“It’s time to lie down and rest,” I say to a 5-year old student of mine with autism.
As I say that, my student gets ready to lie down and tells me where to place my weighted bean bags to help her relax. She lies there for a whole 10 minutes barely moving. I watch as her belly rises and falls as she focuses on her breathing.
In recent years, yoga has gained in popularity. Kids are now doing yoga in the community and in their schools. But for kids with special needs and autism, I’ve witnessed what an amazing difference it can make in their lives. Today, I want to share five benefits yoga has for children with special needs.
Yoga can reduce anxiety.
Many children with special needs and on the autism spectrum are in a constant heightened state. This is the body’s response to stress and sleep disruptions, which can be exacerbated into full-blown anxiety. This can be seen physically through their breathing. You can see them chest breathing or hyperventilating, which can worsen the anxiety symptoms. The yogic practice of breathing exercises, poses and guided imagery helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, an activity also known as “rest, relax and digest.”
Yoga can provide consistency.
The daily practice at home and weekly sessions in a group or privately can help provide consistency and an order. In a class for children with special needs, a visual schedule is generally used to ease anxiety about class but also provide consistency. Students learn yoga sequences that are performed in the same order and open and close a class in the same order. This supports their need for consistency. However, students can expect different poses or modified sequences to challenge them as well.
Yoga can increase self-awareness and improves motor skills.
As children practice mindful movement in various yoga poses and learn to identify body parts, they can develop a greater sense of self and their body. Practicing poses on both sides of the body, the students cross the midline. Poses such as tree, airplane (warrior 3) and seated twists can increase body awareness and develops gross motor skills.
Yoga can help with emotional regulation.
Children with ASD can have difficulty expressing their emotions and communicating in social settings. At this time, this can be seen in unexpected outbursts or inappropriate ways of communicating. Through the combination of movement, music and breathing exercises, the brain’s emotional region is activated. This encourages children to develop emotional awareness. Also, yoga teaches children that it is okay to feel emotions both positive and negative and how to express their emotions in a healthy manner.
Yoga can help improve confidence.
Sometimes, children with special needs have low-esteem due to being teased for not being able to move and behave like other children in school and social settings. By learning self-calming techniques through mindful breathing, movement and meditation, children are able to regulate their emotions and can become more confident in social settings. Especially in a group class, they’ll be able to learn how to work together in a safe space and learn how to interact with one another. Through movement and the development of motor skills, children grow more confident in being able to move comfortably in their bodies.
Join me in my upcoming classes in January 2019 for children with special needs. I’m also available for 1 vs 1 private session. This can be especially helpful for children that have not been to a yoga class before or those who need extra support.
Sometimes we think of the body, mind, and soul as separate entities, but in reality, they are interconnected as a whole. The interactions between the parts and how they influence us, guide us, and support us are much like a dance. Similarly, the way we do asana, the poses we use in our yoga practice, is the way we do life. We often dance between loving our practice, resenting it, using it as an escape, and so on. What is important to remember is that our practice is neutral, it simply mirrors who we are, our emotional state, and how we are in the world.
Being present in this day and age is often a challenge with all of the distractions within, and around us. One single breath of gratitude can change that. Restorative Yoga uses physical props and at the same time, your body is a prop for your soul. Some of the important questions to ask in Restorative Yoga are, “Who are you bringing to the mat today, what do you need, and what will you give? Where are you allowing your attention to go right now?” Being present is essential to the practice of Restorative Yoga, otherwise, it’s just an exercise.
What Restorative Yoga is Not
Restorative Yoga is not simply stretching, it’s about opening oneself and one’s body. In fact, the emphasis is not on the pose, but on the opening. Who you are and what you bring to your practice is as important as the particular poses and postures used. We all bring a container, or vessel, ready to be filled with our practice. It’s different than Yin Yoga, which focuses on active asana, versus the emphasis in Restorative Yoga on holding and being still. Our focus is not on striving; we know you can do more, but Restorative Yoga asks the question, “Can you do less?” It is not about ambition, which is the opposite of relaxation; we do not need to do more.
