Once upon a time, after a few years teaching yoga, a student who happened to be a new friend and also a meditation teacher asked me if I would teach her disabled son yoga. I explained that I had no specific training in this area.
“That’s good” she said. “You can work it out together”.
Back then I was still riding on the outer edge of the Anusara wave, and wondered: if the principles of alignment we’d been taught were truly universal, how would they translate into more unusual bodies? I can smile as I admit to quickly learning that they didn’t.
I suppose that many new teachers and holistic therapists, faced with a situation in which their standard toolkit of skills are obsolete, walk away from the client, the therapy, or both. If I didn’t, it’s probably because I was genuinely curious to see what would happen. A tangential but thorough grounding in radical learning theory had left me with the firm conviction that given enough time, and enjoyment, and real interest on both sides, you can teach most things to most people.
So what was it I was trying to teach him?
There’s no official diagnosis for this young man’s condition. If you met him, you’d be struck by his long thin limbs, and his incredibly curled spine. I’d like to hope you’d also be struck by his easy smile and genuine interest in watching what you do. Honestly he much preferred to have me perform a handstand than stretch into an asana himself.
But stretch we did, in ways that made sense to him. And we played with balance, because nobody had told me that people who can’t stand unaided shouldn’t be helped into tree pose. It’s still, unashamedly, my favourite pose to explore with people who use wheelchairs. I tried to learn his language, although I was never fluent. But he already understood me. And when I took my yoga nidra training course, he was my case study, wishing on stars together.
We had sessions together each week for 5 years, and when it felt like time to stop, it was right, but there was still a hint of tears. He’s a young man now, graduating from the college some doctors said he’d never survive long enough to attend.
I hope I helped him breathe a little easier, and enjoy his body more, but I’d never claim to heal him.
By then a case worker from his regular respite centre had dropped in, curious to see the practice, and she’d asked her manager, and then me, if I could come and work with some of the other children there. By then I’d also gained some training, with the incomparable Jo Manuel, and her guru-inspired, love-and-light Special Yoga is about as close to wearing white and taking a Sanskrit name as this post-lineage yoga rebel will ever come.
The first night I walked into Canons House I don’t really remember working with the children who had medical needs. I remember it was familiar work, it went well, and I was pleased. I also remember the nervous looks of my new colleagues as they suggested I come and meet the children on the other side of the house – those with diagnoses of ‘behavioural difficulties’ and warning notes on their files. I’m not sure how much yoga we did. I remember I was bitten, kicked and had my hair pulled. I remember the manager, Tina, turning to me on the way out and saying, half-joking: “You’re never coming back, are you?”
I remember saying that I could crack this. I just needed to figure out what these children were trying to tell me.
It’s that instinct, I think, that makes me good at this work. In time my reflexes have improved, and my communication skills, and my toolkit is bigger than ever. I only have one scar. Above all, my love for these children continues to widen. On good days I’ve soothed non-verbal children with guided relaxations, had consistent eye contact from children who would never look at you, communicated with a child through nothing but sighs, and held my breath as a young man with no impulse control sat meditating with an LED candle. That’s worth the occasional bite or bodily fluid. Five years on, and I’m still leading weekly yoga at Canons House, although one-to-one now, each child with their own bespoke practice.
I occupy a very privileged position in their lives. When they’re with me, there’s no pressure, no doing-to. It’s a short time out of their daily lives. I don’t have to get them ready for school, or make sure they eat at least one thing that’s green, or help them reach the latest educational target. I encourage, I model, I keep trying to connect, but what we’re really searching for together is a more loving and happy relationship, with their bodies, and their world, and whatever it takes to get there, I’ll keep trying as long as they will.
I have students who have performed a full, if short sequence of asana, breath work and meditation whilst a social worker looked on whispering ‘she isn’t supposed to be able to do that’.
I have children I only see once in a blue moon and every time I think we’ve cracked it, we are back to square one. I have students so impaired that all I can do is massage their aching backs and try and get some circulation going in their frozen feet. I have one young student whose sole experience of yoga this far is applying and smelling a series of roll-on perfumes. In the process she’s getting used to her hands and feet being touched, and she’s breathing deeply through her nose.
The work is never the same. I’m always adapting, always seeking for new tools, new ways to get to the heart of what I think yoga can offer them. There are children I’ve worked with for years who fight to be first in line, and others who repeatedly tell me in clear terms to go away. There are children whose first session is like a light dawning, and others that know all the moves but just want to cuddle. There are no bad responses to my offer, nothing beyond serious violence that will make me stop offering. Even then, I’ll be back another day. This doesn’t work because I’m some sort of saint. It might work because I’m stubborn. I’m unshakeable in the knowledge that every one of them is a full, complete human being, with their own intelligence and awareness, no matter how different from mine.
They do not redeem me, and I do not save them. But I do hold out a hand they can grab hold of in a world that they often find incomprehensible and confusing.
Because of this the work takes time, and commitment, and funding, and courage, and training and so much support. It’s not an easy or a cheap solution, and I’m not sure how reproducible it is unless you already have the temperament for it. It can’t be squeezed into a one-day training for already over-worked staff. Like all of my isolated colleagues out in the world teaching yoga to disabled children, I’m very lucky that the people I’ve worked for understand the value of what we do enough to fight for it. Along the way I’ve worked for other schools and centres, and other parents too. Each relationship has been valuable, but the length and regularity of this connection to Canons, like the length of the connection to that first young student, is what makes it really special.
It’s exhausting and even heart-breaking at times. Some of these children are very fragile. Some of their families do not always cope well with the lack of support our society gives them. Some of them grow up and transfer to adult provision in ways that are at odds with their needs, and we worry that their new carers, with even less provision than us, will be unable to see them for who we know them to be.
I can’t change that, but I can show many more people what can be possible when a profoundly disabled child discovers yoga on their own terms, in the context of a relaxed and loving relationship focused on their needs, desires and likes. That’s the reason why Canons House, my partner, and I, with the consent of parents and children alike, have produced these films. I’ll be sharing the more important, individual stories soon. For now, this is a taster of some of the best moments from all of them – a little warm up compilation.
When I shared it on social media, it went a bit viral. If you’re here from there, I wanted to explain a little bit of the journey for you, you who don’t really know me, or them, yet. I know this film made a lot of you cry. I’m not sorry for that. That’s what happens when yoga teachers are reminded of what we’re really trying to do in the world. These children remind me of that all the time.
Please, meet them with respect. Some of them have been practicing yoga for longer than many of you have been teaching it.
This is what a yoga body looks like.