October 26, 2009 in Features

Yoga can be an effective therapy for children with special needs

Virginia De Leon Correspondent
Colin Mulvany photo

Yoga instructor Amy Iverson, owner of Spokane Youth Yoga, works with 9-year-old Samantha Carlson. Iverson teaches yoga to children with special needs.
(Full-size photo)

As she stands on her tiptoes – stretching her arms and legs and lengthening her entire body – 9-year-old Samantha Carlson takes a deep breath and smiles. “Stretch out high,” her teacher sings in a melodic voice that fills the room.

“Reach for the sky!” they say together.

After finishing the series of poses known as the sun salutation, the two circle the room, dancing, laughing, leaping in the air.

As she slows down and focuses on her breath again, Samantha asks: “Could we do that again?”

For an hour each week, the fourth-grader at Adams Elementary works one-on-one with Amy Iverson, a registered yoga teacher and owner of Spokane Youth Yoga.

Iverson, who has a master’s degree in education, is also a licensed practitioner of “Yoga for the Special Child.”

Her specialty is known as yoga therapy for children – the adaptation of yoga practices including breathing, stretching and chanting to help improve strength and flexibility, encourage social stimulation and promote overall physical and emotional health among young people.

For the past few years, Iverson has been using yoga therapy to help children with autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and other special needs. Her clients include toddlers, teens and pre-teens as well as young adults.

“I start with the premise that the child is already perfect and whole despite the challenges that he or she may face in life,” says Iverson. “I also believe that the student and teacher are unlimited in their abilities to heal.

“Through hard work, we can create a dynamic of self that propels one to better physical, emotional and even spiritual health.”

Since she started taking private classes at Spokane Youth Yoga two months ago, Samantha has learned how to slow down and remain calm, says her mother, Michelle Carlson.

In addition to stretching her body and working on balance, yoga therapy has improved her daughter’s ability to articulate her thoughts, follow instructions, as well as gain confidence and build self-esteem.

“She’s usually moving at about 100 miles an hour,” says Michelle Carlson, describing her daughter’s struggle with ADHD. “Yoga has really helped her stay more focused and relaxed.”

Samantha also has epilepsy and has had a challenging time both socially and academically at school, according to her mom.

“Yoga has given her a more positive attitude,” says Michelle Carlson. “She can now sit longer and do her homework. She’s also feeling happier about herself.”

Unlike most yoga classes for grown-ups, children’s yoga incorporates singing, dancing and playing games, explains Iverson.

The benefits, however, are the same. Just like adults, kids gain an understanding of the mind-body connection and why it’s essential to care for both their physical and emotional health.

Like many grown-up classes, Iverson’s yoga classes for kids also ends with a relaxation pose known as “savasana,” which encourages children to breathe deeply, relax and quiet both mind and body.

This and other relaxation exercises teach children how to respond to challenges with composure, Iverson says. And just like adults, the yoga poses help children with strength and balance, which gives them self-confidence.

With each child that comes to her studio, Iverson develops a specific set of objectives. Together with the student, his or her parents and sometimes even specialists who work with the child, she articulates their goals and tailors each lesson to meet the student’s needs.

Yoga therapy involves not just asanas or poses, Iverson often emphasizes. During each session, she also addresses six core principles: structure and continuity; language stimulation; physical stimulation; self calm; self-esteem; and social stimulation.

“My goal with each student is to support her or his journey toward their fullest potential in life,” says Iverson, the mother of three children. “The idea is that all of this work transfers and becomes integrated into life outside of the yoga studio.”

During her sessions with Samantha, Iverson begins by explaining the lesson’s objective through words and pictures that she draws on a stand-up board placed next to them as they sit on the floor.

“We’re going to focus on being focused,” she says, sitting across from Samantha and maintaining eye contact with her student. “We’re going to work on paying attention to each other and staying on task.”

For the next hour, they do some chanting, talking, stretching and singing. They also use cards with photographs of children in various yoga poses as they play games such as “Yoga Transformers” and “Yoga Freeze.”

Through these various strategies, they tap into the connection between body and mind, Iverson explains. The activities help Samantha become stronger while also giving her the opportunity to practice social skills such as following instructions, taking turns and knowing when to lead or follow.

“My goal is to make yoga available to children and youth of all ages and abilities, including those with exceptional life challenges and experiences,” Iverson writes on the Spokane Youth Yoga Web site.

Iverson’s passion for yoga began in 2001, the year she returned to her hometown of Spokane after working as a public school educator in New York City and Seattle. At that time, she began taking classes from Alison Rubin at Harmony Yoga and was transformed by the experience.

As someone who has dedicated her life to kids, she felt compelled to share this gift of yoga with children and their families.

Iverson, 44, became certified to teach children’s yoga through the Virginia-based Radiant Child Yoga Program. In the fall of 2005, she founded Spokane Youth Yoga – the only studio in the area that offers yoga therapy for kids.

Although she teaches yoga classes for all children, Iverson says she has always been drawn to kids with special needs. She’s in the process of becoming certified in yoga therapy through the Samarya Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit that aims “to provide access to the practice and teachings of yoga to all people, regardless of perceived barriers.”

Iverson also is taking classes at Washington State University to earn a certification in special education.

Through playful movements and brief discussions as well as by chanting and sitting still, yoga therapy helps children gain a better understanding of themselves while discovering strategies that help them cope with life’s challenges, Iverson says.

Students who come to her yoga studio, however, don’t think of their activities as “therapy” or “work”; they simply see it as fun.

“I love everything we do,” says Samantha. “I love yoga.”

Virginia de Leon is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Reach her at Virginia_de_leon@ yahoo.com. You can comment on this story and other topics related to parenting and families by checking out “Are We There Yet?,” The Spokesman-Review’s parents’ blog: www.spokesman.com/blog/parents.

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