No longer only for adults, yoga can help children, especially those with special needs, find balance in
“Let’s form a circle, everybody, and hold hands. Now, follow me,” said Malaysian yoga instructor Fezia Tyebally to a group of people who joined her yoga session in a five-star hotel in Central Jakarta.
Fezia ran quickly around the space and did some crisscross maneuvers, while the participants screamed delightedly, trying hard to keep up with her. Fezia then stopped and led the participants in a deep-breathing exercise.
This activity was part of her yoga session titled “Yoga for children with special needs” during the annual Namaste Festival yoga and well-being event.
Fezia is a Cranio-Sacral practitioner who completed her advanced and pediatric level training at the Upledger Institute, in the US.
She also took a two-year diploma course in Biodynamic Cranio-Sacral Therapy, specializing in working with adults and children with special needs and developing the adaptation of children’s yoga for differently-abled children with conditions ranging from cerebral palsy to autism.
She first encountered yoga following a horrific incident with her youngest son, Amir, more than 14 years ago.
In August 1998, her 18-month-old son fell into her neighbor’s fish pond and nearly drowned, leaving him in a coma for weeks and severely brain damaged.
He spent more than two months in the ICU and the pediatric ward. Amir’s condition took Fezia to many countries in search of ways to improve her boy’s life.
She found that it was not easy for parents to care for a child with special needs in Malaysia. With family support, she started to involve herself in yoga and set up a studio called Amir’s gym, in honor of her son.
Fezia describes Amir as the catalyst for her work to help other parents and children. “My youngest son is my guru,” she said.
During her session at the Namaste Festival, Fezia opened a discussion on the benefits of yoga for special children.
Competition at school, she said, constant activities, incessant testing and problems at home are making children stressful.
Kids are increasingly suffering from poor diets, a polluted environment and lack of physical activity and yoga is a holistic approach to health problems.
Some children suffer from learning disorders, such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), dyslexia or a combination of these problems.
“By offering yoga to children, we are providing them with a tool that they can use for the rest of their lives,” Fezia said.
In her 1.5-hour session, she showed how yoga can integrate therapy in a fun way.
As an example she asked participants to meditate by sitting still, moving both hands to a certain rhythm while chanting a mantra.
“Chanting mantras is a great way to let the sound out as they exhale. Just like when we say hello, we exhale,” she explained.
Can a child meditate? Of course they can. “Meditation is good for self awareness. It doesn’t mean sitting quietly. It means observation of who they are and getting them to verbalize what they feel,” Fezia said.
And breathing is the key.
“Respiration is the foundation that gets you going. It is important for endurance and stamina,” she said, adding that parents can teach their children on how to control their breathing.
If a child cannot speak, you can watch their breath, whether it’s fast, shallow or starting to drop. “My son speaks sound language. So we watch his eyes and breath,” she added.
Fezia pointed out some poses which could balance the right and left side of our body and brain.
“What is so good about bringing the palms of our hands in the center? We bring connection between the right and left side of the brain, to say hello to each other,” she said.
“Rubbing-hand movements are a brain balancer. The wind mill pose also balances our left and right sides to get them working together. In dyslexia sometimes they don’t talk to each other.”
So, how to get parents started with yoga for their kids? Fezia suggested parents go to a yoga class. “Get yourself trained, get a teacher,” she said.
Another thing every parent needs is to make children feel good about themselves. “Their whole life is about ‘cannot’. Yoga is all about ‘can, can and can’. Let the negativity go away.”
Yoga instructor from Bliss Wellness Co., Tina Maladi, whose nine-year-old daughter has autism, also discussed the advantages of yoga for kids.
“I thought that if yoga brings benefits to myself, it must be able to do so for kids too,” Tina said, adding that she later took specialist yoga classes for kids and practiced yoga with her daughter.
She noted some positive effects after some practice. “Her self-awareness and concentration are improving. Her breathing patterns are also much better.”
Unlike yoga classes for adults, yoga for kids should be done in an enjoyable yet loving way so children do not get bored easily.
Tina expressed her excitement about teaching yoga to kids, saying that it gave her a chance to go back into a child’s world, which knew no boundaries.
“You must have passion for kids. If you don’t have passion for them, they will know it,” she said.
There was a perception among parents, Tina went on, that yoga was about serious poses which required full concentration. “This is a misperception. To teach yoga to kids, you have to tell them stories and do a lot of movement. It has to be fun,” she added.
Paramitha Hioe, a certified yoga instructor for children with special needs at Hioe Management, combines story reading and story mapping concepts with yoga.
At the Namaste Festival, for instance, she read a story aloud for around 25 minutes in front of children aged four to 12, while in between the reading she asked the children to do some physical activities and breathing exercises.
In the story mapping part, Paramitha asked the children to do a mapping from the story book, and afterwards each child did a presentation.
The purpose of both approaches is to train children’s concentration, introduce them to problem solving and the message behind the stories and help cultivate their reading habits.
“We can’t just go straight to yoga postures when dealing with children. They need to be stimulated with stories and games,” said Paramitha, who started to study yoga for children in 2002.
She encourages parents to accompany their children while doing yoga, especially for toddlers.
The combination of story-telling and yoga can increase a child’s concentration, boost their confidence to speak in front of many people, enhance their language ability and improve their posture.
Like Fezia and Tina, it was her daughter who drove Paramitha to get into yoga for children. She takes her 10-year-old Down’s Syndrome daughter to yoga class, saying that she has seen some progress and improvement in her posture.
“I have never pushed her to the limit. There is no target in yoga. Yoga is not a competition,” Paramitha says.