Yoga for Children with Special Needs

I could not tell you why I have always wanted to teach yoga to children with special needs; there is no reason for it, other than I just want to do it. 

Three years ago I took a course with Jo Manuel at the Special Yoga Centre in London, where she taught us how to teach yoga to children (she taught us a lot more besides, but that was the essence of the training).  Last year I took a course with her again, this time to learn how to bring yoga to children with special needs.

Now I am teaching children with special needs every week.  It is the most joy I have ever had on a yoga mat.  And the children teach me more than I could ever hope to teach them.  All of the lessons they show me are at the heart of yoga philosophy, it's just that when you bring yoga to children with special needs, those lessons are all out loud and upfront.

Let me explain.  The Bhagavad Gita tells us to forget attachment to the outcome of what we do:

'You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work.  You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction.  Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established in himself - without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.  For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.'

II:47 translated by Eknath Easwaran

You can forget about expectation when you teach yoga to children with special needs and you can forget about plans and controlling the future.  What is success when you are on a yoga mat with a child with special needs is simply meeting them exactly where they are at that moment on that day.  Success for one child might be sitting on their mat.  That's all.  Just coming into that space and sitting down, just for a moment.  For that child, on that day, this might be more momentous than you doing the handstand you have always longed to do, but been afraid of. 

In The Yoga Sutras Patanjali explains that avidya is the source of all suffering; avidya is the mistaken belief that we are all separate, when the opposite is true.

'Lack of true knowledge is the source of all pains and sorrows...'
YS II.4 translated by BKS Iyengar

When you meet a child on a yoga mat, you find that you are looking beyond their bodies, their faces, their behaviour, the way they express themselves, to the spark in them which is the same spark that animates you.  You look for the light.  That is all.  And the light in these children is astonishingly bright and clear.

For many of these children, their diagnosis walks beside them like a dominating older sibling; it is the thing that is at first apparent.  But when you teach yoga to these children, the child comes first, shining with their particular skills and talents, joys and gifts. 

And then there is the love. If you have read this blog before, then you know that yoga is all about love.  I was astounded and deeply moved, when I watched Jo Manuel teach children (some of them severely disabled), by the quality of the love she gives: open, full of humour and joy, complete acceptance.

When you teach yoga to children with special needs you must get yourself completely out of the way.  The little story of your likes and dislikes, the things you want and don't want, the way you feel today will get in the way of this work. 

Rumi puts it best:

'Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.'

We all have them, these barriers, but when you take them away (as you will know if you have ever dared to fall in love) then there is nothing between us but love and we meet in yoga as perfect equals. 

And here is the thing: without those barriers, when you go looking for the light you will find it.  Here is something that Dawn French said on Desert Island Discs:

'My dad's faith in me was such sunshiny warmth that I grew towards it like a tomato plant.'

May we all grow towards each other like tomato plants, basking in the joy of uncomplicated love.  But may we also learn to take up the responsibility of being like the sun, shining our warmth onto others.  Love is not out there; love is in here.

Non-attachment, love, seeking the light in oneself and others, respecting every living thing for its own unique attributes and beauty, finding our true self and letting it shine out in humble honesty, loving others such that they are confident to show their light to us... these are the lessons inherent in any yoga practice.  These are the things I learn every week when I meet these children on their yoga mats.




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