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Yoga, Kids And OT

They fit together like hand and glove

Vol. 27 • Issue 6 • Page 25

Children and Youth • White Paper

What do Revolved Triangle, Downward Facing Dog and other pretzel-twisting moves have to do with occupational therapy?

Actually, a lot.

Yoga, a centuries-old practice that has progressively received more and more attention for the positive health benefits for adults, is starting to generate more awareness for the positive impact on children.

Bringing yogic techniques into the school and therapy room can have an immediate and lasting impact on children by helping to reduce stress and anxiety, improving self-regulation abilities, improving motor skills, reinforcing natural kinetic learning, increasing positive emotional states, and improving attention to task. These techniques are effective for a wide range of children, both typically developing, as well as those with a variety of developmental, neurological, and psychological diagnoses.

Unfortunately, children are not immune to the stresses of modern society. The pace of society, with over-scheduling, decreased opportunities for unstructured play and "downtime", ever-increasing technological gadgets, and ultra-competitiveness in school has significantly increased demands on students over the last few decades. Elevated stress and anxiety push the body out of homeostasis, decreasing an individual's ability to learn and successfully perform in necessary areas of occupation.

Low-level, continuous stress negatively impacts retention and learning, since the hippocampus, the part of the brain the stores short-term memory, is not afforded the downtime necessary to convert information into long-term memory.

These stresses can have a compounding effect on the children that we treat in schools, hospitals, clinics and community-based settings. Students receiving any type of special education or rehabilitation services - including physical, occupational and speech therapy-have a high propensity for stress and anxiety. Children with developmental disorders tend to be more withdrawn and anxious than their peers. In just one example, a British study found that boys with delayed motor skills had more than three times the risk of persistent anxiety symptoms.1 In addition to the everyday stresses that all children experience, the children who receive occupational therapy often experience additional difficulties with motor skills, self-regulation, learning, attention, sensory processing, daily living skills and overall ability to respond to life in an adaptive manner.

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Yoga poses and Yogic techniques can help children improve balance, co-ordination and self-esteem while reducing their anxiety.

Yogic techniques such as posture awareness, purposeful breathing, grounding and focus can be done by anyone, anywhere and in as short a time as one minute: Stand tall, on both feet. Raise the arms high overhead so that the fingers are pointing to the sky. Inhale deeply through the nose. Powerfully exhale through the mouth and lower the arms. Repeat for one minute. This is called Ocean Breath because the breathing sounds like the ocean.

Implicit learning, which is learning through the body and by doing, is much more powerful then explicit learning, which is learning through text, facts and basic recall. Children are naturally kinetic learners. They learn by touching, feeling and tactile sensation. Young children need to physically experience concepts in order to truly grasp them2. Yoga, through the various postures or poses, requires a great deal of spatial cognition and uses the body to learn these concepts in a natural manner: right from left, up from down, and inside from out. Using yogic postures, such as Table Top or Down Dog, to act out stories incorporates active versus passive learning, where all children can be involved in the activity and integrates visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles.

Yoga and SPD

Often, children with developmental delays have fine- and gross-motor coordination deficits, learning difficulties, attention issues and sensory process dysfunction. Motor skills are controlled by a small portion of the brain close to the brain stem, called the cerebellum. Although the cerebellum occupies only 10 percent of the brain's volume, is contains half of our neurons.3 The cerebellum is commonly linked to movement4 and critical to our attention system. In addition, it sends information to the prefrontal and motor cortices. Learning and engaging in yoga poses helps to engage nerve cells throughout the brain, creating enhanced connections between the brain structures responsible for movement, attention, and thinking.

SPD is the impaired response to, processing of, and/or organization of sensory information to enable functional participation in daily life activities and routines.5 Sensory modulation dysfunction (SMD), a subtype of SPD that has been extensively studied, is a pattern of atypical responses to normal levels of sensation. Individuals with SMD demonstrate atypical patterns of both sympathetic6 (Miller et al, 1999) and parasympathetic activity.7 This dysfunction/imbalance in the autonomic nervous system impacts a child's ability to cope with daily life. These children typically demonstrate poor self-regulation. Learning yogic breathing and calming techniques can help them lower their arousal states and achieve enhanced self-regulation.

Balance dysfunction and anxiety co-morbidity are well-studied in the adult population. Recent research has established a clear link between balance dysfunction and anxiety in children as well.8 In addition, this research has demonstrated that balance treatment is not only effective in improving children's balance functions, but is also effective in reducing children's anxiety and in increasing their self-esteem. Standing Yoga poses are an ideal balance intervention for children that can be conducted both individually and in a group, making yoga ideally suited to any therapeutic setting. Examples of standing poses include mountain, archer, warrior or tree poses. These all rely on a solid foundation of ones feet and legs, thus the child develops a good sense of connection with the ground, toning the leg and core muscles.

The ability to sense one's body in space is dependent upon the visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems. Many children with developmental disorders have difficulties with body awareness. Incorporating movement, such as yoga poses, into developmental and therapeutic activities, strengthens proprioceptive awareness, facilitates sensory processing, improves arousal and attention to task, and enhances learning.

Yoga is especially motivating for children who are shy and lack social skills. In addition, it is ideal for children who become frustrated during competitive sports due to below-average motor skills. Without peer pressure, children may be more motivated to engage in yoga, with resultant improvements in their performance. This can lead to increased confidence and social acceptance.

Yoga teaches children how to "turn off" their hyper-connected, hyper-active world. It is a set of tools that can be used to promote self-regulation, reduce anxiety, improve motor skills, facilitate social skills and enhance overall learning.

References available at or upon request.

Christine (SLP-CCC, RYT) and James (RYT) Ristuccia are the founders of Addriya, which develops and markets products that combine learning and yoga. They can be reached at Amanda Gretsch is the executive clinical director of Catalyst Therapy Inc, which specializes in pediatric occupational therapy. She can be reached at


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