Yoga for People with Learning Disabilities

Nerissa teaches massage, yoga and relaxation within the Continuing Studies Area at Leicester College. She is part of a team who work with people with profound and multiple learning difficulties. A whole range of activities including art, sport, drama, music, ICT, life skills, personal presentation are offered.


My approach to yoga with special needs is experimental, intuitive and rooted in traditional yoga teachings but:

Adapted to the needs of the individual.

Practices are safe and non-competitive.

Twenty years ago Barbara Brosnan in her book Yoga for Handicapped People says:

The actual physical movements achieved with or without help improve:

  • the overall circulation
  • strengthen the heart
  • oxygenation is increased throughout the body
  • with improved oxygenation comes improvement in the whole level of functioning.

More recently Sonia Sumar in her book Yoga for the Special Needs Child says working with the body on a structural level:

  • helps align the vertebrae
  • increase flexibility
  • strengthen muscles and tendons
  • tones and rejuvenate the:
    • epidermal
    • digestive
    • lymphatic
    • cardiovascular
    • pulmonary systems
  • the nervous and endocrine systems are balanced and toned
  • the brain cells are nourished and stimulated.

Click the image of the CD or see our resources page to download Yoga & Relaxation

Other Benefits

  • body awareness
  • gross and fine motor co-ordination
  • confidence
  • enhancing self-esteem
  • improved communication whether verbal or nonverbal thus greater social interaction

Movements can be passive with a support worker or active if students are able to practise themselves.

For Seated 7-way Stretch see the resources page.

Some students enjoy using animal asanas (movements) combined with a sound eg. cat hissing, crocodile with a snap

Massage & Touch

'Touch is a basic behavioural need, in much the same way as breathing is a basic physical need. When the need for touch remains unsatisfied abnormal behaviour will result.' (Montague 1986).


Working with basic massage techniques is not only about the concept of touch but also the sense of smell.

Flo Longhorn (1988) suggests that for children with profound learning difficulties smelling is not a passive or isolated process. You must position the child comfortably, bring the flowers to the child's nose, tell him what he is smelling and let him touch them.

When I massage individuals I am working on the:

  • hands
  • feet
  • scalp
  • face
  • nape of the neck
  • the back where there is written permission


The breath is key in yoga, it is our life force, our vital energy.

How to use the breath with learning disabilities depends on the individual.

Two main ways:

  • Humming/Chanting
  • Breathing out with the breath though the nose (ideally) or through the mouth if nose is too difficult

Humming is a:

  • good way of working with the breath
  • clearing the mind of thoughts
  • bringing about a sense of stillness
  • increasing concentration
  • helping individuals to relax


To learn how to relax is a skill which takes time.

In this area relaxation can last from two to twenty minutes.

Individuals may:

  • lie down
  • sit on chairs
  • even walk around


To put into practise we need to be able to:

  • work creatively and dynamically
  • to think on our feet
  • to be able to adapt to the needs of the individual

Other important factors are to have:

  • sensitivity
  • flexibility
  • sense of humour

Do not get disheartened when it doesn't go to plan!

Working in this way is not a leisure pastime for learning disabilities it is an essential need to enable them to become integrated within a society that is often judgmental and hostile to anyone who is different. If we can educate those with learning disabilities no matter how profound to find a place within our community it will enrich all our lives.

When I first attended the yoga sessions the work we did was totally foreign to me. I am used to raising peoples energy and working on their enthusiasms. Yet within a few sessions I understood where yoga was coming from. It was a completely different approach, it was about putting people in touch with themselves, there was a spirituality about it. I regret that we don't use it in a Christian way with so many of the stressed individuals around us.

Don Dow - Support Worker