Warning: this may be the most rewarding teaching experience you ever have.
For over a decade, I have been working with children, adults and those with special needs.
I have taught yoga from NYC to Israel, working with students from all economic backgrounds. My favorite, and yes, I do have favorites, is teaching young adults with special needs.
One of my first jobs when I became a newly certified teacher was teaching yoga at a summer camp. I was the Yoga Camp Director for three years, creating and implementing a yoga program that was taught to over 500 children ages six to 16. The camp had a special needs program and that was how I began teaching yoga to students with special needs.
I could write volumes on what I have learned from my students over the years, but here are a few things I have learned that may be helpful for other teachers who are fortunate enough to teach a class of students with special needs.
1. Demonstration is key
Some days, my verbal cues are incredible. Other days, they are not so hot. I have found that students listen best and respond when I demonstrate a pose first. Then, I will give the verbal cues while demonstrating again.
Often times, my students need to see me do the pose first. They are going to copy what I do more often than what I say to do, even if they have been in a class with me for years. It’s also important to project as in any class, but sometimes there are hearing impairments; so honestly, the louder the better.
2. Always use “stages”
I tend to break down a pose into three stages or phases, that way the student can do the expression of the pose that works for their body. For example, Tree Pose, a standard and favorite, will have three stages—the first is simply with heal to opposite ankle, hand in prayer pose, then take the sole of the foot to the lower calf and then the final stage would be the full expression of the pose.
3. Take it to the wall!
And while we’re on the topic of Tree pose, even if my students are seasoned yogis, I always go to the wall to do balance poses. Depending on present health issues, there may be balance challenges that I am unaware of and want everyone to feel comfortable and confident to challenge themselves.
Going to the wall provides the necessary psychological and physical support.
4. The value of Child’s Pose
Everyone pushes themselves. It takes an experienced yogi or a lot of wisdom to know when to rest. I learned that giving the option for child’s pose wasn’t enough. I need to instruct (and demonstrate!) child’s pose every few asanas to enforce a repose.
5. Be wary of being too flexible
Some students, especially those with Downs Syndrome, are incredibly flexible. For them, the challenge will be to pull back on flexibility in poses and strengthen the muscles. Challenge them by using their muscles and strength like supermen/women.
6. Hold that pose—Iyengar-style
Through my classes I experiment with different styles of teaching. I did this intentionally, with a desire to see which students responded well to what form, but also to educate them on the different options of yoga available.
I found that less flow was better. Restorative classes had positive responses, but the best classes where when students practiced holding the poses with minimal amounts of sequencing.
7. Hands off
I am always conservative with adjustments and even more so with my students with special needs. Like with any student, it is better to take the time to build trust, then move into hand-on adjustments. I will often move next to students to demonstrate specific adjustments.
8. Set time to talk & hold boundaries
Especially for students with Aspergers and those who have a hard time with social cues, it’s really important to be clear and firm with what times it is appropriate to speak and when it is necessary to be silent.
I always leave room at the beginning and end of the class for discussion. I will also encourage feedback on news poses, but never encourage conversation between students during class.
9. Animals are your friends!
Who doesn’t love animal poses? It’s a great way to structure a class around a theme. It’s fun and provides a nice context for yoga poses. It’s also a nice opportunity for students to share about their own pets and relate something in class to their home life (and an encouragement to do yoga at home).
10. Go with your strengths
My strength is silliness. Laughter helps neutralize the energy and realigns focus and attention. Yoga is serious business sometimes. What better to lighten the mood and enjoy the practice than with a little laughter?
Always be yourself. The most important thing a teacher can offer is presence!
An aside for teaching children with special needs…
When I was the camp director for three years at the 92Y summer camp, I had students from ages six to 16. I worked with co-ed groups, boys groups, girls groups and with special needs children that each had a caretaker with them. Some days were hard—no matter how animated I was, some kids did not want to participate. The best course of action to take during these times was to do poses that were simple partnering poses that allowed the kids to bond with their caretakers. Also, by focusing on their caretakers, who sometimes were also exhausted, a short meditation or relaxation exercise was not unlike gold to them and helped them continue to function better for their kids for the rest of the day.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Andrea Charpentier/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum