From India to Chicago, Children with Autism Benefit from Yoga

Kim Goldsmith
YOGA Chicago

As I entered the classroom of a special school in Bangalore, India, and found children with autism on carpets arranged in a circle following the directions of the yoga teacher, I knew my idea would work. Last December, I sat at my desk at Bogan High School on the South side of Chicago trying to figure out a way to help my students with autism calm their anxieties, improve their focus, and incorporate fitness into their daily lives. Including yoga as part of our daily routine in my self-contained special education classroom popped into my mind. I knew how much I have benefitted from yoga and believed it could improve the lives of my students as well.

After doing some research, I learned that yoga is an integral part of many Indian schools, and, furthermore, several schools included yoga for their students with autism. I thought that visiting these schools, talking with the teachers there, and seeing firsthand how to incorporate yoga into a school day would empower me to pursue similar efforts in Chicago. But first I had to get to India.

Left: Children with autism practice yoga at The Mother’s International School in Delhi. Right: Kim Goldsmith takes a yoga class in Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga.

I discovered Fund for Teachers through the Chicago Foundation for Education, whose mission is to “[enrich] the personal and professional growth of teachers by recognizing and supporting them as they identify and pursue opportunities around the globe that will have the greatest impact on their practice, the academic lives of their students and on their school communities.” After proposing my idea and waiting several months, I was granted a $5,000 fellowship.

I landed in Delhi, India, on July 10. For the first two weeks I oriented myself by traveling to different spiritual centers: I went to Amritsar, where Sikhs make pilgrimages to the Golden Temple; Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community; and Rishikesh, Allahbad, Haridwar, and Varanassi, which are holy Hindu cities along the Ganges River. In Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga, I stayed at an ashram and took two yoga classes to prepare for the next three weeks of my fellowship.

At the Academy for Severe Handicaps and Autism (ASHA, ashaforautism.com/index.html ) in Bangalore in the state of Karnataka, I first witnessed a 40-minute yoga class taught to students with autism. The students I saw reminded me so much of my own. Some were quite independent and were able to follow right along with the instructor; others needed individual help from the teaching assistants with the postures and breathing exercises. Some of the students were verbal, others nonverbal. Still other students made repetitive motions, such as rocking their bodies and flapping their hands, and a few could stay still. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it affects everybody in different ways to different degrees, and these students, halfway across the world, mirrored the range of abilities of the students in my own class.

When answering my questions about the yoga class, the school’s director reported that it was only a six-month-old program in their school, but significant changes in students’ abilities were already evident, including increased balance, flexibility, ability to focus, and independence in following along. Regardless of their skill level, they all appeared calm. In my Chicago class, the presence of a visitor can cause my students to lose focus and, in some cases, become overly anxious or distressed. However, my presence at this yoga class didn’t seem to faze the ASHA students, indicating to me that they were feeling relaxed. It was truly impressive and very exciting.

The next school I visited was the Vega Devi Center, also in Bangalore. This was a school for students with autism and other disabilities involving communication difficulties. I spent about 20 minutes in a classroom with a group of students, some of whom were deaf and some who had cognitive disabilities. I asked the students and their teacher if they do yoga, and one student with Down syndrome eagerly rose out of her seat to demonstrate a balance pose. In fact, the students practice yoga on a weekly basis. From the students’ enthusiasm about yoga, I knew it was not only a beneficial, but also an enjoyable, part of their school day.

After flying back to Delhi, where my journey began, I had the opportunity to visit several more schools, some of which were specifically for students with autism and some that were not. After confirming my theory regarding the benefits of yoga for students with autism, I was ready to learn more specifics about teaching yoga. Although I did not complete a teacher training course while in India, I did have the opportunity to learn from the teachers at the The Mother’s International School, a private school in Delhi affiliated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The school teaches pre-primary through high school students, all of whom take yoga.

The high school teacher helped refine my poses so I could better teach them to students and gave me some materials about yoga to share with my class and parents. The primary school yoga instructor invited me to participate in his class alongside his students and then let me take over. This was a great way to learn what to do when instructing my own students who are at the same beginning level as these primary students. He also gave me some book titles, such as A New Education With a Soul and Awareness of the Body , both based on the works of Sri Aurobindo.

In the final two weeks of my fellowship, I visited several more schools in the state of Rajasthan. In Jaipur I went to the Subodh Public School, where students practice yoga on a weekly basis, and the Vinay Balbharthi School, where students greeted me with an incredible performance of yoga. Teachers at another school explained that students spend five to seven minutes at the beginning of each class period in silent meditation. All of my school visits inspired so many great ideas to implement at Bogan High School.

School resumed for me on September 8, and only two short weeks later, my students knew to take off their shoes and lie down on their yoga mats when they enter my classroom. I start each day leading everybody, including a parent who drops off her son, through 10 to 15 minutes of meditation, pranayama, and asanas, and can already see the benefits. For example, one student with severe anxiety tensed up his body when he sensed another student was about to scream. Loud noises make him very nervous, and during the previous school year he routinely required one hour to calm down after such a moment of anxiety. This time, I reminded him to breathe deeply and suggested he recite “Om” several times. After doing this, it took him only about 10 minutes to relax his body. I am sure it will only be a matter of time for him to achieve his new goal: to remember to breathe without my cue. I am looking forward to seeing the continued progress that my students will make with daily yoga practice.

The opportunity that Fund for Teachers gave me to explore the use of yoga in schools in India, and particularly for students with autism, enabled me to learn how to incorporate yoga into my classroom. I hope that other teachers and schools in Chicago will also begin to teach yoga, as I’ve learned that it is incredibly beneficial for all!

Note: Fund for Teachers opened its 2010 grant cycle on October 1. Teachers are encouraged to apply online at www.fundforteachers.org.

Kim Goldsmith teaches at Bogan High School on Chicago’s South Side.