Special Yoga to Help Autism Families Combat Anxiety During These Uncertain Times
As we all know, this period in time is unprecedented. We are facing the unknown, with our health, wealth, the planet, and actually our whole existence.
As changes seem to be happening globally on a daily and moment to moment basis, we are being invited to work with our fear, our anxiety, and our hearts to navigate this experience in the best way we can. What we do know is that anxiety and fear reduce our immunity, so we have a responsibility to both ourselves and to those around us to do the best we can to take care of ourselves.
As parents, we particularly need to self-care during these unsettling times so that we can be the best vessels to support our children. Children on the autistic spectrum are generally susceptible to high anxiety daily, and of course, for those children who manage the anxiety with a daily routine, being out of school and at home more will change that.
We don’t know how long we are going to be at home with our kids, so it’s best to make a daily plan. Where I do think things have the potential to change for the better is by using this time well by offering our children a daily practice; it could even be twice daily. To bring their nervous systems into balance.
To give them time to embody the practices that could be used throughout the day or ‘in the moment’ when needed. To really learn to calm and regulate themselves. To support their sensory systems and to help them to manage the world around them, and you as parents can do the practices too. Calm parent, calm child, calm home.
For you, as parents, Dr. Kristen Neff (and mother of a son with autism) shares a beautiful practice in three parts. First is to acknowledge that this moment is horrible/unpleasant/I hate this or whatever language best describes for you the uncomfortable experience. The second stage follows the Buddhist principles that the world is suffering, and therefore we are not alone.
It’s not that we want anyone else to suffer; it’s just that there are many other people at this moment having an equally horrible and challenging time. The third stage invites us to give to ourselves what our best friend would give to us—kind words and a loving, reassuring hug, or hands on your heart, or both.
I also tend to remind myself that this is just a moment in time, and it too will pass. That generally helps me to breathe more deeply and find a deeper internal connection to the peace that is elusive in these moments.
Breathing deeply makes a huge difference for our nervous system. Our breath as the parent becomes a form of communication for our child(ren). The deeper we breathe, the calmer we are, and the calmer they are. Sometimes we need to move with the breath to help. To reduce anxiety, we want to try and get a breath ratio of 2-4. Breathing in for the count of 2 and breathing out for the count of 4. Ideally, we want to breathe in and out through the nose.
We can use a beautiful hand movement to help here. Bring your palms upwards in front of your belly, breathing in counting 1-2. Turn the palms downwards and move your hands down in front of the body as you count 1-2-3-4. This can be increased to breathing in for 3 and out for 6, or in for 4 and out for 8, etc. The idea here is to slow the breath down and extend the exhalation, which increases the relaxation response in the body.
Another way of increasing the exhalation is through making sound. The vibrational sound of Om helps to create vagal tone, a good way of regulating the nervous system. You can create a rhythm with several Oms, or you can just see how long you and the child can make the Om sound for. This practice wouldn’t necessarily work with a child who has sensory sensitivity to sound, but if you find the right tone, he/she would respond to it and often make a similar sound.
A couple of stretches are always helpful as stretching increases the release of serotonin into the system; serotonin is the coping chemical that we all need more of in our brains. From lying down legs straight out and together, you’ll then want to take your arms over your head and literally stretch the fingers and toes as far away from each other as possible.
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Take a couple of breaths here and then and bring the knees into the chest, hugging/squeezing the knees in towards the chest. Repeat the stretch and squeeze several times. If you are doing this with your child, you might want to be holding his/her legs just above the ankles so that you can give him/her an extra stretch, or you might want to do the same from the arms.
With knees to chest, a very soothing movement is to rock the knees together from side to side (left to right). At a certain point, you would want to hold the knees to the right side and the head to the left for a few breaths.
Then change sides so the knees are on the right and the head to the left (this is known as a spinal twist in yoga). This is a super helpful movement that helps to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain, bringing balance. It also helps to release tension from the spine.
To sign up and access Special Yoga’s online meditations, classes and courses, including their flagship Yoga and Mindfulness for Autism and ADHD course, which offers modular learning for parents who want to work with their own child(ren) go to https://specialyoga.
Jyoti Jo-Manuel, is the founder of Special Yoga, a global non-profit organization supporting children and adults with additional needs with breath, body, and mind practices. Jyoti has devoted her life to increasing awareness, knowledge, and practical experience in the therapeutic effects of Special Yoga and making the practice available to as many children as possible. For more information visit the website specialyoga.org.uk/.