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Using Yoga in Occupational Therapy Treatment for Kids - August 2009

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Using Yoga in Occupational Therapy Treatment for Kids

By: Britt Collins, M.S., OTR/L

“Yoga is union, oneness. It doesn’t require any “doing” to experience yoga. It is what you are.” This is one of my favorite quotes from a yoga instructor and friend of mine Aras Baskauskas. Working with a variety of children with special needs as an occupational therapist, I have found that yoga has become a significant part of my therapy treatments for many of my clients. There are many things about yoga that kids can relate to and it can benefit in many different ways. I use yoga during my Occupational Therapy (OT) sessions as part of a treatment plan to obtain certain child-centered goals. This is not usually all that I work on during an OT session, but many times is beneficial at the end of the hour long session.

Benefits of Yoga
  • inverted postures (when the head is below the heart) increases blood flow and the lymphatic system begins to clear
  • helps to build strength and body tone
  • helps move energy
  • general overall health increase
  • increases coordination, flexibility, and the ability to relax

Breath
  • Breath in yoga is called pranayama and it is the one thing in human system that we can control consciously and will function unconsciously. As you focus on the breath, you begin to take away the outside distractions.
  • The breath is very powerful. If you take a long inhale and hold it for awhile, then you can start to notice certain tensions arise and can then give yourself permission to relax.
  • For new yoga students, the breath is an opportunity to align the conscious with the unconscious.
  • Shallow breathing (or chest breathing) causes a constriction of the chest and lung tissue over time, decreasing oxygen flow and delivery to your tissues.
  • Deep, rhythmic breathing expands the diaphragm muscle, the cone-shaped muscle under your lungs, expanding the lung’s air pockets, invoking the relaxation response, and massaging the lymphatic system.

OT and Yoga together

Movement is extremely important in every child’s day as is calming and relaxation. These practices combined help organize your child’s sensory systems.

Sensory processing involves the brain’s ability to organize and make sense of different kinds of sensation entering the brain at the same time. When participating in yoga, you are automatically providing the body with various sensory input. Parts of one’s sensory system include touch, taste, sight, smell, sound and Vestibular and Proprioctive systems.

Vestibular System

The vestibular system detects movement of the head and the pull of gravity. This system influences your overall muscle tone, balance and the coordination of eye movements with head movements. The sensory information is received through the inner ear and then interpreted in the brain. Some children are over sensitive with vestibular processing and have difficulty with movement, such as swinging, riding in a car, being lifted or moved. Others may seek greater input through their vestibular system and are in constant motion or movement.

  1. Linear movement – back and forth movement
  2. Rotational movement – moving in circles (spinning)


When you participate in certain yoga positions that are inverted, i.e. downward dog, forward bend, plank etc. you are activating the vestibular system by moving your head in different positions.

Proprioceptive System

This input is received through receptors in the joints and muscles with movement and heavy work. When these receptors are activated, body awareness is improved and the person knows where his/her body is in space. We get this input from everyday activities such as heavy lifting, moving your arm or leg, etc. Some children have poor proprioception processing abilities due to decreased movement in their day, which in turn could potentially decrease their body awareness. By participating in certain yoga postures such as child’s pose, warrior, triangle, tree, upward-facing dog, etc a child can become more aware of where their body is in space. Children who constantly seek out deep pressure to their bodies, they crash a lot, give hard high fives and hard hugs can benefit from doing these types of yoga poses.

When I am practicing yoga with the children I work with, I am not always so serious. I let the kids be silly and have fun with it. They can even make up their own poses and you can try to copy them. I use picture cards with fun yoga titles like lion pose, cobra/snake, mouse pose and tree pose to get the children to become more involved in the activity. Overall, they can be working on balance, core strength, attending to tasks, following directions, getting their energy focused and calming activities. Many times you will hear multiple names for one pose and when working with kids, I tend to use kid friendly pose names like I listed above. If you don’t know what a particular pose is, there are many resources online as well as the Yoga DVD that TRPWellness has produced for children with special needs. There are also many books with yoga poses and the benefits of each ones.

When beginning a yoga session with a child, take into consideration your goal that you are trying to accomplish. I usually start with some fun and silly poses, let them make up their own pose, work on balance and strengthening while helping spot their body so they do not fall or get hurt and then move to more calming poses like child’s pose, “dead man’s pose” (lying flat on your back very still), cobra, butterfly pose etc. Sometimes I will play soft music and turn the lights down low. I also utilize a mirror sometimes for the children to watch themselves to see how their bodies are moving into each pose. You can make up games to play and do even a group of multiple kids at a time. Sometimes I like to involve a sibling or parent in this portion of my OT session.

Many of us reading this article have probably practiced yoga ourselves, but maybe we haven’t thought about how it could benefit our kids with or without special needs. It is a fun activity that parents can do together with their children, it can be incorporated into an Occupational Therapy session for children with special needs and do some research in your area, there may be a children’s yoga class near you.

This Month's Featured Author: Britt Collins, M.S., OTR/L

Britt graduated from Colorado State University with a Masters Degree in Occupational Therapy and has practiced in a variety of settings including Sensory Integration clinics, pediatric hospitals, schools, homes, rehabilitation, and skilled nursing facilities. Britt currently works with at Salem Hospital in outpatient adults and pediatrics and is training to work in the NICU in Salem Oregon.

Britt joined forces with Jackie Olson, mother of a special needs child, to create TRPwellness OT DVD series; OT in the Home, OT in the School, Yoga for Children with Special Needs and OT for Children with Autism, Special Needs and Typical (which won an “Outstanding Product” 2008 award from iParenting, a division of Disney. It is their goal and passion to make the benefits of Occupational Therapy available to everyone.

Tags: August 2009 Vestibular Balance & Coordination Issues Newsletter OT Yoga Sensory Processing Disorder Article