How yoga helped an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome, and allowed him to help others in turn.
Lyle Anderson isn’t your average yogi—he’s a passionate instructor, researcher and mental health warrior who found peace within himself and within society as an adult with Asperger’s syndrome.
I got a chance to speak to him after a brilliant class he led at my studio and I was very excited when he generously agreed to do an interview with me! Not only did Lyle share tips on how adults with Asperger’s syndrome can work to be at peace, but these tips apply just as well for people who are simply coping with stress, anxiety or sensitivity to sensory overload.
Here is my interview with Lyle:
Could you give us a brief introduction to Asperger’s syndrome?
Asperger’s syndrome is marked by:
• Rather severe social deficits including: an inability to make eye contact, inappropriate staring, inappropriate engagement in conversation, inability to talk out of the bounds of personal interest, or inability to engage people in conversation.
• Acute personality quirks, overtly negative reactions to particular stimuli, flapping or stimming, a deep preference for repetitive patterns, or severe difficulties in handling change.
• Narrow field of interests. (I have to wonder though, what is the normal range of engaged in interests? And has this been measured over the lifespan of people that are on the autism range and people that are neurotypical?)
I think as time progresses there will be a further break down of the autistic spectrum, more so in the area of how the individual came about ‘having’ autism. For example, for one person it is from excessive testosterone prenatally, while for another person it is from heavy metal poisoning while the brain was or is in particular stages of development (either pre- or post-natal). It may also be triggered from a vaccination, or it may be caused by a retro-virus, or its cause may be unknown.
How has yoga helped you overcome obstacles pertaining to Asperger’s?
Before doing yoga I would become so intensely overwhelmed by continued social stimuli that I would retreat deeply within myself and cut off communication with nearly everyone. I’d sometimes sleep more than twenty hours in a day, most often twelve to fifteen hours.
Yoga has helped me to be a lot more social on a long-term basis. It gave me a positive, repetitive focus that enabled me to partake in an environment that allowed me to get out of my mind for a small segment of time. It forced me to get out of my box and do some things that I found very difficult to do. For example, I bought my own clothes for the first time in my life and actually wore them because they were comfortable and looked decent!
Throughout life I had a hard time staying on top of my hygiene, but yoga made me acutely aware of staying on top of that.
Some of the more philosophical points that are related to yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism have really resonated with me and helped me in my day to day life; especially ideas like non-attachment, metta and mudita.
Yoga has also brought me a physical awareness that I never really had.
What types of yoga and meditation do you find most helpful?
In every class that I teach, I start with roughly a ten-minute centering exercise and end with a ten-minute savasana. I mainly do this for myself because it brings me great peace.
Each centering exercise looks like this: A brief reflection to the current events or feelings or thoughts, body awareness (e.g., tensions, pains, relaxed parts, strong parts), breath awareness, a body scan and a practice dedication (e.g., thinking about someone we care for).
The savasana I always do includes another rapid body scan and then will alternate different methods for a mediation or reflection for a few minutes. This is followed by a couple minutes of silence and then a gradual return to the senses through a guided reflection (e.g., awareness of noise, air flow, temperature, textures, heart beat). I always end my classes by rubbing my hands in front of my heart and turning to my neighbors—I have to personally acknowledge each person in the class.
What does your typical personal practice consist of?
The only nearly guaranteed practice that I do that is the same every day are the nine purification breaths that I learned from Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, which I do nearly every night before sleeping.
Otherwise, as to yoga, if I am taking a class from someone else, I am rather versatile and can handle most classes, but I honestly prefer the more basic, slow moving, long hold sorts of classes that allow a lot of time for meditative reflection or exploration. Often I will do a joint rotation practice before taking a suburbia yoga practice.
If I am outside and practicing by myself then I enjoy doing a Ashtanga-inspired practice… inspired as far as the tempo is similar but it’s not the actual series itself. It’s the sort of practice that I won’t be teaching anytime soon and is more explorative in the complexity of my body.
Can you please share with us one yoga or breathing or meditation technique that you have found to be extremely powerful for your mental health?
Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) I believe is a very helpful breathing technique, especially for those on the Autism spectrum. Because it is repetitive and brings an awareness to breath and to opposites, it is helpful to be aware of the ever-changing, ever-present breath and to start to learn how to control it. Also I think the technique of using the hands and sitting erect is helpful because it teaches us to breathe while we are doing something—and I think many people can forget to breathe in a regular pattern or even hold their breath when focused on a task.
Kimmi is a yoga instructor and future neuroscientist. You may explore more of her work at the flow channel, a blog dedicated to her research on psychology, neuroscience, health, and yoga.
Editor: Alexandra Grace
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