Flex education

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am

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'Lie down on your belly ... lift your chest up ... take five breaths ... exhale ... and down,' Sanjukta Sharma tells her five yoga students at South Island School as soothing music plays in the background. Aged 14 and 15, they are a group of special needs students with moderate attention deficit and hyperactivity problems, and the class is part of a programme to help them control their emotions and responses.

An experienced yoga instructor, Sharma began introducing yoga as a form of therapy for special needs children at Island School four years ago. She had been working with the youngsters as a learning support teacher and was convinced that they, too, would benefit mentally and physically from the practice.

'I started learning yoga early, at about 11 years of age, and felt the benefits of yoga myself. Intuitively, I knew it would work for them as with anyone else,' says Sharma, who also teaches in regular studios.

Her idea found favour with Carol Chapman, head of the individual needs department at the school, and yoga is now on their weekly timetable, making it arguably the first in Hong Kong to incorporate yoga into the curriculum of special needs students. The results so far have been encouraging.

Chapman says they hope the practice will calm the students, and improve their fitness and balance.

'When the children are feeling under stress, they now have something that they know they can do in order to alleviate that. For a lot of our kids, their first reaction to anger [or other emotions] is to be physical or verbal. Through yoga, we're hoping that there's a reduction in that first impulse - they know they can actually do a breathing exercise or go and sit quietly somewhere, which will stop them erupting,' she says.

'We're aiming to make it a more regular practice so it becomes part of their everyday routine.' Taking her students through the sun salutation and other poses, Sharma emphasises the importance of deep breathing. 'Breathing is very important in helping you when you're scared, nervous or angry ... feel the breath come into your belly and fill it like a balloon,' she says.

'Yoga helps them to become more comfortable with their bodies. It improves body awareness, strength and flexibility. Breathing and relaxation techniques help improve concentration, confidence and also reduce hyperactivity. Yoga works on balance, motor co-ordination and focus,' says Sharma.

'You don't immediately see results,' she says. 'It's after they've been through for a while - they're learning strategies in how to keep themselves calmer. All the breathing and relaxation techniques work on bringing down their anxiety level.'

Sharma has since been joined by fellow instructor Hersha Chellaram, who recently opened White Lotus Therapy in Central, a venture offering individual classes for special needs children. Chellaram has been teaching yoga since 2002, but it was the birth of her niece, Talia, five years later that prompted her to explore yoga as a form of therapy for children with special needs.

'Talia has inspired me to share this with other kids. She has a mitochondrial disorder and can't talk or walk, and has trouble gaining weight,' says Chellaram. 'Whenever I spent time with her, I will play with her and incorporate some form of yoga with her. Our family has made yoga a part of Talia's life and she has developed in ways that have surprised many doctors.'

Encouraged, she obtained certification from a British specialist to teach yoga to children with special needs. Serving as a volunteer at the Sarah Roe School for children with learning or physical disabilities, Chellaram tried to incorporate yoga into a relaxation routine that started off the day for pupils. It went down so well that Sarah Roe has made her an educational assistant to offer yoga as an extra-curricular activity.

Greater body awareness is important for special needs children because 'a lot of times they're not necessarily aware of their surroundings and have trouble interacting socially,' Chellaram says. 'That's what they're learning to do - interact socially on a level that means they reach their maximum potential. The ultimate goal of a lot of parents, carers and educators is for them to be able to live as normal a life as possible to the best of their abilities and to gain some sort of independence.'

The 34-year-old mother of two says much of the challenge is trying to create a regular schedule, as the special needs youngsters are often prone to mood changes and erratic behaviour. Sharma and Chellaram deal with children with physical handicaps, as well as those with learning disabilities such as Down's syndrome and autism. They use music, colour and positive reinforcement to engage them.

Besides not using poses that might be beyond their capability (those for wheelchair-bound students, for instance), Sharma says they need to give instructions in concise and simple language.

'In a regular class I would be giving more alignment instructions and going into details which I avoid in this class,' she says. 'I taught a kid who was visually impaired. To teach her deep breathing, I got her hand and put it on my stomach so she could feel how it was done. So, it's more tactile; it's a different strategy.'

Despite the challenges, both women say the satisfaction they get from teaching children with special needs helps them persevere with their yoga venture. And Chellaram is trying to take it a step further.

'Searching in Hong Kong, I only found one other person who teaches it - that's Sharma. And she's now become my mentor and we're working together to develop something that's not just for children but is more of a family affair,' she says.

Chellaram hopes to encourage parents to attend their children's yoga sessions for two reasons.

'First, they can see their child improving. Second, they understand their child much better than any outside person. They have an intuitive connection with their child, and the ability to communicate; they can learn the right movement with me and act as a middle person and practise with their child at home. With yoga, the more you practise, the more often over a longer time, the greater the benefit.

'It'd also be nice if the parents could come and practise a yoga style that suits their ability, but with their child. When they have the experience together, they've an understanding of what their child is going through, of the overall benefits of yoga. [With this] transformation, the whole family can have a greater sense of well-being,' she says.

Last month, Chellaram invited Fezia Tyebally, a specialist yoga practitioner from Malaysia, to hold two days of workshops to introduce parents, carers, schools and special needs centres to the concept.

Next March, she will host a certification session led by pioneering instructor Sonia Sumar, who began developing yoga for special needs children after her daughter Roberta was born with Down's syndrome in 1970. Sumar will train parents, carers and instructors on the basics of yoga therapy for children.

'My vision is to have a big centre where parents come and enjoy yoga classes with their children and then have a relaxing time without their children, and to develop a sense of community so that [the children] don't feel as isolated and they can evolve and grow,' says Chellaram, who has been working on bringing like-minded people together to develop this idea.

'Sometimes being a parent of a special needs child is stressful and emotional. It's very heart-wrenching - you have good days and bad days. And when the bad days happen, yoga helps deal with that stress.'