My friend Diane Cesa blogged about thinking of yoga posture variations as a remix. As a matter of fact, remix is the only way we can do yoga with kids with autism, developmental delays and other special needs.
One can speak of remix as variations in yoga poses. I love to experiment with my classes sometimes. It is risky, because we may get tangled up in knots and it becomes a challenge to untangle. Sometimes, we just have to drop out and laugh!
I love Diane’s example of the Downward Facing Dog variation where she lifts one leg to the side. As a teacher of children’s yoga, (and as a teacher whose students understand my impish sense of humor) I refer to that variation as “fire hydrant” pose. It feels “right” in so many ways; I feel so rebellious doing it, and anarchic when cuing it for a class. It always gets a laugh, partly because of the image of the dog raising its leg to urinate, but also because Downward Facing Dog is considered a relaxation pose, but it is so only if one is strong and flexible enough to be able to rest in it. Raising the leg makes this a balance pose, but turning the knee out to the side feels more vulnerable, exposing the underbelly and groin. It is also crude to the person on the mat beside you.
There is another level of remix, which involves inclusion so that anyone can practice yoga, no matter what physical or mental challenges they have.
I am going to add “Remix” to my vocabulary about doing yoga with kids with special needs. Variations are nothing new. One of my favorite teachers is Erich Schiffman. One of the fun things about his class is his own delight in how he develops a routine that takes him from one pose to another in a clever and flowing way. When I saw Yogi Amrit Desai demonstrate his meditation-in-motion at Kripalu, where he spontaneously flows from one posture to the next without premeditation, the improvisation produced beautiful variations of classical poses.
Like me you may enjoy the television program Namaste Yoga in which beautiful woman models do unique flowing yoga routines shot in various settings while a sexy European woman’s voice cues the posture flow. (My wife refers to it as “Yoga Porn”).
My mantra about special needs yoga is that we have to adapt our idea of yoga and it follows that we have to adapt yoga to the individual. This is doubly true for kids with special needs, and also goes for breast cancer survivors with mastectomies, yoga in prisons, yoga for MS, Parkinson’s, heart disease, cancer, IBS, arthritis, and the myriad of other conditions to which yoga is being adapted for healing.
This is not a new idea, but may seem alien to someone who takes a typical yoga class at the gym. The popular yoga styles–vinyasa, hot, power, for instance–are typically taught like any fitness class: follow-the-leader style. Everyone does a uniform routine and an invigorating workout. The emphasis is on conformity, on imitating the teacher’s movements, and precisely emulating the teacher’s form. I know about this, because I am a certified YogaFit teacher!
All well and good if your goals are the same as attending a fitness class. Unfortunately it excludes many people who are not fit and flexible already. It causes many to turn away from yoga, disappointed that they can not do what others can do. Sadly, it bears little relation to how asana is traditionally transmitted from teacher to student. TKV Desikachar, the son and disciple of Swami Krishnamacharya (also teacher of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, two other great popularizers of yoga in the Western world) teaches asana in a prescriptive way, as just one tool in his utility belt of Ayurvedic medicine.
In Bikram Choudhury’s (the Beverly Hills yoga teacher of the stars) book of his Beginner’s Yoga Series, the 26 postures that he copyrighted recently, he explains how he was inspired to create the Bikram Yoga sequence. As a young man in India, his guru sent him to a village to be their medicine man. Each day, people would line up at his hut for their prescription to their ailments. He found himself prescribing the same yoga postures over and over. Frustrated that his duties as a healer were keeping him from his yoga practice, he came up with a routine of preventive postures. If everyone did these 26 postures, he reasoned, they would not become ill in the first place, and in time, fewer patients would be queing up at his hut each day.
Anyone who has studied the traditional yoga texts (Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, etc.) knows that asana, or postures, are hardly mentioned and never described. Historically, in India those who did asana were typically showmen, contortionists, ascetics, soldiers, lower caste, and often weird or gross. Asana practitioners were shunned. Recent historical research into yoga has clarified that the yoga class as we know it in the Western world, actually had Western influence to begin with.
