Yoga Experience with Mentally-Handicapped People

Marisa Cavalluzzi, Italy

It was the first time that I was asked to teach Yoga to disabled people. I was immediately enthusiastic about it and went to meet them, Their ages ranged from fourteen to twenty five years. They were all mentally handicapped to different degrees. They included four mongoloids, three epileptics, and others with retarded minds. So, I started to give Yoga lessons to ten participants, twice a week.

In the first lesson I could see their external physical problems: superficial breathing and little awareness of the body; none of them was able to breathe abdominally, and one of them, seriously retarded, did not speak. As can usually be observed in such cases, besides the above mentioned problems, there was also obvious psychological disturbance. The psychologist in charge of the centre confirmed the existence of difficult family situations. So, we decided to assemble the family members of the subjects in order to install an education programme designed to encourage co-operative relationships and to facilitate understanding between all parties.

In the Yoga classes, I started to work with the purpose of releasing and harmonising the energy-channels of the students. The following is the yoga programme which I taught for two months:

  • shavasana (5 min.) with awareness of abdominal breathing
  • dynamic spinal twist
  • half butterfly and full butterfly
  • crow walking
  • pawanmuktasana, anti-gastric series (part II)
  • shakti bandhas
  • pranayamas: ujjayi (5 min.), bhastrika (4 rounds of 25 breaths)
  • shavasana with awareness of abdominal breathing

After the two months, the students had learned to breathe abdominally, so I moved on to teach them thoracic breathing, and finally, full yogic breathing. The girl who had not spoken suddenly became talkative, and in all the students, improvement in motor co-ordination was noted. As these improvements manifested, I began to include the following asanas in the classes:

Shashankasana, marjariasana, shashank bhujangasana, simhasana, tadasana, utthita lolasana, trikonasana, surya namaskara, padahastasana (1 min.), paschimottanasana (1 min.) and Yoga Nidra (15 min.).

I asked the students who could not relax to contract and then "let-go" some areas of their bodies, so that they could learn the meaning of relaxation by direct experience. Several students were not able to recognise some of the body limbs, due to their weak knowledge of the body structure. In order to help them, as well as to improve general internalisation of the different parts of the body, I practised rotation of consciousness through the body parts with them. At the end of each session I used to stay with the group for ten to fifteen minutes and chant loudly the names of the parts of the body. After a few classes most of them knew all the parts of the body quite well.

At the end of the course the educators at the centre told me that they had tried to convey awareness about the body parts to the students, but with no results whatsoever, because of the limited concentration and poor attention capacity of mentally retarded persons* With the practice of yogic techniques, especially the movement of awareness through the parts of the body in Yoga Nidra, the students learned to relax, and those with colour-blindness developed the ability to recognise the primary colours.

The theoretical part of the class, after Yoga Nidra, has helped the students memorise the main content of the class and has also helped them to build up the structure of their personalities, which is always dependent on the realisation of greater self-autonomy.

As a consequence of this experience, we are now working on a project which will provide mentally retarded students with new experiences to encourage the development of deeper physical and psychic self-autonomy.