What Restorative Yoga Is
In Restorative Yoga, we focus on the truth that we do not need to go anywhere else, do anything else, or be any different than who and where we are now, and what we are presently doing. We focus on the fact that what we seek is already here – the pose is right here, right now, as we’re present with it.
To be relaxed we need to be still, quiet, dark and warm. Restorative Yoga takes us toward sleep. To be still where we are, our body sleeps and our mind watches. As we practice, we learn to relax enough, without falling asleep. This is valuable because our bodies are used to moving around constantly and therefore, stillness is a radical thing. It’s something we’re not used to pursuing in our hectic lives. This is why Restorative Yoga emphasizes spending time finding a comfortable shape where we can be still. We find quietness, without music; pursuing darkness, which is difficult because even if you close your eyes, light filters in. Darkness is good for the organs below the diaphragm, irregular periods, our livers and our digestion. Finally, we pursue warmth, even using swaddling blankets around our hands, feet, belly, back, or anywhere! There is a reason this is comforting to babies as they enter a new, seemingly chaotic world – we can receive the same comfort as we pursue stillness in our active environment.
Why Is Restorative Yoga Important To Do?
The reality is that most of our nervous systems are hyper-stimulated as we suffer from a lack of sleep, improper diet, and stress. The intention is what makes Restorative Yoga different. Our bodies sleep while our mind watches as we sense our way through our practice, without thought. The use of props is to support our bodies in positions of comfort and ease; that is, to facilitate the relaxation response, which is where healing begins.
Restorative poses work with the rhythm of the body. They are powerful for removing blockages, to allow our body to heal. Restorative poses are often helpful in recovery from cancer, and poses like legs up the wall can even aid lymphatic drainage. Back bending is helpful in opening the front body for digestion, posture, and breathing. Semi-inversions like legs up the wall are effective for relief of jet lag, restless leg syndrome, and jobs where you stand a lot. Gentle forward folds are great to initiate the relaxation response. The focus of Restorative Yoga can be summed up as, “Heart up, brain down.” As we let go of our thoughts, we will begin to notice changes in our breathing and a more relaxed state, as we drift toward the present moment.
How Can We Start A Restorative Yoga Practice?
Doing Restorative Yoga 20 minutes per day releases tension and lets us gently sink into the present, without judgment, ambition or needing to do anything. In our practice, we are truly with ourselves, for ourselves – we are just simply being.
Restorative Yoga is what our hearts and our souls cry out for in our busy lives. When there are fewer choices, we have more time. We pursue meaning based upon our presence, versus our busyness. Through our practice, we not only relax our bodies, we learn to relax and create space in our lives. As we develop our deep relaxation practices, we gently manipulate our nervous system into the relaxation response, putting it into a place of comfort whereby healing and restoration can take place. Through our practice, we can live with peace and rest, even in the midst of the busyness and turmoil of our daily lives.
May we live like a lotus at home in the muddy water.
I hope this article helps explain what Restorative Yoga is, and how it might be helpful to you. I’m excited to announce that we will be starting a regular Restorative Yoga class at Alongside You in January 2019. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, please click below to check it out on our website. We’re taking pre-registrations now and we’d love to have you!
Click here for more information about our Restorative Yoga class!
When I meet with clients, I often remark that of the 168 hours in their week, I get 1 if I’m lucky. That’s assuming that I get to see them once per week, which is not necessarily the case. Most often I see clients every other week, or even further between sessions. In this case, the hours I don’t get to be with them becomes multiples of the 168. I highlight this because I want to encourage clients that as important as the work we do in-session is, it is truly what they do between sessions that promotes lasting change. It’s not that I discount the importance of what I do, I simply recognize the importance of what my client does day in and day out between our times together.
One thing that I love about Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is the emphasis on skill development. In our DBT groups, we focus on both skills and process, but the homework in between groups is heavily focused on skill development. Whether it’s Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, or Interpersonal Effectiveness they’re working on, there are concrete activities and worksheets clients can follow in between sessions to work on these areas. Clients get all of these resources in a book as a part of the group and the clients who really work at this, come back each week with a well-worn book! It’s wonderful to see clients invested in their process.
