Autism affects many lives. It greatly impacted mine. I had the opportunity to teach six yoga, breathing and anger management workshops for autistic teens at Nathan B. Forrest and First Coast High Schools in Jacksonville FL. These 60 Florida autistic high schoolers and I experienced how effectively yoga works. In 45 minutes we noticed marked significant change in mood, behavior and cognitive abilities. Incredible!
3 Benefits of Yoga were easily observable. Each one was instant, tangible and experienced based.
1. Change in Mood – Increased Happiness. We laughed a lot! Celebrated our successes. It’s awe inspiring to see how celebration like clapping hands and high fives make a difference. Celebrating produced increased willingness and ability for the teens to learn faster while having fun. Together we invented the “high thumb” it’s like a high five except you give each other a thumbs up and push your thumb into theirs. As the yoga practice progressed we observed collective and instant innovation taking place among the students. Finishing a pose they were proud they’d lean forward give me a thumbs up and press their thumb into mine and smile. The smiles just melted my heart.
2. Change in Behavior – Calmer. Yoga helps you to calm you down. At one point we had a heighten sense of nervous energy in the room. One teen demonstrated his nerves by hopping around the room without noticing people or the desks in the room. I began to teach them to breath through their nose. He stop jumping, listened to the other teens breathing and he quietly sat down. His nerves were calmed by hearing the breath and soon he was joined the crew in breathing. Amazing! In fact they were all quiet. Soon they also were able to communicate clearly and help each other to follow along. The standing and balancing poses created a sense of calmness. You could feel it in the room. We all focused on one thing, balanced on one leg and took deep nostril breaths. Which for those of you who have and/or work with autistic high schoolers is a monumental task in and of itself. This is from only 45 minutes with a group! The longer we practiced their behavior became increasingly calmer with gentler body movements and softer voices. Some of these kids had severe range of motion limitations and were so calm they were able to focus enough to practice with us. If you think you cannot practice yoga because you’re not flexible enough. Think again!
3. Change in Cognitive Abilities – Easily Able to Demonstrate. They learned to use yoga and breathing to help them feel better while in school. Some were able to tell me what they could do if they were having a bad day at school. One guy sat up tall when asked how to handle a bad day and said, “Take three breaths.” Touched his nose, closed his eyes and on his own demonstrated nostril breath. Remember this is new information. I’d only been working with them for 30 minutes at this point. The kids were thrilled to show or tell me how their body felt after taking just three breaths in child’s pose. Their retention of new experienced based information was groundbreaking. They remembered names of poses and easily demonstrated them. On their own they began to teach each other to breath through their nose!
In essence yoga works! In 45 minutes these kids now have a chance at being able to calm themselves down. We saw significant change in mood, behavior and cognitive abilities. These teens are smart! They each have their own way of seeing the world. Their own challenges to live with that are unique to them. Yet in the midst of all their living with, they smile. Willing to try new exercises like yoga. We worked together as a unit and cheered each other on. These kids are shining examples of pure spirited human beings. They are now empowered to create their own happiness, calm and shift their thinking. May we ever strive to smile no matter what. Give high thumbs. Try something new and take deep breaths.