Sanjukta Sharma was introduced to yoga in her hometown of Assam in northeast India when she was just 11.
“My mother insisted that we were taught one-on-one at home,” she says. “My teacher was from the Sivananda lineage and as a child I saw the sense of calm in his disposition. He really focused on the breathing.”
Shama learned the tenets of yoga at a young age and continued to practise, as a career in financial services, marriage and two children followed. Her husband, who is in shipping, was given a new position so the family moved to Hong Kong from Mumbai in 2002.
Sharma asked at South Island School if she could help out. She was assigned a young boy with autism “who punched me hard 10 times on the first day”.
Sharma, who at that point had no experience of children with special needs, went to see an education psychologist and went on to accompany the boy for the next several years. “We ended up writing a cookbook together, with all the recipes I had taught him to cook,” she recalls.
She trained for a postgraduate diploma in Education, specialising in children with special needs and worked for the English Schools Foundation for 10 years. It was during this time that she began to think that yoga could benefit these students.
Many children with varying degrees of autism or other special needs can be emotionally frustrated and angry, says Sharma. So since yoga had been so beneficial to her both mentally and physically, five years ago she set up a class for children with special needs.
“It helps them to be more comfortable with their bodies,” she says. “It increases their strength, flexibility and balance, of course, but it also helps with anger management.”
Sharma found that through teaching the children breathing techniques they learned how to pause before reacting and it soothed their nervous system.
“These children can often be very frustrated, depressed,” she says. “I sometimes teach students at the low end of the autism spectrum and they don’t respond for six to seven months. They don’t communicate and are physically challenged.”
But Sharma is patient, and when she gets a response the sense of achievement for the child is enormous. Patience is the absolutely critical skill that is needed as a teacher, says Sharma, as results can be slow in coming. Then comes a plan on how to modify the child’s behaviour.
“Kids will sometimes come in screaming and running around, so you need a behavioural management plan,” says Sharma. “It reduces their stress levels. The relaxation techniques change the chemical composition of the body. You get the right neuro transmitters released and this helps them.”
Sharma taught yoga to special needs children at South Island School for several years. She now teaches a group of young adults with special needs from the Nesbitt Centre at her studio in Ap Lei Chau.
Her full-time job is as the director of KSMT Ventures, of the Kuldeep Saran Memorial Trust. She is currently running an arts programme in collabouration with the Chungking Mansions Service Centre of Christian Action. She’s also looking at launching litreacy programmes with underprivileged communities in Hong Kong.
Sharma would love to see more yoga teachers explore teaching children with special needs. “They can’t hold lengthy instructions, so you have to give simple and short instructions using language they will understand. You have to have a consistent approach and always start and end the session in the same way.”
“It gives them a huge sense of achievement,” she adds. “In that way we can progress to a more inclusive society.”