I am deeply grateful to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust that gave me a unique opportunity to gain knowledge and insights into yoga for disabled people in India. I travelled over 6,000 miles in seven Indian states where I meet and learned from some of the renown yoga masters and eminent educationalists.
The highlight of my Fellowship was meeting Education Psychologist, Dr P. Jeyachandran, Director of Special Education in Tamil Nadu.
We met at Vijay Human Services, a small school for special children in Madras (now Chennai). He greeted me with pleased surprise, because we had just learnt that we had both introduced yoga to people with severe learning difficulties around the same time, even though we were at opposite ends of the earth. His book ‘Teaching Yogasana to the Mentally Retarded’ (pub. 1983) showed me that we used the same yogasanas (yoga postures) with breath and relaxation.
He told me about the facilities at his training centres, as the Director of Balar Vihar Special Education programmes for teacher training special educators, the children in special schools, and the parents of special children in day care.
My visit was such good timing because in January 1985 Yoga was just being implemented into the National Curriculum of Special Education, under the auspice of Dr Jeychandrans’ pilot programme, with approval from the Department of Education. (Details of this ‘Report on the pilot yoga study programme’ can be found at the end of this article.)
Six years previously in 1978, Dr Jeyachandran had initiated yogasanas (yoga postures) training for his special educators to teach small groups of special children as an experiment at Vijay Human Services. Two other educational psychologists assisted him managing this project in collaboration with the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, a yoga therapeutic centre registered with the Health Ministry.
The following three videos show interviews with these three psychologists: Dr Jeyachandran, Ms Vimla and Ms Lata in their respective training centres, along with demonstrations of the special educators’ and childrens’ yoga training sessions.
Note: At the time of my visit in January 1985 and up to quite recently, people with learning difficulties / intellectual disabilities were termed ‘mentally retarded’. In this report I will use the terms special child and children with learning difficulties, however mentally retarded is mentioned in the accompanying videos. Please allow 20 minutes for viewing these videos below, showing the unique yoga teacher-training programme, yoga being taught to groups in a special school, and the children’s pilot yoga class.
Bala Vihar Teacher Training Centre
Here I was invited to attend the teachers’ yoga training class. Both Dr P Jeyachandran and the Principal Ms V. Vimla greeted me warmly and escorted me into the long hall. Where four male teacher trainees were standing, and on the other side of a wall-divider about twenty female teacher trainees were, all waiting to start their weekly yoga class. The two groups inhaled during the expanding movements - which opened out their lungs - and exhaled to the sound of ‘ha’. I was very impressed with the beautiful atmosphere and unison of the groups.
Dr Jeyachandran said, “Our special children do not all understand the teachers’ instructions to breathe out, so what we now do is instruct then to make a sound as they breathe out. This has been the greatest innovation in the yoga programme, because the key to success in yoga with disabled students is the breathing, which is a means of controlling the vital life force. Also using sound ensures that all students are breathing out together, which helps them to perform in time with each other while at the same time it helps to govern the pace of the groups’ practice. If a student gasps for breath, this would indicate fatigue, and he should be stopped immediately and told to rest. “
Every week for one-hour the teacher trainees were taught the next lesson on yoga. Their yoga teacher showed then illustrations of the sequence to practice, and at the end of the session they had to copy these into their exercise books. So they could continue practice on their own each day, and gain experience to teach the same yogasanas to the children the following week.
At the end, some of the trainees told me of their personal benefits gained from the yoga practice such as: overcoming emotional problems with yoga breathing and relaxation; relief from severe back-ache caused by spondylitis; increased flexibility in hips; improved breathing and relief from chest infection; sense of enjoyment from the practice; and one man said he had considerable relief from various pains since practising yoga.
I was thrilled by their enthusiasm and thanked them for allowing us to video their yoga training.
Dr Jeyachandran further arranged for me to visit two special schools to see the effect the yoga training was having on the children.
Balar Kulvi Nilayam, Opportunity Section
Ms Vimla the visiting psychologist introduced me to this opportunity section, and to Ms Sithar one of the special educators qualified to teach yoga here. Everyday for the past eighteen months she had taught yoga to children from the senior class, along with her junior class together.
I was amazed to see during the session one of the girls faced the other children and started to instruct them to do Parsva Uttanasana (Crane) a rather difficult standing posture. She was able to articulate the instructions in time with the breathing, and the others all kept in time with her as they practised 6 times on each side.
Most of the children had learnt to coordinate instruction with movement, and the remaining few who could not follow instructions were able to imitate the others. Therefore the yoga was helping the children in their concentration.
Ms Sithar was very pleased with the daily yoga programme, and said she was also giving the same course to the parents. So they could continue the practice with their children at home, including the school holidays, and that this made the yoga much more effective!
