Yoga Therapy for Emotionally Disturbed Children

Swami Bodhananda Saraswati

The first years of life provide the foundation of adulthood. Emotionally disturbed children become severely neurotic adults, who in turn raise neurotic offspring. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a doctor, or a child-care worker, if you are dealing with emotionally disturbed children, you have already realized the scope and diversity of this problem. Children may suffer emotional handicap for biological, cultural or social reasons and frequently with a combination of symptoms. Accurate diagnosis cannot be overemphasized to avoid incorrect treatment.

Yoga offers a practical form of therapy to deal with the problems of abnormal emotional development, so that the child may reach adulthood free from personality disorders. The function of the pineal gland, the importance of balancing the mental and pranic energies, the use of yoga nidra and karma yoga, as well as reduction of family and social pressures - all these factors must be considered in dealing with the disturbed child.

These simple therapeutic practices, used in conjunction with a thorough psychological understanding, point the way to a new, integral approach in treating emotional disturbance.

Psychiatrically disturbed children

In her book, 'Children under Stress', Dr Sula Wolff speaks about preventive psychiatry as a way of ameliorating the needless neurotic illnesses of later life. This involves a careful scrutiny of the child's environment, so that those stresses and deprivations known to cause psychiatric disorders can be lessened or removed.

Everywhere educators are realizing the social responsibility they hold in providing an atmosphere conducive to the development of independent, self-disciplined and well balanced children. Learning is exponentially cumulative. Therefore, we should exercise discrimination to ensure that schools are not simply information factories geared to the production of robot-like individuals for the maintenance of the consumer society. Children involved in a creative learning process, cantered on the methods of active inquiry and discovery, are less likely to feel bored, frustrated and depressed. If they are immersed in stimulating, challenging projects, how can they feel anxious or threatened?

But children do develop neurotic and psychiatric illnesses, therefore, we cannot ignore the school environment, where the pressure to achieve and conform may prove to be an overwhelming stress to some children. An exceptionally intelligent child, forced to endure years of boring lessons, with no avenue for his creative expression, may resort to obsessional behaviour or a fantasy world. A naturally aggressive child, deprived of physical learning activities, will become extremely disruptive and destructive.

Psychiatric disturbance in the child may be linked to premature sexual maturation in which the nervous system and hormonal secretions are out of balance, or it may be related to parental rejection, family repression, or a chronic physical ailment. The disturbed child needs to alleviate his anxiety and guilt, and drop his defence mechanisms, so that normal personality growth can continue. Here, a skilled yoga therapist can prescribe suitable relaxation practices, such as yoga nidra, which will release the repressed feelings from the unconscious level of the mind. In all therapy, the child requires a trusting adult with whom he feels secure enough to ventilate his negative feelings. If he only meets with punishment and disapproval, then the emotions remain repressed, and the symptoms continue to build up.

The delinquent child

Children who are labelled socially maladjusted or delinquent, have often suffered early deprivation or maternal rejection, as many studies have shown.*1, *2 Their anti-social behaviour reflects a lack of conscience and a need for love. What they really need is a good parent, but often their unacceptable behaviour leads them into institutions where the only concept of therapy is authoritarian discipline, meted out through strict supervision and punishment. The children obey out of fear. But when they leave the institution, their personal view of the world and themselves has not changed, and they take their revenge on society in the perpetration of various crimes.

Autocratic discipline, externally applied, is virtually useless with this type of child. A comparative study of delinquent boys living in Wiltwyck Community School in New York, with boys living in a rigidly disciplined reformatory, demonstrated the superiority of a therapeutic community setting, where the virtues of trust and understanding were upheld.*3 At the end of their stay, boys in the reform school were more anxious, prejudiced and resentful of authority, while the Wiltwyck boys were less anxious, and happier with themselves and their teachers. It seems that punishing a child is not a positive means of bringing about change or reform.

How can we utilize the practices of yoga to reform the delinquent children? We cannot replace the parent, but we can teach the child, through yoga techniques, how to resolve his personal conflicts. Teachers of delinquent children should undertake the practice of yoga themselves, and then begin to introduce it to the children in their charge. The teachers may find yoga techniques useful in maintaining the high, energy level required in working with delinquent children.

