I call tip #4 “Don’t think about a purple elephant” but we are really saying minimize distractions.

How simple is it to get distracted? Don’t think about a purple elephant.

There. I dare you.

There’s something wrong with the way our brains work.  Our minds use images and our minds latch onto the strongest image available. The purple elephant registers and the “don’t” is lost or ignored. Try as we might we can’t get the image of a purple elephant out of our heads.

If you have played or coached sports you know how this works. “Don’t miss that shot!” Awwww!

Or perhaps you are putting out your best china for company: “That wineglass was great-grandma’s. Don’t drop it!” Crash.

Why is minimizing distraction so important in the practice of yoga?

According to traditional ancient texts:

The purpose of yoga is to direct the attention of the mind without any internal or external distraction.

Learning to minimizing distractions is what yoga is for. Yes. It is the principal reason we practice yoga. For the rest of our lives. This is unlike the principal purpose of every other s sports, recreational or leisure activity that I can think of.

What could be better for children with special needs? What could be better for parents, teachers and caregivers of this population?

Before the twentieth century–and for thousands of years–the focus of yoga was on breath, meditation, ethics and purification practices. Yoga postures were practiced, but not considered paramount. You will find this in family traditions of yoga in present day India as well. The first wave of yoga interest in America in the nineteenth was all about spiritual culture.

The reason for practicing yoga postures was to make the body fit for sitting comfortably in what is considered the optimal position for meditation: one in which the weight is on the sitz bones at the base of the pelvis, where the spine is erect with the vertebrae in a natural curve, in order to free the energetic channels that connect the chakras, or energy vortexes, along the spine.

The ancient yoga texts tell us that asana has two important qualities: (1) ease, or the ability to remain comfortable in a position and (2) steadiness with alertness. Both qualities should be present when practicing any posture.
In other words, yoga postures and movements should be done with ease and steadiness with alertness. If you are not doing yoga this way–REALITY CHECK–you are not doing yoga properly and you will not receive the benefits. In fact, you risk not only losing interest in yoga because it doesn’t feel good, you may also result in injuring yourself.

Does that sound like a typical yoga class to you?

Americans bring a “no pain, no gain” attitude to yoga class and don’t feel like they have gotten their exercise unless they sweat and strain.

Americans really don’t practice yoga properly when they are distracted by the aches and pains. They are also distracted by competing with their teachers and classmates and by self-judgment of their shortcomings: “I should be more flexible!”

Historians now tell us that the focus on yoga as exercise was a recent nationalistic Indian response to the Western body culture movement.

It was a matter of national pride that Indian bureaucrats and politicians decided to instruct Indian soldiers and students in physical exercise, drawing on the indigenous forms of yoga practice. They did this to emulate the British soldier calisthenic training but make it seem original by giving it an Indian “twist” and a whiff of Indian authenticity by implying it came from a longstanding ancient traditional practice.

At the time, asana practice was actually disdained as a lower caste activity–sideshow acts of contortionists, hucksters, contortionists, con artists, and even criminals. It was an amazing feat of cultural repackaging as part of a huge public relations campaign for Indian nationalism. (There is more to the story of course.)

And ironically, the physical culture aspects are the reason why yoga postures, or asana, found popularity in the West.

Physical Discomfort

Let’s address the distraction of physical discomfort. Try sitting up straight on the edge of your chair with your feet flat on the floor.  Lengthen your spine with your chin parallel to the floor. No cheating by leaning against the chair back. Roll your shoulders so your shoulder blades draw together and slide down.

Hold this for 30 seconds.

Now notice where you are experiencing discomfort. Your legs? Hips? Lower back? Shoulders? Neck? Chest? Abdomen? Are your arms falling asleep?

This is the challenge for sitting in meditation for any length of time.

(You may relax into a comfortable position now.)

Have you ever had a toothache or a stubbed toe? Do you remember how difficult it became to concentrate on your daily activities? Do you have a physical or medical condition you are avoiding right now? Some ache or pain you have just gotten used to? Are you carrying around a lot of weight? If you were to carry a five pound bag of flour around all day, you would get tired. Are you carrying around a 50 pound sack of potatoes? Do you have trouble breathing because you smoke or have allergies? Do you have bad eyesight, but don’t wear your glasses because of vanity?

What would your life be like if you were to remove those distractions? You wouldn’t feel like yourself, for one thing. We get cozy with our physical limitations. We get comfortable complaining about them. What would we do with ourselves if we didn’t have our health and mortality to worry about constantly? What would we talk about with friends and family if we didn’t have our ailments?

Let Us Pray: New body movements and positions create distraction

Let’s try something even simpler to experience the power of discomfort.

Lace your hands together like you are saying grace. Notice how this feels. Notice which thumb is on top of the other.

Now interlace the fingers so that the other thumb is on top. Notice how this feels.

Some people can’t even figure out how to do it, because it feels so unnatural. Most people find this quite uncomfortable.

If this simple physical change can weird you out, can you imagine how weird it feels at first to get into some twisty yoga pose?

What’s on your mind? Emotional and mental distraction

I will spare a discussion of distraction of all the things we worry about. I usually begin my public classes with a six-minute centering and guided meditation to help people become aware of and release all the emotional and mental baggage they bring with them. For instance, noticing their processing of what they did or didn’t accomplish that day, regrets and disappointments, hopes and fears about the class, expectations, judgment, resistances, and finally, what after-class plans, to do lists, logistics, worries. Check your thoughts at the door, and focus on the present moment in each breath.