Vijay Human Services
I was welcomed by Ms Lata the Principal of the school which consisted of two small classrooms and an office, where thirteen children attended for 5½ days a week. I learnt that the children spent the first half of the day using Western educational behaviour modification to teach them basic learning skills. Then shortly before lunch the programme switched to the ancient educational system of yoga that included practising yogasanas, chanting and listening to some mantra sounds, and dancing the Bharat Natyam. I attended several yoga sessions and each time made more interesting discoveries in the realm of yoga.
The yoga teachers’ programme
On Saturday mornings a yoga teacher from the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram teaches the children in an hours’ group yoga class. Two of the children’s teachers assist her, who subsequently teach the same yoga sequence before lunch during the following week. A Yoga teacher also attends the school one weekday between 3pm to 7pm to give individual 45-minute lessons to children who cannot yet join in the group sessions. A parent or carer accompanies the child so as to encourage practise at home.
About this yoga video
Ms Lata obtained the parents’ permission for us to film their children’s yoga classes. She directed us to the end classroom where five rush mats were arranged on t he floor and five boys were eager to start their practice. Their special educator, Mr V. Rajemdran held in his hand his exercise book containing stickmen drawings of this week’s yoga sequence, and conveyed the instructions in Tamil. Meanwhile Ms Lata explained briefly how the school functions and commented favourably on the children’s yoga progress. Three of the boys had been practising yoga regularly for the past four years. The other two had started one year previously, and they had some yoga tuition from the yoga teacher to catch up with the others.
Two of this group, Joseph and Raju case studies were presented at the Indian Academy of Yoga in Bangalore, which are given at the end of this article.
The staff, parents and inter-disciplinary team working with these children felt that Yoga had provided a means of reaching many of them, and hoped that further studies in this field, and feedback from workers continuing to provide yoga to these type of children, would result in improved methods and continuing success.
By the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in collaboration with Vijay Human Services, 1983.
The study was on yoga for special children (mentally retarded pupils). The aim was to train special educators to teach such pupils to practice yogasanas (yoga postures) and pranayama (breathing practices).
Fifty special children and twenty-one special educators were chosen to participate in the project. The children were drawn from three schools and were selected on the basis of age and I.Q. Most of them were 12 years old and the average I.Q. was 52.
All special educators were qualified teachers and had at least three months experience handling the special children.
The educators were given 14 yogasanas and pranayama lessons over a period of 12-weeks. Following the first two weeks they were instructed to teach the children for 30 minutes a day on six days a week for the remainder of the course.
To start Jeyachandran introduced the educators to their yoga teacher, who showed them diagrams of the yogasanas and pranayama techniques to be practiced in one-hour sessions. They were then asked, while practising yoga on their own for 30-minutes a day, to consider the methods they would use to teach the children. The third week each of them was deputed to teach the same yogasanas for thirty minutes to two or three children. In this way they gained knowledge and experience of yoga, so that the complicated problems they encountered during the training could be referred to the yoga teacher for elucidation. The teachers gained benefit from their own practice, and the change they could see in their own physical well-being encouraged them to look for similar results in the children.
By the end of the yoga study programme Dr Jeyachandran was able to report to Krishnamacharya that the children had achieved an encouraging degree of proficiency in yoga, and the confidence this engendered helped them to learn new skills and to participate more efficiently in practice. Also their behaviour showed improvement not only in the motor training areas as expected, but in other areas as well such as: eating, dressing, behaviour, social interaction and language development.
Contributions made by Desikachar
It was fortunate that Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya, was able to assist Dr Jeyachandran with the project, giving insight and confidence to the special educators. He also helped the course organisers to select suitable yogasanas, pranayama and relaxation techniques for the children, together with some of the teaching strategies used.
On meeting Desikachar he said, “Yoga has given these children more interest and has improved their self-esteem and their attitude to their families and outsiders.” He was amazed and delighted that six years later, the yoga programmes were still being taught every week and also that the enthusiasm of the special educators was constantly maintained.
Finally, over the years the special educators have continued teaching yogasana in different parts of India, and have kept Dr Jeyachandran informed of the progress their pupils have made.
Two case studies presented at the Indian Academy of Yoga in Bangalore, by Dr P Jeyachandran and T.V. Ananthanarayanan from the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram.
Joseph was 10 years old. He was diagnosed with moderate learning difficulties (mentally retarded). He had a number of physical characteristics including: overweight, overeating, lethargy, a protruding tongue, wife open mouth, drooling, peculiar gestures, jerking or stiffening of the body every few minutes, walking with stiff legs, temper tantrums, loud crying and destruction of property.
