Local group sees compelling reasons and rewards for offering yoga to people with special needs
By Debbie Moller
Traditional yoga has no boundaries, yet a mainstream yoga class may be too intimidating and restrictive for a special needs child. As a result, they are limited to one-on-one activities within a therapeutic setting. So, in 2011, Marcia Grayson, LCSW, and Randi Heichman, each a yoga teacher with experience in special education and a mother of a special needs child, created Bhakti Butterfly. Bhakti is the Sanskrit word for “devotion,” and butterfly references a communal setting.
Bhakti Butterfly’s mission is to enrich students’ lives through the practice of yoga and to foster calm, peace and comfort. Welcoming children with a range of conditions (e.g., Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD), developmental delays and physical impairments, creates harmony in the group setting. Classes are held at Healing Power Yoga Studio in Highland Park, Ill. Additional sessions have been held in Northbrook, Ill., at Keshet Day School and Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association (NSSRA).
What makes Bhakti Butterfly different? Paramount to learning for the special needs student is a clear vision of what is to come. At the beginning of each class, a visual master schedule is presented and reduces the student’s anxiety. Referencing the schedule during the session maintains focus on the progression of activities.
A typical class includes five segments that improve social skills, physical strength and emotional self-regulation.
• The hello segment socially engages students with verbal and nonverbal communication.
• Breathwork (pranayama) calms the mind and body.
• Poses (asana) move the body into strength and stretch positions, developing motor skills, posture and
• Sit time teaches simple meditative techniques that foster verbal and social interactions.
• Relaxation uses guided imagery and body awareness, to help gain cognitive control over the body.
In the Buddy System, middle and high school students partner with the Bhakti Butterfly kids and are trained to assist and encourage as well as to serve as role models.
The results have been remarkable. Parents report that the breathing techniques have been especially helpful in calming their children during stressful moments. Teachers have witnessed non-verbal students verbalize animal sounds and chant during class. One student even led her family in a yoga class.
Marcia and Randi plan to roll out Bhakti Butterfly into the public schools as an after-school enrichment program. They believe that greater gains can be made right after school, with convenience and familiarity as catalysts for even more positive outcomes.
What is the most compelling reason to roll out yoga into the special needs community? The answer may be summed up in the chant recited at the end of each class: