Teaching Yoga to People with Disabilities

Sannyasi Haripriya (Heather Urie), Australia

It has been four years or so since I ‘fell into’ teaching yoga to a group of intellectually disabled adults in a small country town in Victoria. Each Friday morning brings a wider smile to my face as the bus arrive, clients gather their cushions and traipse into the room. Shoes are removed, a circle forms and we begin. Music fills the rooms as the warm-up starts, focusing on simplicity, kinesiology, fun and loosening of the upper body. Tribal rhythms, popular music, Celtic songs, kirtan, just about anything is used.

This yoga class is one that has evolved over the years, catering to the changing needs of each client – but what class doesn’t do that? As they age, gain weight and lose some mobility, chairs are brought in and postures modified. Clients have various ‘conditions’, including Down’s Syndrome, autism, epilepsy and other unknown disabilities. Their abilities range from being able to perform most of the asanas (from the Satyananda tradition) to attempting some, or relaxing when unable to move into them.

We begin in a circle on the floor, lying on the back, then move onto the side, to the front, into vajrasana, to seated asanas and then to the standing position. Transition from one level to the other can be quite challenging for some. Being in a circle creates a feeling of unity, trust and connection, and enables me to observe all quite easily. I participate in many of the asanas so that clients can be visually reminded of that asana. Moving around the class and assisting when needed either physically (with permission) or verbally is a technique frequently used. Balancing asanas are also attempted in a circle, holding each other’s hands or shoulders for support. This enables success for most and a feeling of being part of the group even if unable to balance.

I keep the classes similar from week to week so the clients become familiar with the asanas, and this has been beneficial in ways I hadn’t thought of. When the students return to their day centre, they are encouraged to do regular exercise and often do the yoga asanas they have learnt. The pawanmuktasana series is emphasized throughout the class as many of the clients have larger bodies and need to keep moving the joints in particular.

We have fun with many of the asanas as they are based on animal movements, and sounds of those animals are sometimes heard. Simhagarjanasana (roaring lion), kashtha takshanasana (chopping wood) and bhramari (humming bee breath) are popular. At the end of each term I provide an opportunity for clients to demonstrate their favourite asana and have the others join them.

Pranayama consists of bhramari, nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) stage 1 and abdominal breathing. A form of nadi shodhana is sometimes performed from makarasana (crocodile pose), by lifting one leg as they breathe in, lowering the leg as they breathe out, and changing legs alternately. It is also an excellent practice for coordination, for lower back problems and stimulating correct breathing.

As many are mouth breathers, emphasis is placed on breathing with the mouth closed, head up and a slower breath. Upper respiratory tract infections are common so encouragement to keep the mouth closed is beneficial.

Each session ends with yoga nidra, which is eagerly anticipated. Music is playing quietly in the background during this time as I’ve found that it helps them with settling, and lavender eye bags are offered. In the beginning, yoga nidra went for about five minutes, as it was all the time they could lie. Now it goes about ten to fifteen minutes. Keeping language simple is essential for the body rotation stage. I’m really not sure if they know what I’m saying for much of the time. Visualizations involve familiar aspects of nature, such as walks at the beach, exploring a park or bush and rural settings. By the end of the hour session, the clients leave in a more relaxed state than when they entered.

Carers come to these sessions, and participate in some of the asanas. At times they are needed to attend to their clients’ needs – calling an ambulance and having officers attending while keeping the class going can be rather challenging.

Benefits I’ve noticed since starting classes with these special groups of people are: an increase in flexibility in many; a willingness to try anything; an ability to remember many of the asanas and the order we often do them in; an increased awareness of their body parts; being able to breathe more slowly and deeply in some of the classes, and becoming calmer by the end of each session.

I would encourage yoga teachers to take on the experience of teaching disabled clients as no matter how you feel, they are sure to bring you into the moment totally, to make you smile and laugh. An attitude of fun, love, trust, perseverance and patience is needed when conducting these classes and has a tenfold reward. Their Aum chanting is a special gem in the lotus!