Teaching Yoga to Adults with Special Needs | The Power of OM

Text: Lucy (admin@healthylifeservices.co.uk) | Illustration: Ingrid Sanchez (@creativeingrid)

My journey to teaching Yoga for Adults with Special Needs started a few years ago when on holiday in India and I was lucky enough to stay in a guesthouse run by an amazing woman who taught yoga for two hours every morning. During the holiday I experienced many styles of yoga and I felt absolutely wonderful. On my return I began to practice yoga regularly and noticed that I felt physically, emotionally and spiritually balanced. During the sessions my Yoga teacher would often plant some seeds that I would go away and ponder over. I started to think about what I wanted from life and in particular my career.

I have been working as an Occupational Therapist in the NHS for over 16 years and am currently in a management role which has minimal contact with people, which is something I dearly miss although I enjoy supporting my colleagues and developing initiatives. I currently work in a service for adults who have a learning disability and many of them have additional sensory processing needs. Over the past few years I have learned more about Sensory Integration from a colleague and could see how yoga could be beneficial.

I booked a place on the Yoga for Adults with Special Needs course on a spur of the moment decision. One of my worries was that I was not a Yoga Teacher and therefore would not know enough to be able keep up with the training let alone share what I learned with people. I needn’t have worried as the course was inclusive, informative and inspirational. It was great to see how Yoga can be adapted, made accessible to people who have all sorts of challenges. We were encouraged to be creative and that if something does not feel right it probably isn’t, so change it until you find a way that works. One of the main messages I took away was to meet people where they are at and to enter every situation without expectation.

Since attending the course run by Richard Kravetz and Christine Godwin my life has changed for the better. I know that sounds rather dramatic and that I started thinking about making some changes a while before the course but attending the training was the beginning of me actively beginning to change things. I decided that I wanted to readdress the balance in my work life and spend more time working with people in a therapeutic way, but also to give myself some challenges. So, I booked myself on to a year’s Thai Yoga Massage course and reduced my NHS hours in order to create some space for me to be able to work as an independent Occupational Therapist and also to run Yoga sessions for adults with special needs.

It took me about eight months to feel ready to take the plunge and start offering yoga sessions for adults with special needs. I did not have a clue as to how to get started but held in my mind that there would be an opportunity somewhere for me to run sessions. To start, I trawled through the internet, drew up a list of possible contacts and emailed offering a free taster session. I was very clear that I was not a fully qualified Yoga teacher but running the sessions as an Occupational Therapist, as I did not want people to get the wrong impression. To be honest I was slightly disappointed not to be flooded with responses as I had thought that everyone would want a free session of Yoga. Luckily enough a couple of day centres near me asked for a taster session and I was over the moon to actually be starting. Even then, I remember feeling anxious about my first session being a success that I planned it to the last second (despite trying to resist the urge). Both of the sessions were very full and crowded with people who had never done Yoga before. Due to the numbers I had to virtually ditch my plans as they would not have worked. Everyone was very creative and helped the session flow and grow as we went on. One of the highlights for me was when people started to put sounds to the warm up sequence, this helped me to relax and know that the session would be alright. The sessions were a mixture of laughter, fun and also some time to be quiet. I felt so privileged to be part of the session and share the joy everyone was experiencing.

Richard kindly allowed me to come and join one of the sessions he runs, at the time I was just starting out running my regular sessions. This was a fantastic opportunity and also gave me an idea as to what the sessions can be like.

Since the taster session I have been running one regular session at a day centre nearby on a Monday morning. The attendance is around six people a session as some of the people who initially started did not think that Yoga was for them. Each session has a similar format and people are starting to take ownership of the sessions, suggesting things that they would like to do. One person reminded me the other day that I had gone straight into the warm up sequence without doing the Om song. Starting off with the Om song has been a great way to start the group, connect with the members and it has also helped me to find my voice. We had a new member of staff join the group and each member of the group chose a posture that they would like to show them and for the group to do. I have really noticed people starting to become physically stronger, their backs grow longer, confidence build, improvements in co-ordination and also cognitive improvements. Each session is different and I have started to be able to not have a set idea about what I think should happen. We have loud weeks and quiet weeks, fast weeks and slow weeks, but in general people appear to leave in peaceful state. All of this depends on how people are when they arrive and what we do during the session to bring our awareness into ourselves.

By running the sessions I have learned not to underestimate the ability of people (which is something that I never thought I did but found that I did have some pre-conceived ideas), let the session flow and that each session does not have to be perfect for people to benefit. Attending the course and then running the session has taught me a lot about myself and I feel so lucky to be able to share Yoga with the people who attend my session. My regular practice of Yoga has helped me to grow further, learn and continue to experience the benefits of Yoga. Although I am aware that it is not essential that people who run the sessions practice Yoga regularly, for me it has helped me to develop the sessions bringing in the spiritual element (even if I do not always share that with people attending the group) and it not purely being a form of physical exercise.

My next step is to see if I can start up some more sessions locally, think about how I can offer some form of Thai yoga massage to people with special needs and also about finding a way to do some research into the benefit of yoga for adults with sensory processing difficulties. I feel like I have come a long way but that I now have the aspiration and increasing confidence to go further.

Since sharing my experience of the course, four more Occupational Therapists I know of have attended the training. I am hoping that they will be able to share Yoga for adults with special needs in the areas they work in.

If you are thinking about taking the course and running Yoga for Adults with Special Needs – go for it. It has been one of the best things I have done and I can honestly say that I now enjoy and value my Monday morning because of Yoga and the people I am sharing it with.

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