Grossly simplified, Indian nationalists sought an Indian tradition that the colonized people could call their own. Borrowing the Western traditions of calisthenics and body culture from their British occupiers, the yoga asana were “remixed” for the Indian military and school children and taught in a new format. Asana was meant to restore Indian pride.
Working with special needs kids and other populations such as seniors, we have to go back to the idea of individual attention. My training as a yoga therapist turned me on to the idea that I could bring yoga to kids who had trouble following verbal and visual cues. My first challenges were kids who were also non-verbal and had motor issues and medical fragility.
My mother, dealing with arthritis and multiple orthopedic surgeries, was another early client. She could not do any postures that were prone or on her knees. In fact, it took a long time before I could even build her confidence to that I could safely get her down to the floor and back up again, so muc of our work was in a chair or standing with her walker.
From yoga therapy training I already knew how to move a person’s body safely into yoga postures. My experience with yoga therapy taught me that I could experience the benefits of yoga even if I am passive and relaxed in the poses while a therapist guided my body through a routine. At the end of a yoga therapy session, I feel refreshed, invigorated and calm.
I had my Eureka moment that if yoga worked for me when a practitioner “did yoga on my body” then it should work for anyone. This way, everyone, no matter what limitations they had, could benefit from yoga.
My yoga teacher Priti Robyn Ross had told us that she did yoga therapy with patients in the hospital pre- and post-surgery. Even if they could not do postures, they could practice pranayama or yogic controlled breathing.
Another teacher, Gary Kraftsow, who studied with Desikachar, told a workshop that he had used yoga practices on himself to recover from brain surgery when he was confined to his hospital bed and paralyzed. He played with his breath, gradually using his breath to move his spine, and gradually over months regained the use of his body.
The Autism Yoga remix also involves dealing with with challenging behaviors. Many kids with autism have difficulty attending, such as sitting still for any period of time, making eye contact, aggression, difficulty straying from routine, and more. Some launch themselves across the room crashing into walls, some constantly repeat phrases or lengthy memorized passages from books or TV. Many of the challenging behaviors are rooted in fear–from not understanding what we are trying to communicate to them, from having a funhouse mirror distorted view of the world, of hypersensitivity to sights, sounds, taste, scent, touch, and lastly, from pain caused by gut problems, allergies, hunger, complications due to failure to thrive, low muscle tone and/or stiff joints from chronically tensed muscles.
These are the challenges in autism to which yoga must adapt. If anyone needs stress reduction, it is this population. I have also found that a regular yoga practice also helps to lesson these behaviors. Yoga has been shown to help these symptoms; yoga can also help the cause–by doing what yoga is meant to do: calming the modifications of the mind, in other words, decreasing distractions.
Remix in the arts can be viewed as a modern offshoot of ideas from cubism and deconstructivism filtered through modern technology and a democratic art aesthetic. Remix in yoga shares a similar history.
Cubism taught us that we could create a visual representation that revealed more facets of something than ordinarily meets the eye. Deconstructivism put the art observer on equal footing with the artist, seeing art as co-creation of interacting parties. Our modern sampling technology and new digital techniques made it simple for anyone to learn how to make art from other another’s artifacts and the democratic aesthetic made it an acceptable and profitable art form.
In adaptive yoga, we see the democratization of yoga, too. Yoga is springing up in new forms that were not imagined a few years ago including yoga for sex, yoga for golf, yoga and chocolate, yoga and wine tastings, yoga and kayaking, Doga (yoga with your dogs), Mommy and Me yoga with infants, pre- and post-natal yoga, yoga for depression, and so on.
Like the cubists, we are beginning to see all aspects of each other. Yoga becomes an art form itself that is plastic, molding to all types of people and surviving many formats. Modern fitness and medical discoveries make it possible to deliver yoga to new populations. Attitudes about inclusion have inspired the desire to teach age-appropriate leisure activities such as yoga to people with special needs and other conditions.
Now more and more evidence is coming in that yoga is good for people with special needs.
That’s a remix I feel like dancing to!