Ms Lata’s initial assessment – using the Minnesota Behaviour Scales - was to determine what Joseph was able to do and what he could not do. From this the following priority goals were established for the first quarter:
1. Gross motor development – to squat
2. Fine motor development – to cut a circle drawn on paper using scissors
3. Eating habits – to eat a complete meal using a dish with little or no spilling
4. Toilet habits – to go to the toilet independently, squatting as required
5. Expressive language – to communicate verbally both his home and his school address
6. Writing – to write his home and school addresses legibly.
An expert member of the inter-disciplinary team, an orthopaedic surgeon, was then consulted on the problem of squatting, and advised surgery to relax the muscles. However, the yoga teacher on the team, in discussion with the parents and others, felt that yoga should be tried first, keeping surgery as a last resort. Hence, the decision was made to set up a course of Yoga Therapy for a period of three months, after which the situation would be re-assessed.
Joseph was taught on a one-to-one basis. He was highly motivated, practising the yogasanas twice a day. In only a month he was able to squat, not too confidently, but sufficiently well to be able to go to the toilet independently. His tendency to evacuate in bed disappeared, and he became very happy at his ability to squat instead of standing.
Soon afterwards he participated in the yoga classes with the other children, and surgery was ruled out, as everyone was content with his achievement. His weight had dropped considerably and he looked healthy. He was active and agile, with no lethargy, and a considerable reduction in the jerking and stiffening of his body. Most of the time he kept his mouth closed, drooling had almost stopped, and he kept his tongue in his mouth. In addition his walking had improved enormously.
This may be due to his self-confidence he gained and the increase in self-esteem as his parents and siblings state his temper tantrums, loud crying, property-destruction etc., had all been considerably reduced. His hours of sleep had also increased, enabling him to attend school more regularly. Ms Lata and other inter-disciplinarians were confident that Joseph’s coordination in all the five priority goals had improved quickly owing to the regular and systematic yoga practice.
Two years later, after we filmed Joseph practising Dvipadapitha (Bridge) and Salabhasana (Locust) which he did with both breath and body coordination. He sat comfortably on the floor with the other children eating his lunch, and he ate with his mouth closed and without dribbling. Ms Lata told me that he did not start any schooling until he was ten, yet he had already reached a high standard at Vijay Human Services. There was still a slight behaviour problem but that was due to attention seeking; otherwise Ms Lata was pleased to say that he was perfectly all right.
Raju age 9 had a medical history of seizures and poor health, and was diagnosed as a severely retarded hyperactive child. He refused adult management nearly all the time, screaming, crying and kicking and was refused entrance into any of the local schools. Fortunately, Raju was accepted into Vijay Human Services. After his initial assessment the priority goals were selected, mostly with the intension of improving his self-help skills. The main goal was to have him sit still for at least 20 minutes, and the following behaviour objectives were selected for him:
1. Gross motor development – to squat, and then stand on tiptoe for ten seconds
2. Fine motor development – to put a key in a lock and open the door
3. Eating – to wait his turn in line
4. Dressing – to button his clothing
5. Toilet habits – to go to the toilet independently and squat there when required.
Although every attempt was made to focus attention exclusively on one stimulus at a time, Raju was completely unable to perform any suggested action. Instead his hyperactive behaviour continued, along with his other unusual activities. As he could not follow instructions, no plan was made to introduce yoga.
One day the special educator noticed that he was trying to imitate other children who were performing yogasanas with rhythmical counting. Because of this, he was introduced into the group and encouraged to perform the yogasanas. After a time, it became possible to teach him yogasanas on an individual basis, which was a great breakthrough. He continued to do yogasanas twice a day.
There was general agreement that there was a continuing improvement in his appearance, noticed not only by his parents and others, by the school bus drivers too. However, occasional outbursts did still occur.
As efforts continued by the team to evaluate his condition, it was observed that he could arrange picture puzzles in alphabetical order and that he could place blocks correctly on a board. While occupied in these activities he was able to sit still for more than 20 minutes. The position regarding the other goals was as follows:
Squatting – this had yet to be achieved, although he could sit flat on the floor
Tiptoe – he was able to stand on tiptoe for ten seconds
Doors – he could open a lock with a key
Eating – he waited his turn, though restlessly
Buttons – he was able to do up buttons on his shirt
Toilet – he went by himself, but could not yet squat.
A good rapport was established with Raju. He did yogasanas willingly and the team hoped this would enable him to achieve other objectives. Although it was evident that the yogasanas were a primary help in reaching him, it was realized that further research would be needed before this could be established as a regular process for dealing with similar cases.
Two years later, at the time of my visit and filming the session, Lata was able to report that since Raju had been practising yoga his hyperactivity had come under control. There were certain yoga techniques that had helped him to learn number concepts, e.g. on occasion breathing out and counting when repeating a particular yogasana six times. He had begun to concentrate better and had started to learn various academic subjects. He had reached a point where he loved to study , and whenever he was left alone he would pick up a book and begin to read. Ms Lata said, “If ever we have to punish him, or if we want to get him to cooperate, we just have to say we won’t give him homework, or ‘No yoga today’, and he immediately he’ll do anything we ask!”