One of the questions I am asked a lot is, “Why do you have so many different things at your clinic?” The answer to this is because we believe in a holistic approach to recovery. I’d like to highlight three things you can access in our clinic between counselling sessions that will promote your wellbeing and recovery in those in-between times. The great thing is that all of these also promote things you can do on your own at home that don’t cost more money!
Open Studio Sessions
One of the things people are most curious about in our clinic is our art studio. People regularly wonder why we have an art studio, but the answer is very simple: because it helps people recover. We do this both through 1:1 sessions, and our Open Studio Sessions. There is a large body of evidence showing the power of creativity and art to help people recover from mental health, chronic conditions, chronic pain, and more; it also helps people connect inter-generationally and with family members and friends. All of these are great things! In our studio, you can learn Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy (MBAT) techniques that you can use at home, and we can even help you figure out what materials you’ll need and give advice on where to source supplies for reasonable prices. Many of our clients come to the studio sessions to learn new techniques and then go home and use them in their daily life. You can come to connect or learn new things, and then work on them on your own at home!
Trauma Sensitive Yoga and Yoga Therapy
The second most surprising thing to people about our clinic is that we have a yoga studio. We have a yoga studio because we saw a need that people had that wasn’t being filled. As you might imagine, not everyone is comfortable with large studio yoga, particularly if they’re struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, or other difficulties. Further, as wonderful as larger studio yoga is, it’s not specifically designed for people struggling with trauma and mental health, or physical health challenges. Our Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TSY) programs and Yoga Therapy programs are specifically geared toward helping people recover from these things. The techniques are evidence-based and the programs are designed specifically to each client’s unique needs. Once again, the goal is to help you recover and work on your own, in-between sessions. Our certified yoga therapist will work with you individually in our safe, trauma-informed space to design a program specifically for you that once you learn, can be done safely at home on your own. When you want to learn more or brush up on techniques, you can come back in for some sessions. It’s flexible, safe, and geared specifically to you and your unique needs.
Mindfulness has become something of a buzz-word in pop psychology, but that is not a bad thing! Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present, allowing your brain and body to calm and be in the here and now. We’ve written previously about it on our blog, and you can look forward to more articles on this in future. It’s a vital practice that supports holistic health in body, mind, and soul. We can approach mindfulness training in a number of ways here: individual sessions with our DBT therapists and the curriculum from the dialectical behaviour therapy programs, one on one sessions in the art studio with Meg Neufeld to learn Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy techniques, or with our yoga instructors using breathwork and yoga techniques. Once again, all of these are skills you can learn and take home with you and practice on your own!
At Alongside You, our goal is to support you both in-session as we provide counselling, and outside of sessions to help you cope, grow, and thrive using holistic methods. This not only increases the effectiveness of your counselling, it also promotes autonomy, choice, and increases the chances of your recovery. Our belief is that all of our clients possess unique strengths and gifts that can be used to journey toward wholeness and resilience, and our job is to help identify these, support them, and encourage you. I hope this article gives you some ideas on how you can support yourself along the journey! If you are interested, feel free to contact us!
What is a chronic pain? This term is tossed around so freely nowadays. I don’t think there is one person who isn’t either affected themselves or knows someone who uses this term regularly in describing themselves or their situation. It seems like the pain is all around us!
According to Neil Pearson, who teaches at UBC, lectures worldwide, and has been working exclusively with patients who suffer from chronic pain for over 20 years, “Scientists explain aspects of chronic pain through explanations of neuro-immune plasticity. They are able to show that when pain persists there are relatively permanent changes in neural and immune systems and cells. The problem is that attempting to change these back takes effort, practice, and patience. Our efforts are required, to rewrite this story and to create lasting ‘positive’ neuro-immune changes…and most include disruptions of breathing and muscle tension. For many of us when the story has continued to play for some time, it includes changes in our feelings of competence, difficulties in letting go of tension, being out of balance in life, being disconnected from our life’s purpose, and as such, if we direct our yoga practices (or any contemplative movement practice) towards these, we can rewrite the story.” Persistent, chronic pain requires a different approach for healing than acute pain which usually goes away eventually on its own.
What Yoga Therapy provides is an individualized practice specifically aimed at your needs. This is why it’s important to view yoga therapy as a physical and/or rehabilitation process, not a studio style practice, and also includes integration of practices for mind and breath. We teach students to experience their practice from the inside out. It’s not about how it looks on the outside, it’s about how it feels on the inside.
Viniyoga™ methodology specialist Gary Kraftsow is part of the lineage that I am practicing under. There are several principles that separate this method from others and create its effectiveness in the healing process, and these include:
- Somatic Experience – practicing and feeling from the inside out, not focusing on what you look like on the outside, and befriending your body
- Moving with your breath – allowing your body and breath to move in unison, learning to follow your breath
- Repetition and Stay – the choice to move in and out of a shape or pose, or hold it for several breaths depending on your comfort level
- Individual Sequencing – a collaborative approach where you and your teacher create a practice that is unique to your needs and makes appropriate changes as you progress.
The physical part, called asana, a portion of your practice uses a technique to empower you to check in with your body before and during a posture. First, by going to the edge of pain, that is your baseline, or where you start from. This prevents the sympathetic nervous system [SNS] from firing up, thinking you are going to a place of pain or danger and tightening up even more. You will find yourself forming new habits such as asking yourself, “Is this safe, am I going to increase pain, is this working for me, am I ok here?” By always starting from a place of comfort, listening to your body rather than to generalized cues, and by working through a complete practice in this way, you will begin to change your perceptions of your pain, and notice as it decreases. You will learn breathing practices to integrate relaxation and create the space for your body to move into. Your movement will eventually follow your breath and you will practice breath awareness, noticing the quality of your breath. Your thoughts are reflected in the quality of your breath and your breath is a reflection of the quality of your thoughts.
You will also learn positive mindfulness techniques to change how you perceive your pain and start to work from a place of comfort. This allows you to move away from the painful story toward a place of feeling comfortable in your body again and reconnecting with your true self. This part of the learning may also involve surrounding yourself with positive minded friends and supportive people, or be joining a group of others who also want to play a meaningful role in their personal healing.
Restorative Yoga poses are vital to bringing the body into the Relaxation Response, where the parasympathetic nervous system [PNS] replaces the fight, flight or freeze state of the SNS, taking you to a place of deeper relaxation where healing of the body and mind can take place.
There are many studies that are ongoing in support of evidence-based knowledge regarding Therapeutic Yoga. In the International Journal of Yoga Therapy [IJYT], No.26, 2016, Mindful Yoga Pilot Study Shows Modulation of Abnormal Pain Processing in Fibromyalgia Patients, J.W. Carson et al. report that their, “program showed significantly greater improvements on standardized measures of fibromyalgia symptoms and functioning, including pain, fatigue, stiffness, poor sleep, depression anxiety as well as improvements in measure of relaxation, acceptance, and vigor.”
In my teaching of therapeutic yoga, I have witnessed the physical and lifestyle benefits for my clients. I am currently midway through my Certification of 1000 hours as a Yoga Therapist, (CYT) with Maggie Reagh, founder of Yoga Therapy International, and look forward to many years of service to those who are searching for a path to healing. With loving self-awareness and compassion for yourself, learning to listen to your body’s whispers so that it won’t need to scream, and letting your body know it’s OK to let go and breathe, you will come to know that you are not your pain! Listen to your body more than you listen to your pain.
I’ll be away in India for further training through January and February but I look forward to reconnecting with clients in March. We have brought on another colleague to provide therapeutic yoga in my place while I’m away, Janet Richardson, and I’m excited for you to meet her! Please look for the announcement on our website and social media soon! Until March, may peace be with you and your families through the holiday season, and I’ll be sending warm thoughts from the warmth of India!
