As featured in Spectrum Life Magazine Winter 2021 Issue
Providing access to fitness and healthy living to the special needs community has been our mission since being founded in 2012. We started by providing individualized 1:1 personal training instruction and then added small group fitness classes. The pandemic made it difficult for many of our clients to not only access our services, but many of their other daily activities. Being isolated in quarantine with limited social outlets, we noticed that their mental health was being dramatically affected.
We reached out to our dear friend Galen Torrey Fairbanks to create a unique and inclusive virtual yoga series. In August of 2020, we offered our first virtual yoga series for our clients and their families and have been offering 5-10 week series ever since! The classes are for all ages and ability levels, and we encourage for all family members to participate.
How does yoga benefit people with disabilities? (written by Galen Fairbanks)
Yoga can be helpful for all people, including and perhaps especially those with disabilities, in feeling better in their bodies, calmer in their minds, and more connected to their communities. Through my training, research, and experience teaching yoga to individuals with special needs with Specialty Athletic Training, I’ve found that students respond well to the social aspect of class, playful and inclusive breath work and movement, and self-soothing practices. After class, most students express feeling calm and in less physical pain than they were before class.
The consistency and predictability of meeting each week at the same time, with the same group, and repeating the same postures allows students to feel connected and safe with each other and in their own bodies. When the nervous system feels safe, the body feels relaxed, we’re able to socially engage, look and listen, mirror emotions with others, and our heart rate and digestion are optimal. This is a state that as humans, we want to be in more often than not and allows us to be in relationship with others. It may be especially helpful for individuals with special needs or who feel nervous, over or under active, or have difficulty with communication, regulating emotions, or sleeping.
This familiarity allows us to learn and practice additional Yoga skills that help us stay in this relaxed state, and by keeping these playful and inclusive, everyone feels successful. The Pranayama or breath practices we do often include vocalizations like creating the sound of a boat horn, owl, or bumble bee on the exhale breath. This fun and creative exercise allows each student to create their own unique sound while supporting the nervous system in feeling calm and creating community with each other.
We incorporate playful movement through poses like Vrksasana or Tree where I ask students to embody their favorite tree and then give them options to reach their arms out like branches, or stay still, or move in the wind. Since everyone’s version of the pose is celebrated, everyone feels included and successful. Balancing poses like Tree also have functional benefits like helping with balance, proprioception or knowing where your body is in space, and coordination as the pose is asymmetrical.
Moments of more mellow movement and energy can assist in establishing healthy self-soothing techniques. We often give ourselves a hug and then massage our arms, feel the support of the chair or floor beneath us, audibly exhale our breath, or do restorative Yoga poses like Stonehenge. These types of practices help ease the body in and out of movement, support feeling safe in low-key environments, and help create healthy relationships with our bodies and self.
What are some techniques that our readers can practice at home? (Pictures would be helpful.)
2. Vrksasana or Tree Pose
From seated or standing, begin to walk, march, or jog in place. As you feel ready, keep one foot lifted off the ground and use the support of a wall or chair as needed to balance. Turn the lifted knee out towards the side of your space and place your toes on the floor or sole of your foot on the inseam of your opposite leg. From here, you might lift one or both arms out or up; you might flow in the wind or stand tall and strong. After a few moments, shake out your legs and try it on the other side!
3. Stonehenge Pose
Begin laying down on your back with your feet near a chair or couch. As you’re ready, lift your lower legs and rest them on the seat of the chair or couch cushions. Rest your hands on your torso and focus on the texture of your clothing or the rise and fall of your body and you breathe in and out. You might place an eye pillow over your closed eyes or a blanket over your body. Relax here for as long as feels comfortable.
About the Author
Ryan Lockard, CSCS*D, CSPS*D is the Founder and CEO of Specialty Athletic Training. He is accredited by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a Certified Special Populations Specialist. Lockard is a member of the board of directors for the Autism Society of America and the advisory board for the NSCA Oregon chapter.