THE BENEFITS OF YOGA FOR PEOPLE WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES

by Angie Cousins, Ros Mhuire, Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow (Sunbeam House Services)

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Physical and mental therapy is one of yoga’s most important achievements. What makes it so powerful and effective is the fact that it works on the holistic approach—the treatment of the whole person.
(Swami Saraswati, Bihar School of Yoga, India)

I practised yoga for a number of years in the USA and became a firm believer in the health-promoting aspects of the discipline—relaxing the mind/body through gentle exercise and correct breathing. After returning to Ireland I undertook a diploma course with the Association of Holistic Therapists AND trained as a yoga teacher. The coursework included practical sessions in which the students gave yoga lessons to community groups. I worked with carers (usually mothers of disabled persons) who, because of their heavy workloads and stressful lives, found it difficult to relax and reported aches and stiff/tense muscles. Practising relaxation and deep-breathing techniques gradually helped them to develop new coping skills. When I set up my own classes, participants often brought the person they cared for along with them. I began to include them in the exercises. This autumn I also look forward to giving yoga and relaxation classes at the National Council for the Blind in Wexford.

Yoga can be practised by everyone regardless of ability or limitations. The postures (exercises) can be modified to suit individual needs—they can be performed standing, seated (even in a wheelchair) or lying down. The holistic approach of yoga is beneficial both mentally and physically. I have found yoga a particularly valuable therapy in my work with people with learning disabilities in Sunbeam House Services. Our clients particularly like the hands-on approach of the yoga postures and the interaction and individual attention they receive in relaxation sessions. The relaxation techniques can be taught in a modified way—I have found the technique of visualisation most appropriate for our clients. We generally use the essential oils of lavender and geranium for relaxation and a sense of well-being which are also part of the therapeutic elements of yoga. My rationale is simple—to improve the lifestyle of the people with whom I work. They are so enthusiastic about yoga and we can see that they are benefiting from it. Yoga has become a welcome addition to our clients’ routine at Ros Mhuire—something to look forward to.

What is involved in the yoga class?

In the initial yoga class it is necessary for me to identify how people could move in relation to the yoga exercise and the abilities/limitations of each client, so that I could assist or modify the movements wherever necessary. I did this by starting with the smallest movement of the joints, for example, rotating the head and then the shoulders, and observing how freely the clients could do this. Those who found it difficult to rotate their shoulders could, instead, squeeze the shoulders to the neck, creating tension in the muscles, hold for a few seconds and then allow the shoulders to drop down and relax—a modified movement. The joints are rotated from the hand to the feet in turn, and the benefits include increased circulation to the joints and improved flexibility, providing a gentle warm-up before stretching.

Each class format is different—sometimes the clients are eager to move onto the next stage—which is stretching. I ask them to feel that part of their body moving and stretching—increasing their body-awareness. We talk about how the stretching feels—whether it feels good or is uncomfortable—so that we can change the position if necessary.

I assist those who cannot stand unsupported to flex their limbs to the best of their ability. We count, while holding the stretch, and work towards holding it a little longer each time—we have made great progress since the classes began in August 2000! Stretching loosens out the muscles in preparation for yoga postures/exercises.

The postures—The physical element of yoga

I chose a set of five yoga postures to work with—each one with an awareness of a certain part of the body. The postures are modified where necessary. We work together to achieve the correct pose and the clients get a great sense of achievement when they get it right. The class is usually quite vocal at this stage and individual attention is given to each client. We work on breathing-in while getting into the posture, and breathing out while coming out of it. Performing postures in conjunction with the breath helps to build up muscle stamina.

Breathing practice

The next stage of the class is the one which the clients love the most—breathing practice and relaxation. We begin by lying in a comfortable position on the floor, or seated with the head supported so that the body can relax. Lights are dimmed and music is played to complement the relaxation mode. My group seems to prefer harp music. They become aware of the breath by placing their hands on their tummy, feeling it expand as they breathe in, and sink as they breathe out. If concentration levels are low I ask the group to close their eyes and listen to the sound the breath makes—through the nose and out through the mouth. Deep slow breathing is particularly beneficial for clients who have communication difficulties; the inability to verbalise their needs and feelings can be frustrating and can lead to angry outbursts. Deep breathing practised regularly has been shown to have an overall relaxing effect on the system, lowering blood pressure, slowing the heart rate and calming the nerves. Shallow breathing happens when we become anxious and panicky—we breathe from the upper part of the chest and our breathing becomes erratic. Teaching clients to breathe down into their tummy, in order to expand the lower lungs, takes time, but the benefits are worthwhile.

As the breathing practice continues, the relaxing effect is evident. Muscles become slack and a sense of calm pervades. That is the time to take the clients through a relaxation script. I tell them to feel each part of their body relaxing in turn, from the head down to each and every toe. As they breathe out, feeling every part becoming heavy and relaxed, they enjoy the ‘floppy feeling’ of total relaxation.

Perhaps the best expression of the clients’ appreciation/enjoyment of the yoga class is at its close, when a head pops up and asks: ‘When is the next class?’

Case study

At the unit where I work, I carry out a weekly one-to-one relaxation session with a client who has been experiencing behavioural problems. He has communication difficulties and, as a result, has often been frustrated, angry and threatening with other clients and staff

During the initial yoga session I learned what the client responded to in a positive way. I included relaxation music and aromatherapy and, as the client began to relax, I introduced a foot massage with essential oils. As the facial muscles began to relax, his emotional release could be heard in big sighs. As his breathing slowed down, he closed his eyes and thought about a happy place—I suggested a recent holiday and we added details, using the sense of smell (the seaside), sight (the colour of the sea, people on the beach, seagulls), sound (children playing on the beach), and feeling (the warmth of the sun). I also asked the client for suggestions, to deepen the visualisation.

This particular client has been helped to control his angry outbursts though this relaxation technique and staff members have commented that his behaviour has improved and his demeanour is much more relaxed and at ease.

Part of the yoga philosophy is to ‘pass the light’. I hope that sharing my experiences of yoga therapy and its benefits for people with learning disabilities will encourage other yoga teachers to make themselves available to this client group. I have found so much enthusiasm for this form of therapy among clients and co-workers and I feel there is great scope for further development in the use of yoga among people with learning disability.

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