3 Tips for Teaching Yoga for Autism

Have you ever wondered how PYR’s outreach programs are different from a studio class? Or how yoga can impact different populations? At Project Yoga Richmond we are dedicated to finding the most impactful ways to share yoga with students of all abilities. As you help us make yoga accessible and affordable to all we want to make sure you know more about the impact your dollar makes when you unroll your mat with us!

 

Project Yoga Richmond has partnered with The Founders Center of Commonwealth Autism for the last four years and currently offers a weekly program serving students in their upper school, primarily serving youth/emerging adults ages 17-22. We see the impact these practices make in our students each time we unroll our mats.

Yoga holds a variety of benefits, some of which can be especially beneficial to youth and adults with autism. According to Autism Parenting Magazine, the results of a yoga practice can be especially beneficial to people with Autism. They found these 6 benefits to be among the top reasons for how yoga can benefit someone with autism.

1. Increased Social-Communication Skills
2. Awareness and Expression of Emotions
3. Reduced Anxiety
4. Reduction in Challenging Behaviors
5. Increased Body Awareness
6. Positive Sense of Self

We see many of these results in our students after they unroll their mats. One of our students from The Founder’s Center of Commonwealth Autism demonstrated all 6 of these benefits through a testimonial shared with a Project Yoga Richmond team member,

“I feel very calm and I can forget about the things that I do not like to think about. I calm down and then don’t need to be so upset anymore. I am grateful because you have taught me to control myself, thank you for your teachings, to be able to control my breath”

This testimonial conveys increased social-communication skills as the student was able to share with a PYR member about their personal experience on the mat. Awareness and expression of emotions is demonstrated in this testimonial by the student’s reflection on both calm and anxious emotions. The student shared that yoga helped to reduce anxiety by stating “I calm down” and demonstrates a reduction in challenging behaviors as the student shows self-regulation and control through the statement, “you have taught me how to control myself”. Increased body awareness is shown by the student’s ability to connect with and control his or her breath. Additionally, the student’s ability to positively share, reflect, and interact with others about his or her personal experiences demonstrates a positive sense of self.

Here are 3 things we do when we teach yoga at The Founders Center of Commonwealth Autism to best meet the needs of our students with Autism:

1. Start class by greeting each student by name as they are entering the room (specific verbal recognition is very important)

2. Providing verbal praise- again, specific verbal recognition– throughout the class

3. Incorporating sensory items into class

You can help us continue to bring the benefits of yoga to students with autism in your community. Start by joining us on May 27 for Saturday Salutations at the VMFA where Shannon Somogyi will share about teaching at The Founder’s Center for Commonwealth Autism as she leads the community in an all-levels yoga class on the VMFA deck. You can support our outreach programs by paying-what-you-can when you pre-register for this event! And know that anytime you pay-what-you-can for class at our studio 7-days a week, you are supporting outreach like this!

Make an impact. Unroll your mat. Sign up for Saturday Salutations at the VMFA today!

If you would like to learn more about how to support Yoga for Autism or to sponsor one of our outreach programs, you can make a donation by clicking here 365 days a year and you can contact holly@projectyogarichmond.org for more information!

 

A special thank you to Mc Abbott Studios for providing all imagery content in this blog post!

Mindfulness and ESOL Literacy Outreach Program

This weekend, Project Yoga Richmond had the opportunity to present at the 10th annual Equity and Social Justice Conference hosted with the VCU School of Education. The presentation discussed an evolving three-year partnership between Project Yoga Richmond and the English as a Second Language (ESOL) program at Falling Creek Middle School in Chesterfield County to provide Mindfulness/Literacy programming for Newcomer English learners. Using the tools of yoga and meditation, our goal is to share the physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual benefits of yoga to help communities and participants develop mind-body awareness and self-regulation, cultivate self-acceptance, and build resilience.

Our partnership with PYR started in the 2014-2015 school year.  To give some context, the so-called “border crisis” had been in the news that summer. Increasing numbers of immigrants were crossing the Southern border. Large numbers of children, including unaccompanied minors were coming into the US from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). This was happening in response to increasing levels of violence and poverty there. That year, Falling Creek experienced a surge in enrollment of Newcomer ESOL students that continues today. Newcomers are new speakers of English who are in their first year of US schooling.

That same year, Carolyn Waters, ESOL teacher at Falling Creek and second-year doctoral students in the Curriculum, Culture, and Change track at VCU’s School of Education was part of a MERC teacher action research cohort at VCU, and did a project on family engagement for ESOL families. In talking to students and their families she heard many stories of separations and reunifications due to parents immigrating first then sending for their students, traumatic experiences in the home countries, interrupted schooling, difficult immigration journeys, and border detentions.

In the classroom, this seemed to manifest in increased challenging behaviors: difficulty focusing on school work, attention-seeking behaviors, fights, students shutting down and disengaging, parents telling us they had just gotten their teenage children back after long separations and weren’t how to handle anger and defiance, lack of native language literacy to build on for learning English. At one of PYR’s community fundraising events, Saturday Salutations, Carolyn heard about PYR’s outreach programs and their mission provide access to yoga and applied to have a program at her school as she believed her students would benefit from the practice.