Many delinquent children have pent up feelings of anger and aggression. For them, karma yoga should be provided to help release and re-channel their energies in a more constructive way. Wood working, painting or gardening are a few avenues available. For a child who suffers extreme anger, the practice of shashankasana is most helpful. This stops the flow of excess hormones from the adrenal glands, which is responsible for the loss of self-control. Nadi shodhana pranayama and yoga nidra will provide much needed relaxation, and restore the balance of mental and pranic energy.

Delinquent children really benefit most from an extended period of ashram life. In this highly charged atmosphere, such children are truly reformed and often blossom into most competent and useful members of society. In lieu of ashram training, a competent yoga teacher can be instrumental in instilling a higher self-concept and an attitude of inner discipline.

The role of the pineal gland

The pineal is a tiny gland, located in the medulla oblongata of the brain. In yoga, it is closely linked with ajna chakra, the seat of wisdom and intuition. When the child is about eight years of age, the pineal begins to degenerate. This decay corresponds to the beginning of sexual maturation, precipitated by the release of hormones from the pituitary gland. Many children do not cope well during this transitional period, when sexual awareness is developing. Therefore, disruptive behaviour is often evinced at this age, such as anger, resentment, or violence, much of which can be directly or indirectly attributed to hormonal imbalance.

Why burden a child with sexual responsibility at such a tender age? If we can find a way to delay the decay of the pineal gland, to maintain a balance between the sympathetic (pingala) and parasympathetic (ida) nervous systems, then the child can continue to experience childhood without the stress of inappropriate impulses.

In yogic terminology, emotional disturbance is the result of an imbalance of manas shakti (the mental component) and prana shakti (the vital component). When there is excess mental energy, and a lack of prana, the child suffers withdrawal, depression, anxiety or lethargy. He lacks dynamism and cannot transform his mental energy into creative action. Conversely, if the child has excess prana, and not enough manas, then he will become very destructive and disruptive. A vast amount of energy with no control spells disaster. It is comparable to a fast moving vehicle with no brakes. Such hyperactive children are difficult to live with, and learning is almost impossible in this state.

Yoga as preventive medicine

A few simple practices, starting from the age of eight, will help to balance the mental and vital energies, and preserve the pineal gland, thus delaying sexual maturation and preventing needless psycho-emotional distress. The child can be taught surya namaskara (salutation to the sun), a dynamic exercise involving twelve different movements. This provides stretching and relaxation for the body, and helps to rebalance the energy. He can practise shambhavi mudra, focusing the gaze on the eyebrow centre, which is essential for maintaining the health of the pineal. Nadi shodhana, alternate nostril breathing, balances the nadis and nervous system, and teaches the child how to induce calmness within himself.

In dealing with emotionally unstable children, we must remember that they are not necessarily receptive, cooperative or obedient, and a person attempting to teach them yoga practices may become easily frustrated when confronted by a negative, resentful child. The key point is to remain objective. The child may defy you, and show anger and hostility, but he is likely to be using you to express the anger he feels for someone else, perhaps his mother or father. In any case, yoga cannot be forced on anyone, so it is up to the adult to devise ways of introducing these techniques so that they appeal to the imagination of the child. If the child can experience even a brief period of mental relaxation, he will gain some insight into his own behaviour.

For emotionally distressed children, who find inactivity almost unbearable, the combination of physical movement and progressive relaxation is most appropriate. After surya namaskara, the child will willingly lie down in shavasana for yoga nidra. Following the progressive relaxation of body parts, the instructor may run through a series of visualizations such as 'elephant', 'house', 'black dog', and so on. The purpose of the exercise is to induce deep relaxation, so that negative impressions locked in the unconscious mind will float to the surface and be dissipated. Total practice period should take no more than ten minutes a day. Children under the age of eight do not need surya namaskara or pranayama, but simple yoga nidra techniques can be introduced with good effects.


*1. S. Glueck & E. Glueck, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, Harvard University Press, 1950.

*2. A. Earle & B. Earle, 'Early maternal deprivation and later psychiatric illness', American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 31, 1961.

*3. S. Wolff, Children under Stress, Pelican Books.