Reality is that life is not peaceful. Trauma can arise from any number of daily things, seemingly small to one person, yet overwhelming to another. Having experienced trauma, whether recently or in the past, one can feel like something is broken within us, wrong with us, or we feel damaged. This is not so but is a part of the healing process and a normal response to internalizing a traumatic experience. Trauma Sensitive Yoga Therapy is not about fixing or changing anyone. It’s about learning how to find healing and support within, by empowering yourself to feel safe in your own body and mind and seeing the potential in yourself. By separating yourself from the traumatic event, you are able to witness and self-observe. Through witnessing awareness, you begin to look at it objectively and come to realize that you are not the trauma, it is something that happened to you.
Through your yoga practice, you can return to wholeness by seeing the experience from a place of comfort and safety within your own body, and in time, finding meaning in it. This will arise when the time is right for you. Post-Traumatic Growth will evolve, remembering that people don’t become great in spite of their challenges, but because of them. Eventually, your yoga practice will take you to that inner place where you can be the witness, and know that you can return to that place anytime during your practice or in your daily life. The change will come from that untouched true nature when you are operating not from brokenness, but from wholeness.
Trauma activates our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) for survival but leaves us frequently stuck in the fight or flight response. Yoga practices that can help us get back into the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) include Therapeutic Yoga, along with talk and physical therapy, and meditation. In The Relaxation Response: Yoga Therapy Meets Physiology published in Yoga Therapy Today, Summer, 2017, Maggie Reagh, Yoga Therapy International renowned founder and teacher, lists restorative procedures under topics of Relaxing through Positioning the Body; Relaxing through Lengthening the Breath; Relaxing through Stilling the Mind and Balancing the Nervous System.
Utilizing guided meditation of Yoga Nidra allows healing to begin by building resilience to challenging circumstances that arise in our daily lives. In the International Journal of Therapy, No.19 (2009) p.123, David Emerson et al. state in Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research, “Trauma exposure is ubiquitous in our society. Over half the general population report having had exposure to at least one traumatic event over their lifetime…research has shown that Yoga practices, including meditation, relaxation, and physical postures, can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, muscle tension, and blood pressure, improve neuroendocrine and hormonal activity, decrease physical symptoms and emotional distress, and increase quality of life. For these reasons, Yoga is a promising treatment or adjunctive therapy for addressing cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma, and PTSD specifically.”
When we get stuck in the SNS, the brain is affected, the amygdala grows, making us more reactive, the hippocampus shrinks and we may lose perspective on time, the frontal cortex goes off-line, making it harder to make decisions or think things through. Trauma often makes us feel detached from our body, and sometimes feeling unsafe in our body. Dr. Herbert Benson of the Benson Henry Institute has found in Harvard University’s research that spending 20 minutes a day in the relaxation response can lower or turn off our stress genes. Through comforting Therapeutic Trauma Sensitive Yoga we experience the relaxation response of coming back to our body and mind. Yoga and guided meditation also help one to understand the significance of the breath. Controlled, yet easily learned, breathing is a powerful trigger to engage the relaxation response. Yoga Nidra supports organization of thoughts and flow of memories and puts us in touch with our physical self.
I hope this article helps explain some of the benefits of a yoga practice, particularly when we’re hoping to recovery from trauma in our lives. You may not think that yoga is for you – and you know what, I don’t blame you. For many, it’s an entirely new concept and outside of the box in terms of thinking of treatment. The research is showing that Yoga Therapy and Trauma Sensitive Yoga can be effective in helping reduce symptoms of trauma and change the physiology of our brain.
At Alongside You, we work as a team and I’m pleased to be able to work alongside the other staff in helping clients, many whom have benefitted from yoga therapy as an adjunct in their recovery. If you’re curious, please give me a call at (604) 283-7827 ext. 709 or contact me through the website here and I’d love to speak with you about how I might be of help.
The pelvic floor rehabilitation program that I teach, (PFP) Pelvic Floor Pilates, designed by Nevada urogynecologist Dr Bruce Crawford, was created to provide an effective alternative to the traditional recommendation of “do your Kegels.” Pelvic floor health is a fitness issue! Pelvic floor disorders are, for the most part, neuromuscular disorders and are well suited to neuromuscular solutions. With regular and high-quality conditioning, surgery for pelvic floor disorders can often be avoided, excluding when cancer is the diagnosis.