Around the time of the Falling Creek ESOL program application, PYR as an organization was starting to engage in discussions around Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs, and how yoga, meditation, and mindfulness could be a community resource for serving youth and helping to build resilience.  The ACE’s study was conducted by Kaiser Permanante and the CDC and associated adverse childhood experiences with health and social issues as an adult.  Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a significant impact on health and opportunity.  ACES have been linked to adopting risky health behaviors, chronic health behaviors and social problems, and shortened life expectancies.

Project Yoga Richmond also recently hosted a Trauma-Informed Yoga Training for its Ambassadors to ensure that teachers feel prepared to work with populations who may have experienced trauma. The primary intention of a trauma-informed yoga practice is to promote self-regulation.  Self-regulation is the state of being grounded, centered, and oriented in present time.  It allows for a sense of safety and resiliency and can lead to healing. Self-regulation is not about feeling only the good stuff.  It’s about being able to tolerate discomfort.  Being able to feel discomfort (a sore back) while feeling a resource (your feet on the floor) creates resilience.  Resilience means being able to feel our fear/anger/grief while also feeling that there is part of us that is okay.

In our yoga and mindfulness programs, our goal is to provide an environment where students can experience self-care and compassion.  The purpose of yoga is to not deny the uncomfortable or bad experiences, but to show that there are also good, supported ones.  And to offer the tools that aid in healing and that promote a general sense of wellbeing and hopefully ease.

With this particular program, we decided to have a smaller class size, as to provide the opportunity during reflection for Carolyn and Holly to speak to each student and cultivate connection.  For most part, we have had a consistent group of students, which helps in building trust and hopefully resilience.

When onboarding a new outreach program, Project Yoga Richmond is very intentional in its selection of accountable community partners and our ability to pair Ambassadors with relevant experience to the proper program. Holly Zajur, PYR’s Communications Manager and a PYR Ambassador, is currently teaching our outreach program at Falling Creek. Holly was a natural fit to teach this program based upon her work with the Hispanic community throughout her life as well as her teaching experience.

Holly feels deeply connected to teaching at Falling Creek for a number of reasons. When she was young, Holly was fluent in Spanish, but after going to school, she got embarrassed and stopped speaking. She now teaches yoga at Falling Creek in both Spanish and English to demonstrate the struggles of learning a second language and to encourage students to practice both Spanish and English. While she teaches, students often help her with the language, which helps them to recognize the importance of their native language and gain confidence, as well we demonstrating that it is okay to make mistakes when learning a second language.

Holly understands the powerful potential that yoga has to transform her students’ lives. She is aware that her students may not know where they are going to sleep next week, or if they will still be in school. These students already are, and will continue to face more adversity than ever before. She believes that in order to be successful, yoga is necessary to help navigate through the uncertainty they face on a daily basis.

This past week, a student at Falling Creek who is always enthusiastic and eager to participate had just come from the principal’s office and was visibly upset, and excused himself during class. At the end of class, Holly asked that young boy to walk her to the office before she left. She provided a walking meditation for the student followed by a moment to talk and reflect about why practicing yoga is important.

At the core of the program, yoga and mindfulness encourages connection and then redirection to integrate both the right and left sides of the brain. Using Holly’s example from class this past week, the yoga movement provided in class was a vehicle to connecting with the feelings or right side of the brain.

The walking meditation and individual time with the student was another source of connection.  Once the connection is made, there is an opportunity to redirect the energy with logic and understanding.  Redirection happens during the times of journaling (which is placed after the yoga practice) or when the student started to articulate the reasons why he practices yoga, therefore integrating the left side of the brain.

How can yoga be useful for healing trauma and building resilience?
  • Yoga provides a fully integrated experience by which a connection is made to one’s own body and to others.
  • Through breath, movement and experience in the present moment, yoga creates rhythms that aid in regulation.
  • Yoga is a structured, supported, self-paced way for students to make small, manageable choices with respects to their bodies – and the shapes they make – that are kind and compassionate.  In making these safe, healthy choices, students can start developing skills around acting rather than reacting

We follow some basic principles when teaching in this setting that promotes a shared experience of safety, inclusivity, and compassion.

 

  • Always consider the room set up and place mats in a circle as opposed to rows
  • Take final relaxation on their stomachs
  • Repetition of movement/sequences – to build trust, confidence, and competence – a student now leads a warrior sequence
  • The language used is always invitational, options are provided but not too many as too much choice might be dissociative

Carolyn did a quasi-experimental study of the students at the beginning and end of a yoga session one day last spring.  Using a validated survey instrument developed by a researcher from the Psychology Department at VCU, Dr. Kirk Warren Brown the “Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale – Adolescent” which we translated into Spanish.  The instrument is designed to measure “state mindfulness” or mindfulness in the moment (as opposed to “trait mindfulness” which is more general all day mindfulness). Mindfulness scores increased for every student, with a very large effect size and statistically significant results.

We are proud of our program at Falling Creek Middle School look forward to continuing our partnership and working on making this program as powerful as possible for our students. To support our ESOL program at Falling Creek and our other outreach programs, make a tax-deductible donation today!

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