Woe is me! What emotional or mental baggage do you carry around with you all the time? Wouldn’t it be nice to let that go? In Harry Potter, Professor Dumbledore has a brilliant magical device to empty his mental baggage: the Pensieve. He removes his memories from his mind with his wand and drops them in a bowl of liquid where he can retrieve them at will. We have a Pensieve, too. It is called meditation. (Actually yoga has an arsenal of tools: pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) and dharana and dyana concentration and contemplation, among them).

What does this have to do with our kids with special needs?

Difficulty Attending – The Very Definition of Distraction

I think it is obvious that children with problems attending are seriously distracted. Yoga can help them calm the distractions of the mind.

Kids with autism seem to have difficulty filtering information. Those who are able to verbalize their way of perceiving the world describe seeing, hearing, experiencing everything at once and have difficulty narrowing in on what their parents and teachers are trying to get them to focus on. You may be pointing to a grape on the table and they may be seeing every detail about the patter of the threads of the tablecloth. They may hear your words, but can’t figure out what you are asking them to do.

This seems to me like another more complicated form of distraction.

The Stress of Limited Communication

When kids with autism can’t make their meaning clear: when asking for something and not being understood, or not knowing how to ask, or being touched or prodded and moved to do something that they don’t understand, it becomes very stressful.

Stress is very distracting. When we are stressed, we have adrenalin pumping through our system and it becomes difficult to concentrate.

Tips for Minimizing Distraction

What are the steps I use to minimize distractions in a yoga session or class? Many of them have to do with creating routine, reducing external stimuli and minimizing stressful demands and conditions.

  • Mat arrangement. In a class, I prefer to arrange the class in a straight line or semi-circle facing the teacher. Children’s classes typically meet in circles. I believe it is too distracting for a child with autism to face their peers. They should only be looking at the teacher. In a private session, they face me on the yoga mat.
  • Dim the lights so their is less optic stimulation, and less visibility. If possible, aim a desk lamp or track light on you the teacher/parent.
  • Turn off the music. Many public yoga classes have intricate playlists. Sometimes I do, too. In a classroom with kids with autism it is safer to avoid the background music. Many kids have sensitivities to any sounds, and some really hate to listen to music. Others love it to the point of distraction. Once I know my class, I may use the music at the beginning to create a meditative atmosphere and at the end to signal the transition to leaving the classroom. In a private session, you will know your kid/client. If music soothes them, use it, but don’t use if it distracts. I prefer to use songs and chants to signal different yoga postures and sections of the practice, so background music gets in the way.
  • Direct their attention; and redirect as needed. In a class, the students should all be looking at me for the visual model and listening to me for the verbal cues. In a class, I have worked with assistants seated behind the students to verbally and physically prompt. It is important assistants remain in a supportive role and direct the students’ attention to the teacher. In a private session, if a student becomes distracted with a body movement, I bring them back to a yoga movement. If they are distracted with echolalia or start lecturing on a favorite topic, I redirect them to a song or chant or breathing technique.
  • Cover mirrors. In a class, I cover the mirrors with curtains if possible, or face the class away. They are not going to be able to use them to check alignment. The mirrors provide too much visual stimulation. With private clients, I can control the mirror use and can direct the clients attention to the mirror when needed. (I can also use the mirror for safety to check the facial reaction of the student if I am assisting or adjusting a pose from behind, in case they show signs of discomfort or pain.)
  • Avoid props. I know, I know. Kids yoga classes are full of toys, stuffed animals, yoga mat painting, musical instruments, scarves, balloons, bubbles, etc.  Also, there are yoga teachers who do great work with with special needs kids using the occupational therapy tools of sensory integration. Tchotchkas have their place in the universe of yoga, just as Doga (dog yoga or yoga with your dog) or Yoga and Wine Tasting Classes do.
  • Sensory Integration. To my mind, sensory integration is a different modality that doesn’t belong in my yoga class. I would prefer to individualize the sensory integration techniques. It is a series of tactile distractions. Some kids are overstimulated by the props. Why would I want to overload the circuits of these overloaded kids? I prefer to keep the yoga simple and use props like blankets, bolsters, wedges, cushions, rolled towels, straps, and chairs to assist with proper alignment in a Iyengar-style manner or to be comfortable in restorative yoga poses.
  • Routine. Simply sticking to a routine is the best way to avoid distracting the student. Do things that are familiar in class and introduce new things with care. A visual schedule or flash cards of the poses may help with certain classes or children.
  • Anything else! For example, typically I want the students to take off their socks and shoes so they have better balance and traction on their yoga mats. Some children get totally distracted by their bare feet. One child I worked with wanted to play with the socks and shoes, another was obsessed with his toes and the lint between them, yet another could not stand to remove her shoes.

That last one with the feet could not be anticipated. It was learned from experience. My feelings about music came through trial and error.

What About You?

Finally, pay attention to your own distract-ability.  Classes of kids with ASDs can be raucous affairs. Children may be tantrumming, running around the room, yelping, laughing, crying or screaming for no apparent reason. They may need to go to the bathroom. They may want a snack. They may hate the music. They may want their Mommy.  They may also be testing you, for instance, by requesting frequent breaks. I don’t brook any nonsense–I don’t like to be played!

Affect Regulation

As the teacher, you need to regulate your affect. Remain calm and loving and create space for their behaviors. Then steer them to appropriate behaviors.

  • I keep my lesson in mind and move on regardless. If they start to run toward the wall, I intercept them and continue my class as I guide them back to their mat. They may try to hit, kick or bite me or a classmate.I acknowledge them with love and acceptance, and offer them an alternative to do with their body and voice.
  • Remember to practice and teach yoga with  (1) ease and comfort, and (2) steadiness with alertness.
  • Meet your students where they are.
  • Meet yourself where you are without judgment.

Final tip

You may now release your fingers from prayer position!

But not before “Namaste.”

Copyright (c) 2011 by David Freiman