Yesterday was a long day – one of those long days that are rewarding and challenging in equal measure. It started with a combined yoga/photo session, prevailing on the goodwill of my students to gather some more photos for the website. I really want photos here to show real people actually doing yoga, rather than perfectly made up, glamorously skinny stock models. I think that’s what you want to see when you’re choosing a yoga teacher, so it’s easier to see if this is a community that will welcome you. Everyone needs a supportive environment if they’re going to try and touch their toes for the first time in fifteen years.
Anyway, most of the rest of the day I spent with children. Not having children of my own enables me to have a different kind of relationship with other children, and it’s one I truly treasure. Because many of the things we might do in a general, traditional class aren’t quite right for children, especially if they have special needs; and because I really, really hate dumbing things down, it means I am constantly adapting, constantly asking myself what is the essence of what I’m trying to achieve. It would be easy to take the form of yoga – the stretches and the songs and so on – and mix it with the kind of hyper-manic entertainment that children are used to. But that’s never worked for me. I find that the real treasure of yoga for children is the calm, the quality of loving attention paid to them, and a space and time in which they don’t have to perform or achieve. It’s these things that increasingly children seem to lack in the world, no matter how loving their parents or carers, no matter their background and whatever their needs.
Yesterday was a good day. I made a new friend – a gifted young girl from a supportive and relatively privileged family who nonetheless suffers from anxiety and over-pressures herself. She was nervous meeting me, but after we’d sung a few mantras, tried a couple of different kinds of meditation, and had a walk around the garden, making friends with the world, her energy and enthusiasm as she began to relax was a blossoming joy to watch. I already know we’re going to have a lovely time together. And then later, I made my weekly visit to a local respite centre for children with special needs, and spent a little one-to-one time with each of three boys I already know.
If you’ve never spent time around children like this, it’s hard to appreciate the depth of their difficulties. These three boys – two of them teenagers – are so autistic that they have little or no speech, and only a handful of signs. Ever. Every aspect of communication that we take for granted is hard won for them. (That other people have feelings too, for example.) When they get frustrated, they lash out, and they get frustrated by anything that is unusual or unfamiliar. One child pushes a second out of the way whilst exiting a room for example, and that child might collapse to the floor with a tantrum that it takes an hour to calm down from. Another is permanently manic, barely sitting for a moment before leaping up and picking up the next toy, hardly ever making eye contact.
Some children’s needs are more physical. They might have feeding tubes and be taking a carefully juggled mix of medication. They might have breathing difficulties or hip dysplasia, or factors that trigger allergies or fits. Some might be very lucid and able to communicate but living from a wheelchair. And they might be in the centre alongside another child whose mental development was arrested as a baby – a child who no matter how old they get, may only ever cry and giggle and gurgle. This means that when something hurts, they can’t tell you where. Some are blind, some are extremely sensitive to light. Few of them are the kind of sweet, intelligent, quietly vulnerable disabled children that film, TV and the local paper want you to feel fuzzy warm feelings about as they bravely make their way in the world and don’t make a fuss. It’s much easier to feel a common bond of humanity with those kind of stories.
Instead, these are people that it’s difficult to be around; difficult to communicate with; difficult to keep safe; difficult in some cases, to keep other people safe around them. These are people that make you feel uncomfortable, that might even leave you wondering why they’re not in a hospital somewhere. For years, these are people that we would just lock away. I’m so very proud of the under-resourced parents, carers, teachers, care workers, social workers and OTs and all the other people who work so lovingly to coax and teach and train the habits that can help these children interact with other human beings. We are all of us richer for the effort.
Because the point is that yoga techniques help us find calm, help us find balance, both physical and emotional, and they also help us in our relationships with the world and all the human and other than human people in it. Yoga helps me stay centred even when I’m being scratched or hit by someone I’m trying to help. It helps me find ways to connect and teach people whose way of being in the world is vastly different from mine, and time and again, yoga helps those special people too. So because boys number one and two were exhausted and fractious from a long day, mostly our sessions last night involved me singing to them, and a little light hand and foot massage, a few quick stretches and some very calming music. I only had my hair pulled once, fairly affectionately (check: no bruising), and no-one tried to bite me. I just did whatever I could to help them find a moment’s peace, and listened to them trying to tell me in the only ways they could, about their day and how tired they were. In this way, we build on our relationships with each other, tiny step by tiny step. We find a common language, built on common experience. With one child, there’s a particular bhakti song by Tim Chalice that he responds to when I sing it. He likes to sit cuddled up, his back against me, and have me sing softly in his ear. Last night he added about a dozen cushions to my lap and just collapsed in a heap on top. The other is a lot more open to the whole experience if he’s had a bath first, so we make sure that’s been timetabled early. There are certain specific stretches we might do together, if he’s in the mood, but he usually loves to have his forearms stroked, and he burbles (or sometimes screams), at me and makes eye contact now all the way through.
I wasn’t holding any expectations for boy number three. I was exhausted, and I’ve never even persuaded him to sit still for more than a minute previously. He brought his Lego with him, because otherwise I wouldn’t have had him at all, and last night I was too tired for a contest of wills. We managed a few poses, in a quick and rudimentary fashion – building up a little muscle memory for the general shapes and how they feel. It was enough, and when he didn’t want to get up for any standing postures, I would have been happy ending it there. Instead he lay with his head in my lap, giggling gently to himself. And then he made eye contact. For the next ten minutes or so, with my toes going to sleep and my lower back starting to gently ache, we got to know each other. We found each other’s noses and smelled the lavender massage oil together and blew on each other’s palms and just hung out.
It’s a lot like befriending a wild animal. There’s this point where you make a connection and time slows and you’re thanking the stars for aligning for this one, precious moment. You’re trying to figure out what you did differently or what was different about them, whilst still knowing that it might be months before you get this again. But something has changed. You know that you are now part of a very select group of people within that child’s life, if only for a moment. You’ve given that child a message from the rest of the human world – that sometimes we are worth the intense effort of reaching outside of yourself. And in doing so, you remind yourself of the same message. It’s very, very precious. It’s worth every scratch.
That’s what it’s all about. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to spend more than a few hours a week with these children. The time I spend there is both intensely rewarding, and emotionally bruising, even on an ‘easy’ day. But it colours and informs the work I do with all my students. Whenever I’m making a new connection, whether it’s an adult or a child, in a class or a one-to-one, there are always questions. Am I too old/young/male/fat/stiff? Will it hurt? Am I doing it right? Will my bad hip/shoulder/neck be safe? Are there any other beginners? Are you sure this is the right practice or style for me?
Whether you realise it or not, what all those questions really mean to me is this. Will you as a teacher be able to hold a space for me when I am vulnerable in a way that allows me to feel safe? Will you care about me and my needs, or only what I am able to perform in class? Will you make me feel small because I can’t touch my toes or stand on my head or rest in savasana without snoring?
In this work, we are all connected. So if you’re asking that question, please forgive me if I smile. Last night I spent the evening using all the tools I could think of; boiling down the essence of everything I’ve ever been taught, and it was all worth it because a boy with autism smiled at me. After that, your needs I can handle.
For any parents/carers of children with special needs who are reading, here’s a couple of lovely CDs: Dream Time Journey Be Still and my 8tracks mixes: Miss Theo on 8tracks and a final shout out for that Tim Chalice track: This Place.