The scientifically researched exercises were studied over a 2 year period, and over 200 exercises were tried using EMG (electromyography) recordings to determine which were the most effective in recruiting the pelvic floor muscles, consisting of transversus abdominis (TVA), adductors (inner thigh muscles), gluteals (min, max, and med) and external hip rotators. These muscles all work in concert to provide support for the pelvic organs, and to restore and maintain pelvic health in both females and males.
I am specifically addressing the relevance of pelvic rehabilitation on urinary incontinence in men in relation to prostatitis, interstitial cystitis and prostatectomy. There are many serious issues for men that can benefit from pelvic floor rehabilitation, including aging, obesity, chronic lung disease, chronic constipation, chronic corticosteroid use, genetics, previous pelvic surgery, sexual dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and Crohn’s disease to name several. Men are most likely to have pelvic floor disorders due to post-surgical complications, prostatitis or interstitial cystitis.
The job of the pelvic floor is to support the bladder, urine tube, prostate, and rectum, as well as provide sphincter control for the bladder and bowel. It also provides support from intra-abdominal pressure created from straining, heavy lifting, chronic coughs, or just from laughing. The weakening of pelvic floor muscles (atrophy) can be due to hormonal changes, including decreased testosterone. Pelvic organ prolapse can result in loss of control of the bowels. Night time voiding may be a sign of an overactive bladder (OAB), referred to as urgency incontinence, which is a condition common in both men and women. So, there are a lot of conditions we don’t always associate with our pelvic floor, but it is actually our “core,” or our centre of strength.
In order to be functional, pelvic floor muscles (PFM) need strength, endurance and co-ordination. Kegel exercises have commonly been taught as the method of strengthening these muscles. Using research with electromyography (EMG), however, it has been found that the PFM do not work in isolation and need to work in conjunction with the regional muscles of the inner thigh, buttocks and the deepest layer of abdominals – the transversus abdominis (TVA). Proper conditioning of these muscles not only requires a sustained contraction, but equal release. More effective and functional than Kegel exercises is the plyometric activation of the muscles, requiring a pulsing type of movement originally used for athletes that need quick bursts of energy.
The Pilates exercises that I incorporate into my program include three different types of contractions to stimulate all the functions of the pelvic floor:
1) movement – repetitions
2) endurance – a holding phase during peak engagement of the muscles
3) pulsing – a phase where the muscles are contracted and then released rapidly with equal force to provide the plyometric type of conditioning
This is what makes these exercises so effective with urinary incontinence. They strengthen the muscles, train the muscles for endurance, and strengthen the urinary and anal sphincters.
Other techniques I incorporate into my therapy include breath work, posture and Therapeutic Yoga techniques. The Yoga Therapy for the urinary system is structured to increase blood flow to the kidneys and strengthen the muscles that control the bladder. These techniques are taught to be performed in a very specific manner, hand in hand with the breath and strengthening through holding for a set period of time.
Yoga Therapy is proving to be very effective in conjunction with other forms of therapy. Some conditions where symptoms are often improved in both women and men include pelvic inflammatory disease, sterility or infertility, enlarged prostate, prostatitis, fibroid cysts, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and post-operative cancer, including post mastectomy and post prostatectomy.
In conclusion, more and more studies and randomized trials are being conducted in the fields of pelvic floor exercises and Therapeutic Yoga techniques, with positive results. The Cochrane Institute has supported pelvic floor muscle training (PFMT) for several years now as the first line of defense and support for urinary incontinence and pelvic floor dysfunction.
A recent example of this research is Pilot randomized trial of conventional versus advanced pelvic floor exercises to treat urinary incontinence after radical prostatectomy: A study protocol, Santa Mina et al. BMC Urology (2015) 15:94, Open Access, BioMed Central.
I hope this is helpful in explaining my approach to various pelvic floor issues and how pelvic floor rehabilitation can be a viable and effective choice. And finally, if there is anything that we can do to support you at Alongside You, don’t hesitate to reach out or call 604-283-7827 ext. 709.
Brenna Jacobson, (RYT), Yoga Therapy, Pelvic Floor Specialty, Pre-Post Natal Consultant