity in the second part of the class, which promotes focus and builds concentration, is to have the students walk across the room holding a bell without letting it ring. Every class ends with savasana, or the final pose of relaxation. While the children do lie on their mats for a shorter time than in an adult class, Newell says it is an amazing thing to see, “like they’ve been waiting their whole lives for an opportunity to just be still.”