Special Yoga from an Occupational Therapist’s Perspective

Text: Kirdi Dalgliesh (kirdi@bendyed.com.au) | Illustration: Ingrid Sanchez (@creativeingrid)

How did the course impact your work as an OT?

The course changed everything for me.
The first time I attended a workshop at the Special Yoga Centre with Jo Manuel was a week of “light bulb” moments. I had originally attended the course to add tools to my therapeutic toolbox. I did not anticipate how profoundly the course would impact on my work as an OT and on myself. The precepts of Special Yoga (and Yoga) of: humility; generosity; patience; loving kindness; empathy; gratitude; and compassion and the qualities that develop from those precepts of: trust; courage and to be careful but not afraid; soul connection and unconditional love fit perfectly within the framework of an OT model that incorporates body-mind-spirit considering the whole person rather than the condition. When you meet someone from where they are at with an open heart and loving kindness magic happens.

Professionally once I had completed the workshop I developed the BendyEd program so I could incorporate Yoga into schools under the OT umbrella. BendyEd is a therapeutic movement-based program drawing from the modalities of Yoga and OT to enhance a sense of wellbeing, resilience and positive self-image in students physically, physiologically and emotionally. The program is holistic, inclusive and accessible to all. Exercises are modified to suit and develop a participant’s emotional intelligence, physical ability, strength and flexibility. If you can breathe, you can participate.

Are you using yoga with the children that you work with?

For me there is no differentiation between Yoga and OT – they inform each other. Whether I am running a group class or private session for children or adults the precepts of Special Yoga and OT are embedded into the intervention. I work in a variety of settings including schools (mainstream and special needs), early intervention and private practice (children and adults). As a sole practitioner in a large regional area I receive referrals for a whole range of conditions. Students (children/adults….mainstream/special needs/rehabilitation) learn how to relax and connect with their bodies and minds in a non-competitive environment. Techniques are taught to manage emotions such as anger, frustration, anxiety and panic. Individual modifications are made to meet physical and cognitive abilities so participants can find the balance between challenge and mastery.

For example I may receive an OT referral from a school whereby a child is experiencing difficulties with handwriting. Before attending the Special Yoga workshop I would of looked at pen grip, posture, position of paper, intrinsic motivation etc etc and provided interventions to meet those needs. Now therapeutically when I meet a child who is experiencing handwriting difficulties I also look at how they are breathing. The breath can give us many insights into a person. If someone’s breath is frazzled we can be pretty sure the emotional and sensory state are similar which in turn will impact on a sense of well-being and the ability to engage with the task at hand (handwriting in this case). By working with the breath physiological shifts occur that can soothe the nervous system, balance neuro-transmitters and enhance a sense of well-being, hence placing a child in a state of learning – ready to work with the more traditional OT interventions. It is not that I have thrown out the OT framework and therapeutic tools, they are still there, however by incorporating Special Yoga the connections are deeper, interventions more profound.

If someone learns about how to emotionally and physiologically self regulate through breath, they then have that “tool” to use whenever they need it. And that tool comes from within, not through external intervention or expensive equipment. To have the ability to self-regulate independently is empowering. Sustainability is embedded in taking this approach as once the tools are learnt a therapist is not required to facilitate the intervention.

Would you recommend the course to other OT’s?

Absolutely, most valuable professional development that I have attended, and no yoga experience required. I feel that the Special Yoga workshop should be incorporated into any curriculum that is training people to work with people. Even if you don’t work with special needs (or don’t think you do) we all have special needs, some are better at hiding it than others. I have successfully used the techniques in all areas of OT that I have worked in. Also as the workshop focuses on working on yourself, as much as it is about the children, you become a more emphatic and intuitive therapist (and person).

Are there any particular success stories from children that you have used yoga with that you remember fondly?

So many J. I was asked to run a weekly group for children/adults with Down Syndrome and their families/carers. The initial idea from the group was for a “beneficial activity” that everyone could participate in. The group was designed to incorporate classic OT concepts (such as activities of daily living, social skills, sensory processing and integration) and yoga (breathing, meditation, movement, relaxation). I do not think any of us anticipated how powerful the group would be for everyone that attended. Not only did it provide the Yoga/OT experience it developed a support structure and community for the families who where experiencing similar delights and challenges with life. Providing support to the families is imperative as often having a child with special needs can be very isolating and lonely.

Kirdi Dalgliesh
Registered Occupational Therapist
Yoga for All


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