December 9, 2013

Start a Special Needs Yoga Project. ~ Jenna Simons


A cancer diagnosis is devastating news.

Going through all the medical treatments and the feelings of insecurity and powerlessness cause huge amounts of stress. Even when the cancer is in remission, the fear for a relapse will linger.

Managing Cancer with Yoga

Difficult times are when we need yoga the most. Not many people know that yoga and conventional medicine blend well to help manage cancer. It can aid the effect of medical treatments in the following ways:

  • reduces the side effects of chemotherapy, such as fatigue and nausea
  • helps control the emotional roller coaster during and after therapy
  • enhances the desired effects of treatment (radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery)
  • improves healing after treatment by maximizing blood flow
  • improves the person’s quality of life

The effect yoga has on improving the quality of life is my main motive for teaching yoga to people with cancer. Yoga helps regain trust in their body. It’s a long road with ups-and-downs, and yoga makes a difference in the way people handle the changes in their body and mind.

Teaching yoga is great, there are many people with special needs with few possibilities of attend a general yoga class. Think what you, as a yoga teacher, can offer people with special needs in your environment. The sky is the limit: how about yoga for autistic children, or diabetics or senior citizens? Once you’ve chosen your “target group” you can get started with your “Special Needs Yoga Project.”


Research is key when starting any project. Get as much information as you can find on your subject. If you focus on a certain illness it is important to investigate, in depth, everything about the illness, the treatments and possible side effects and prognosis. Don’t just read about the subject, talk to people! Talk with doctors, family and people with the illness. How do they feel about your Yoga Project?

Game plan

To make your project a success you need a game plan. After your research, combine your yoga experience with your newly gained insights on the illness. Design a program for a trial period. Make a short list of institutions where you want to teach yoga. Your game plan needs to consist of the following information:

  • Introduction: who are you and why do you want to teach yoga to this specific group of people?
  • Program: what exactly, do you want to do? Include a description of the asanas, breathing techniques and mediation per lesson. Teaching is about the present moment and you need to feel the needs of your students in that moment. When getting started you need to be as transparent as possible about what can be expected.
  • Explain the benefits and how they can help this specific group of people.
  • Over what period of time do you want to do a trial? I advise a trail period of at least 3 months so people have enough time to get used to the regular classes.

Each of these institutions may require a different approach. If you contact hospitals or medical centers you can focus more on the anatomical aspect of the asanas and their benefits. If you contact meeting places or support groups you might need to focus more on the therapeutic aspect of your program.

Don’t give up! It can be a long search before finding a place willing to give it a try, but stay positive and keep searching.

Now the magic can start!

So you’ve found a place to teach yoga to people with special needs, that’s wonderful! These classes need extra care, so let me share what I learnt from teaching yoga to people with cancer:

  • Ask everyone how they are feeling. It is important to know if they are still in treatment or when their last treatment was and what is happening in the near future (a possible surgery for instance).
  • Soft movements! No Sun Salutations, but more cat and cow variations. Instead of shoulder-stand, do legs up the wall.
  • When the time is right introduce more challenging poses such as chair and bridge pose.
  • Give them time to get familiar with the poses and reconnect with their body in a positive sense (grounding) and allowing their mind to leave it’s thoughts behind and enjoy peaceful quietness.
  • End the lesson with a short meditation or visualization.
  • After class give hand outs with simple exercises so they can practice at home.
  • Teach from the heart with kindness and compassion.

You cannot be prepared for what you will experience in class. One of my students is a lovely woman. She is in a wheelchair. The first time she joined my class I truly didn’t know what to do. I told her what I tell all my students: “I cannot feel your body, you know what is best. Do what ever you can and what feels right. “ So in Warrior II she just lifted her arms and that was enough for her. For each pose we were able to find a variation and we both learned from each other. Accepting your limitations is something we all experience in yoga, student and teacher.

The reason I wanted to share my experience with other yoga teachers is because I believe in the healing power of yoga. There are so many people with a special needs who want to reconnect with their body and don’t know how. Teaching yoga is about helping people. I want yoga to be accessible to everyone no matter their ailment or disorder. But the initiative lies with yoga teachers.

We have a tool to teach people how to feel better, so why don’t we use it to help people who need it most?

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Assistant Editor: Richard May/Editor: Bryonie Wise

{Photo: Flickr; adapted by elephant journal}

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