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Yoga, Relaxation and Massage for Learning Disabilities

Fit For Life

Yoga classes are fun, educative and increase feelings of self-confidence in those who take part, as Nerissa Fields explains

The word Yoga means 'to yoke'  and can also be translated as 'union'. I teach Hatha yoga, which has two Sanskrit roots: 'ha', meaning sun, denotes positive forces, while 'tha'. meaning moon refers to negative ones. Hatha yoga aims to unite these two energies. There is an emphasis on acquiring a balance, not only in yoga practice, but in our approach to everyday life. Personally, I see balance as being a fundamental objective - even if we do not always achieve it. Practising yoga helps us to keep calm and centred; it increases awareness, concentration, spontaneity and boosts energy. It is about being alive, but it cannot resolve every problem.

Yoga focuses on the mind and body with the breath as the link. It is non-competitive - after all we are not going for the Jane Fonda 'burn'. I work on the premise that if it hurts, don't do it, and my students go only as far as they find comfortable. New students often say to themselves. 'This is easy, I can do yoga', but they miss the point. What is important is to get involved with the movement, to let the breath be the guide and to let the mind clear of thoughts. Eventually, both mind and body relax. I tell my students that practising yoga for 15 minutes a day for three months will change their lives. It has a cumulative effect, which spills over into the rest of one's life.

Because yoga is adaptable, it can be beneficial an enjoyable for a wide variety of people. Students of all ages, body size and body shape can join classes, including those with physical handicaps and special needs.

I have been teaching basic yoga exercises to small groups of residents at a home for the mentally handicapped run by Barnardos in Leicester for the past three years. Five residents and two members of staff attend the sessions, which last around 30 minutes. Many yoga movements are named after animals, such as the cat, dog, crocodile and cobra. Sometimes we introduce names that the residents can relate to; the warrior became Superman or Superwoman, the standing forward bend became the elephant. A student called a posture known as the moving child the rabbit, and the name stuck.

Students wear tracksuits or loose clothing and perform the movements on their own mats. Each session begins with warm up exercises which stretch parts of the body progressively. For example, we may begin with the left thumb, left hand, left wrist an so on. The aim is to loosen up while increasing awareness of the body, and each session follows a familiar pattern. After loosening up, we practise three or four movements, with one posture being central to a particular session. I introduce a posture by showing students a drawing of it, and we discuss it before practising it slowly two or three times.

As we work through the movements, the staff and I discuss the parts of the body being worked on with the residents. The postures stretch and strengthen the body and increase students' ability to relax. Animals and small children stretch their bodies regularly throughout the day and can relax in various positions. Adults tend to lose this ability, but it can be relearnt.

Breathing is the key to yoga. Movement and Breath working in harmony improve the circulation, which in turn affects the nervous system (central and autonomic). As some mentally handicapped people, in particular, find it difficult to focus on breathing, I advise my students to concentrate on exhalation. The word 'blow' us integral to our sessions. After students have raised their arms to stretch their body, they blow out as the lower them. As the classes progress, the idea of breath and movement combined becomes natural.

We encouraged a resident who found it difficult to blow out with her movements to make an 'aah' sound instead. Suddenly she blew out with a movement and applauded herself, and the whole class joined in. Before moving into the relaxation phase of the class, students blow into the palms of their hands. Working slowly and deeply with the breath helps to bring about a calmness of mind and body. As the mind becomes clear, the body systems slow down.

The benefits of yoga for physically handicapped people have been highlighted by Dr Barbara Brosan, who noted that:

'The actual physical movements achieved with or without help improve the overall circulation and strengthen the heart. Consequently, oxygenation is increased through out the body and with improved oxygenation comes improvement in the whole level of functioning.'

I believe yoga is particularly helpful to mentally handicapped people, who often have a poor self image, low self esteem and lack confidence. These feelings produce tension and lead some to feel they are failures. Yoga is fun and encourages a positive group identity.

Staff at the home have noticed that members of the yoga group have gradually become more aware of their bodies and that their co-ordination has improved. Some still find it hard to differentiate between left and right, however. We have produced an assessment chart which we use to review each student's knowledge of his or her body. Staff use the chart as an aid when writing up case histories.

The greater flexibility of the students' bodies is clearly demonstrated when they practise the movements. I encourage them to work more slowly and to blow out gradually and deeply. As some students have limited concentration, each posture is practised long enough for residents to learn and like it, but not so long they become bored.

Recently I have introduced pieces of classical music to enhance the relaxation phase, which the students have appreciated. At the staff's request, I have made a tape of the pieces for the residents to use outside the sessions.

The drawings of the postures are pinned up in the home's living room and foster feelings of continuity. The staff and I meet before each 10 week course begins to discuss ideas and improvements for the coming sessions, and we meet again afterwards to assess progress.

Last spring I attended a training weekend for people who teach yoga to mentally handicapped people. The You and Me training course, aimed at staff, carers and parents with children who have learning difficulties, sets out a simple yoga system combined with teaching materials.

Yoga is often seen as magical, mystical and mysterious. Rather, I believe, it is a practical, down to earth activity which can fit into everyday lives.