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Learning Disabilities and Yoga: How and Why?

Just like anyone else, people with learning disabilities (LD) practice yoga by connecting movement to breath. Through this practice, the yogi starts to feel more comfortable in the body and relaxed in the mind. The postures themselves might need to be modified to allow for any mobility issues, but then, most people need modifications to some postures. So what's different about teaching yoga to people with LD? The differences lie in how we guide yogis with LD to get the most out of their practice, and support them to stay involved, attentive, and relaxed. Here, I've made just a few suggestions, based on my own experience of yoga with people with LD.

Involve the participants in the session ideas. Talking to students and asking them to contribute and demonstrate makes it more fun and interactive, and also builds confidence. For example:

- “Does anyone have a pet?” … can lead into the practice of angry cat / happy cat (aka cat / cow postures). Or maybe a puppy-pose or (downward) dog? Could develop this to explore other animal postures… e.g., Cobra, Butterfly, or Dragon pose.

- “What’s your favourite colour?” (Blue?) Then invite people to imagine a blob of blue paint on the end of their nose and slowly draw blue circles with their nose” (neck rolls).

- “Does anybody like swimming?” (There is always a 'Yes!!') Ask one of the yogis to demonstrate how they swim, then practice different movements and strokes – using the breath as they move.

Emphasise choice (but keep it simple). For example, in Tree Pose, yogis could keep their hands together, or spread arms up and wide like branches of a tree, or even move their arms around like branches swaying in the wind. (see Allison et al’s (2019) research which found that ‘Yogi’s Choice’ for adults with LD – where participants chose which pose they want to practice - promoted autonomy and self-determination in adults with LD and developmental disabilities).

The challenge of fostering calm and quiet, but keeping it interesting… One of the greatest benefits with this group is to enable the participants to feel calm, safe and relaxed. Adults with LD are often in ‘survival mode’, meaning they are very reactive to their environment and constantly experiencing muscle tension and stress in the body. It’s wonderful when participants can find a stillness, slow down their breath, and control reactivity to their environment. But – if it’s too slow and quiet many people will just lose interest and stop participating entirely, and then you’ve got nothing! So we need to keep the energy up but also bring it down….

- Intermix strong, ‘open’ postures (e.g., Warrior 1) with relaxing, ‘closed’ postures (e.g. Childs Pose).

- Repetition can help – moving steadily in and out of a posture, e.g., child’s pose to all-4s, can keep people moving and engaged while reaping the benefits of the restorative postures. Rhythmic, repetitive, movements help to reset the nervous system and restore balance in the body and mind. (I highly recommend Van der Kolk’s wonderful book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, 2014). Repeating movements also allows them to become more familiar, helping the yogi to feel relaxed and confident.

- I like to get people to ‘just move and wriggle and shake!’ so they might shake their arms out to this side, wriggle their feet and ankles, wiggle their bottom… then I count down from ‘5 - 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 and….. Stop.” Usually, people can be still for at least a few breaths at this point – they’ve had some fun, but now they can come back to focus.

Use different ways to communicate. Words are usually not enough. In fact, words can be confusing and instructions hard to follow. Demonstrate moves in a step-by-step way. Use eye-contact, use people’s names, and smile! Gentle touch to guide a movement (when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, obviously).

How to make the breathing work. Understanding breathing instructions can be really tricky, so best to try and demonstrate using easy and clear visualisations. My favourite is ‘Bird Wing Breath’. First, I ask people to move their arms like birds’ wings. Once we’re all flapping and flying, I start asking them to breathe in (through the nose) as the wings (arms) lift up, and breath out (through the nose) as the wings (arms) lower down. Once everyone gets the hang of this, we can take the arms higher, or move slower, or any other variation we can think of!

Experiment with props! (although use with caution if in the midst of a pandemic… ) Yoga blocks can be used in the usual way for support… but can also be fun to balance! Eye pillows are great for helping people keep their eyes closed in Savasana… but they’re also good to throw and catch! Instruments are incredibly effective as calming tools and to indicate when to slow down, stop, or move. But most yogis with LD will also love the chance to have a go on them :-)

Having started out saying the benefits of yoga for people with LD are much the same as they are for anyone else… I actually think that the potential benefits yoga for people with LD far outweigh those in the general population. Not only can we see the positive impact on physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, but there is the building of confidence, sense of achievement and enjoyment that a shared yoga practice can foster. Taking these powerful practices to groups that may not typically access them in the modern world has never been so important.

Photo credits to Jack Masterson Film.

Photos taken during a yoga session for Kirklees Involvement Network during Learning Disability Week 2021 at The Mission, Huddersfield. Photo 1 is Aisling, the brilliant swimmer. Photo 2 is Richard, demonstrating an energetic Warrior 1 beautifully. Photo 3 is Danielle, doing her version of Tree Pose.

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