Sound Choices. Pun intended.

What music should one use in a yoga class or session for kids with autism? And, should sound and music be used at all?

Music

In a class setting, I may use recorded music to create an atmosphere for entering and to signal the end of a class for leaving. I play the music softly and I make selections that are not intrusive, and generally not using Sanskrit texts or Hindu references to gods, esp. in schools.

(Some people believe that yoga is counter to their religious faith. The way I see it, yoga philosophy predates Hinduism and Buddhism, but as yoga coexisted with these religions in India for thousands of years it picked up some baggage. Let me be clear though, that yoga is not a religion.)

I no longer typically use recorded music during class, as it is too distracting for many students, and painful to others who have a heightened sensitivity. However, in Tip #4 where I discussed distraction, I did not make it clear exactly what I do.

Instead of playing recorded music during class, I chant for each pose and sing songs for certain poses and warmups.

Chant

The chanting I do is very simple. I was trained in Prana Yoga, created by Dr. Jeffrey Migdow, which incorporates chanting of the Sanskrit syllable that represents the chakra.

All right, that was quite a bit of yoga jargon. Without a background in yoga and the chakra system, explaining what I do and why won’t help you much. If this is too much information, you have my permission to skip below to the next section.

Briefly, a chakra is an energy center in the body. Each chakra is associated with various organs and potentials. Among other things, each chakra has a bija or seed sound and a vowel sound. To increase the energy one chants the bija sound; to maintain or ground the energy one chants the vowel sound. For those of you who are interested, here are the bija sounds and vowel sounds associated with each chakra as they were taught to me (as with everything yoga, you will discover variations and discrepancies among different sources and traditions).

First:  Lam and “O”
Second: Vam and “Oo”
Third: Ram and “Ah”
Fourth: Yam and “Ay”
Fifth: Hum and “Ee”
Sixth: Om and “Mm”
Seventh: Long Om and “Ng”

This is how I practice yoga–not the traditional way of silence, heavy breathing and groaning. In another post I may describe Dr. Migdow’s Prana Yoga methodology for those who may be interested.

As I am writing these tips for parents, caregivers, special ed teachers as well as for yoga professionals, I am not going to dwell on this. If you are interested in the chakra system and the bija sounds, I recommend you do a web search. There are many excellent sources on the web and in books if you wish to apply the chakra system to your yoga practice. There are also CDs with chanting of the bija sounds, if you want to immerse yourself.

(If you want specific recommendations, put your request in a comment below and I will reply with my favorites. I would also love to hear from you what works with your child, students or clients.)

To tell the truth, what I chant doesn’t matter. The chakra system is a “story” that gives a particular framework for understanding healing energy. I find it convenient because it is shorthand for something I understand. In my methodology of working with a private client, I like to observe a client, do an assessment based on the chakra system and then chant the syllables to balance each chakra (as I understand it). It is not scientific, but it makes sense in its own way.

Yoga tradition says that Sanskrit syllables have magical powers. Perhaps. One can also say that Tylenol has magical powers. As the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” As we know from many studies, words can have a placebo affect on health. And that is to be considered a good thing.

The traditional view predates modern thought. I say any word will work. I personally believe that there are many valid systems out there and if you know one, use it. If you don’t know one, make up your own sounds and chant them with intention.

For instance, one of my first introductions to mantra meditation was the classic bestseller, Herbert Benson’s The Relaxation Response, which taught meditation by repeating the word “One” (or any other word you preferred).  So use any English word or sound that matches what you intend for the child/client.

Songs

Likewise, you most likely have a repertory of songs that your child knows. Pick your favorites and match them up with the yoga poses. If they can sing along, even better, because singing long phrases will help deepen breathing.

My songs are a hodge-podge based on some spiritual songs I like, some yoga chants, some kid songs and some popular or folk songs. It doesn’t matter if it is eclectic. This is not a song recital or an album, and we are not packaging this for a CD, so they don’t need to be consistent.

Whatever works! Whatever they like and respond to! Whatever you like! Whatever you know.

I’ve had kids latch onto the strangest songs or chants. And once they know them, they never let me stop singing or chanting them. Only sing songs you can live with for years to come.

Sing songs that are age-appropriate, where possible. When they become teenagers, you don’t want to sing baby songs. They don’t need still to be singing Wheels on the Bus. Maybe switch to Proud Mary.

Opening and closing

I have my own personal opening invocation: I start each class with all chanting Om three times and then we greet each other with “Namaste, I bow to you.” (Many translate this as “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”)

At the end of class, I close with chanting one Om and then I recite “Om shantih, shantih, shantih: peace, peace, peace.” Then I chant “Shantih, shantih, shantih,” and say, “Peace to all things, peace to all beings, peace on earth. Namaste.” Finally, we hug ourselves and say, “I love me.”

These are my rituals and I use them in all my classes and yoga sessions with all populations.

As you can see, I don’t do anything elaborate, but I am always consistent. I also make it a habit to translate all the Sanskrit words that I use.

Jargon

A point about jargon: When I was a computer trainer, I joked to my classes that if I accidentally use any TLA’s I will ring a bell. Of course, TLA’s stands for “Three Letter Acronyms.” They are rampant in computer classes.

(In fact, my favorites were TLA’s within TLA’s. There was a network protocol *in the old days before everything switched to the Internet protocol called TCP/IP) called NetBIOS which stood for Network Basic Input/Output System. Then Microsoft implemented their own version of NetBIOS called NetBEUI for NetBIOS Extended User Interface. I can go on and on… Stop me.)

I try to avoid relying on yoga jargon, except to teach it. If any of my higher functioning students  one day attends a traditional public class, I want them to be familiar with the proper names of poses and their Sanskrit names.  Shavasana, or Corpse Pose, is taught in some children’s classes as “Do Nothing Doll Pose.” I have seen Ardha Matsyendrasana or Half Lord of the Fishes Pose,  also known as Seated Twist, called “Pretzel.” What good is this when they are no longer 8 years old?

Mantra

I have referred to mantra meditation and mantra chanting often in this posting. I leave you with this story:

In A Gradual Awakening, Stephen Levine relates a wonderful story about the importance of mantra. I link to the complete version that starts on p. 131. In brief:

In old China, a farmer seeks to learn how to practice meditation and finds a master teacher how gives him a mantra to practice. The master writes down the mantra Om mani padme hum but when the farmer gets home he misreads the final character HUM and mistakes it for COW. The farmer practices the mantra as Om mani padme cow day in and day out and finally returns to the master teacher for his next lesson. The teacher tells him he has been doing the mantra wrong and sends him home. But try as he might, the farmer cannot chant Om mani padme hum because he has internalized it as Om mani padme cow. Frustrated at his inability to chant properly, he returns to the master teacher, who recognizing the farmer’s purity of purpose, smiles to himself and whispers to the farmer, “For you, the mantra is Om mani padme cow, Om mani padme cow.”

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