Yoga and Autism
Mayuri Tokekar is a qualified and experienced Occupational Therapist, offering behaviourally-oriented and sensory based programmes at The Holmewood School in London. She has recently completed training in special yoga and mindfulness for children and young people with Autism and ADHD.
Following a whole school INSET day recently where Mayuri taught staff the benefits of Yoga, she shares her story: “When I was asked to do an inset day training for all staff members on an uncommon topic – yoga and autism, I wasn’t sure how I would approach it! What could I offer in one day which they could take with them and apply in their lives?
One thing I was sure about was the importance of ‘doing’ instead of just ‘talking’ about it. So I decided, rather bravely, that this training session would take place on yoga mats; meaning everyone has the opportunity to experience what our pupils experience.
My personal practice in yoga has developed and been influenced by sessions with students at Holmewood. I have practiced yoga with them for almost 4 years now and have observed how practicing yoga through static and dynamic postures (asana in Sanskrit) and breathing (pranayama) could be a beneficial tool if integrated in daily life for children with autism.
Being an occupational therapist, I am constantly trying to find strategies to enable children with autism to develop and improve their motor and sensory skills, their ability to cope with feelings of anxiety and stress, and above all, to become more aware of their mind and body.
Autism is complex, and its heterogeneous nature means we need to have more tools to support individuals with autism. Many children are referred to OT for poor posture, sensory sensitivities, difficulty to regulate emotions, difficulties in understanding where they are in space or to plan movements in a sequence. All are things which we take for granted in everyday life; but for individuals on spectrum these can be very difficult and affect their lives greatly.
After looking at it from both lenses, physiological and emotional, I wanted to explore yoga deeply. I researched and found some studies which have been done on application of yoga practice in autism. Yoga and mindfulness are considered as complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM).
In the US alone they found that there is a higher prevalence of accessing CAM for children; the highest percentage was amongst children with autism – between 52% and 95%. Even though this figure is from US, it gives us an indication that parents of children with autism are seeking more options. And I feel that we, as professionals, should be able to guide them into effective and safe use of a range of approaches applicable to autism.
There was one specific study carried out in India (2010) by a speech and language therapist, also a yoga teacher, over a period of 10 months to investigate whether integrated yoga therapy would help increase imitation skills in 6 children with autism.
They practiced yoga 5 days a week, each structured session lasting for 30 to 45 minutes which included warm ups, postures, breathing exercises and relaxation. Results showed significant improvement in motor performance, breathing patterns, communication skills, and complex imitation skills. There are many studies indicating positive effects of practising yoga in daily life. The difference is that we have now started realising that it could be successfully used for individuals with autism as a complimentary approach.
Therefore, at Holmewood we have integrated yoga in a regular school day. The focus has been on our students but it is also aimed at staff health and well-being.
Staff members have learnt about principles behind choosing certain postures and understanding importance of tailoring sessions based on the needs of each individual or a group. They also learnt and experienced some relaxation techniques which they will be able to carry out in classes.
Since this training, yoga sessions in classroom and in our SMSC health and well-being groups have increased and staff members have been enthusiastic in trying out some techniques in class.
I hope to continue to support them, and learn from them while I begin my journey of adult teacher training in yoga in the near future.”
Bachelor in Occupational Therapy, Mumbai India. Post graduate diploma in International Health Management, London. MSc Occupational Therapy, London. Post graduate diploma in Sensory Integration, UK.