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Reaping the Benefits of Yoga for People with Autism

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 9/29/2010

Yoga and autism may seem a strange combination, but physical postures and breathing exercises can benefit children with this disorder. The benefits of yoga include stress reduction, improved concentration, and better balance and coordination. Learn about the yoga poses that can help autistic people.

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    What is Yoga?

    Yoga consists of physical postures and breathing exercises to connect the mind and body. The practice of yoga has been associated with stress reduction, muscle strengthening, flexibility, and coordination. Yoga poses rooted from the principles of Hatha yoga, the most common form practiced in the western world, focus on achieving the state of balance and harmony, or homoeostasis. Hatha yoga includes a series of poses, or asana, that concentrate on alignment, breathing, and holding the body in a specific way.

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    Yoga and Autism

    The calmness and sense of well-being resulting from practicing yoga have been thought to benefit individuals with autism. Children with autism, as well as adults with the disorder, experience both physical and emotional symptoms. These physical symptoms include poor muscle tone, and gross motor, fine motor, and coordination impairments. Aside from the emotional symptoms of autism, these physical problems can impose limitations on school and sports activities and affect a child’s self-esteem. Practicing yoga can increase muscle strength and balance, which can improve coordination. Yoga can assist a child with autism in becoming more aware and more comfortable with the hands and feet relating to the body as a whole.

    The sensory issues related to autism may be reduced by yoga practices, too. Individuals with autism often experience intolerance to bright lights, loud noises, different textures, and the smell and taste of foods. Autism additionally causes repetitive, uncontrollable movements such as hand flapping, clapping, or rocking. Yoga may assist these sensory issues by allowing pent-up energy to be released from the body, lessening stress and anxiety. Physical poses and breathing exercises can calm and quiet the nervous system of an over-stimulated child.

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    Yoga and Autism: Getting Started

    When beginning yoga postures and breathing with a child with autism, he or she must feel comfortable with the instructor. A parent makes a great instructor in this respect. All postures and breathing exercises can be modified for a particular child. Stools may be used for standing poses, and mats, pillows, blankets, and blocks can help achieve certain postures. Eye bags, if needed, can block light and help promote a deeper sense of relaxation. Remember, yoga is non-competitive activity and modifications do not decrease the benefits of this practice.

    Parents or instructors should buy a beginner’s book on yoga or consult yoga websites for instructions on postures and exercises. While achieving poses outlined below is the ultimate goal, picking one or a few is a good beginning.

    • Warm-up Poses - Sitting Pose, Cat Pose, Shoulder Opener Pose, Neck Rolls, Mountain Pose, Spinal Rolls, Chair Pose
    • Strengthening Poses - Triangle Pose, Side Angle Pose, Downward Dog Pose, Warrior I Pose,
    • Warrior II Pose, Standing Forward Bend Pose (A and B), Tree Pose
    • Release of Tension Poses - Sphinx Pose, Boat Pose, Bridge Pose
    • Calming Poses - Stick Pose, Seated Forward Bend Pose, Spread Leg Forward Bend Pose, Head-to-Knee Pose, Butterfly Pose, Reclining Butterfly Pose, Seated Spinal Twist Pose, Easy Spinal Twist Pose, Child’s Pose, Corpse Pose
    • Yoga breathing - Ujjayi Breathing, Skull Shining Breath, Curled Tongue Breath, Lion Breath, Alternate Nostril Breathing

    The session should always end with the Child’s Pose and the Corpse Pose to relax the body and let it receive the most benefits from the exercises. In the Child’s Pose, children should kneel on the floor, touching their big toes together and sitting on the heels. They should then separate their knees about as wide as their hips, exhaling and laying the torso down between their thighs. Hands should be on the floor alongside torso, palms up, and the fronts of shoulders should be released toward the floor. Feeling the weight of the front shoulders pulling the shoulder blades wide across the back, the child should stay in the pose from 30 seconds to a few minutes.

    The Corpse pose is achieved lying on back, feet slightly apart, arms at the sides with palms facing up. Eyes should be closed and the child should take several slow, deep breaths. He or she should allow their body to sink into the ground, willing every part to relax; starting from the feet, moving on to the calves, thighs and then up to the face and head. Then the child should simply breathe and relax, staying in this pose for at least 5-10 minutes.

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    Sources

    Sources:

    Betts, D.E. & Betts, S.W. (2006). Yoga for children with autism spectrum disorders. Retrieved September 26, 2010, from books.google.com/books?id=ayKMxWjnQgQC&dq=yoga+poses+autism&printsec=frontcover&source=in&hl=en&ei=bn-fTLeeHMT_lge9kYi4Cg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=11&ved=0CD0Q6AEwCg

    Yoga Journal. (2010). Yoga poses. Retrieved September 27, 2010, from www.yogajournal.com/poses/finder/browse_categories