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Walking The Plank

I was recently asked WHY plank position is such a beneficial pose for kids in school, therapy, home, etc, so I decided I would address the question as a blog piece and hopefully help those that would like to understand the benefits and the precautions when introducing this pose to children.

plank

PHYSICAL BENEFITS

If you have ever been to an exercise class, you are often required to strike this pose many times.  In the fitness arena, it is one of those positions that I consider, “big bang for the buck.” One simple reason (and I use the word “simple” very loosely because there is nothing simple about it) is that it requires so much core strength and activates many stabilizing muscle groups. In this one posture, abdominal and back extensors engage, as well as co-contraction around the shoulder girdle and pelvis. It is the stability of the proximal (middle) part of our physical structure, which gives us the support to manipulate, coordinate and control the distal (arms, hands, legs and feet) parts of our body. Some other physical benefits of plank positioning include increased hand, head and neck musculature. Bearing weight onto an open palm and engagement of the hand musculature is extremely important for developing the arches of the hands which are needed for various grasp patterns. Development of the arches directly effects manipulative skills such as handwriting, tying shoes, zippering a jacket, using feeding utensils, etc. the list goes on and on. Head and neck musculature are challenged when working against gravity in plank. These muscles give us the support to be able to move our head in different directions and planes such as rotation, flexion and extension, which brings me to many of the sensory benefits of this pose a little further down.

 

SENSORY BENEFITS

Each of our POWER senses are touched in this pose (vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile).

Let’s start by addressing the vestibular system.  This system, located within the inner ear is comprised of 3 semi-circular canals filled with fluid which moves as the position of our head changes. This system is all about movement and balance. It is responsible for our relationship with gravity, our sense of being “grounded,” and our ability to stay engaged and attentive. Since a plank position assists us in gaining control of the head and neck musculature, it helps us to stabilize our head on our body, move our head independently of our body and keep our head/eyes steady as we move through our environment. To fully understand how important this actually is, think of our body as a tripod holding a video camera.  If the “neck” of the tripod was weak, allowing the camera to flip / flop without control, you won’t really get great film footage. Same applies here; without stability around the head/neck, the vestibular system is taking in a lot more jumpy, wiggly, unneeded information and trying to process all of it. Much easier to get overloaded, affecting our emotional state and attention.

The proprioceptive system is responsible for keeping us informed of where our body is in space without having to visually monitor what each part of the body is doing. It is a crucial part of body awareness. We activate the proprioceptors located in our muscles, ligaments and tendons, each time we stretch, apply resistance or bear weight against gravity. Plank position does ALL of this, activating our proprioceptive system and thereby giving our brain great information about the location of all the parts of our body.

 

The tactile system processes pain, temperature, light/firm touch and the discrimination of different textures. Many of the students that I work with are tactile defensive. When they come in contact with different materials their brain processes it as pain. They withdraw and often go into a fight, flight or freeze response. Not very helpful when trying to get their nervous systems into a more organized place. The texture of a mat is usually new, so their tactile system has to adjust, but it is a dry material (easiest to handle on an overactive tactile system).  The weight bearing helps to desensitize the tactile receptors, making it easier to accept new sensations through this system.

 

Sounds ALL good so far, right?

There are some things that you have to be very aware of when introducing and encouraging this posture for any child.

  1. Can the child get into the posture accurately, on their own? If not, then they probably won’t maintain it correctly either. This can do more harm than good, causing pain in the lower back, shoulders and neck. Therapeutically, there is a difference from being able to ATTAIN (get into a pose) and MAINTAIN (hold) a pose.  The latter requires more strength. I am a huge believer in modifying poses so that the child can get the benefits without causing overloaded stress on their system.

A.Plank with your hands on the seat of a chair or the desk.

                    B.Plank on your knees

C.Plank on your forearms.

These options decrease the amount of weight on the shoulder girdle and the resistance of gravity.

2.How long are you encouraging the child to maintain the pose. I like to count it by breaths rather than time.  Starting with 2 breaths is usually reasonable for most children.  This reinforces the awareness of breathing through all that you do.  This is a great tool for life and it’s about the quality of the time spent, not the quantity.

3.Know the goal, your rationale for using the pose, and let the child know as well.  If it seems like a “drill,” most likely the child will REVOLT because it is extremely challenging.  If you explain the “why” and your reason is something that the child is invested in, they will enjoy the pose and work to their best potential. And lets face it, that is what we are ALWAYS after:

 

Helping kids connect joy and happiness with the things that actually support them in their life journey. It shouldn’t be perceived by the child as, “Do this because I told you so.”

 

To learn more about how to integrate yoga into classrooms and therapy rooms, visit our teacher training page, http://www.zensationalkids/teachertrainings/schedule.html

TOUCHED BY A CHILD FROM AFAR

Image I don’t know when in my life it became apparent that I wanted to work with children.  Entering my profession as an occupational therapist, there were many directions, populations and areas for me to focus my studies and my clinical work.  I never remember making the decision to work with differently-abled children. But that is indeed what I ended up doing.  I guess you can say, I flowed into this line of work.  Being around children of all ages with wheel chairs, tubes, machines to help them breathe, move and function, just seemed, for lack of a better word, “natural.” I was drawn to them and in some way, I suppose they were drawn to me.  Friends and family used to express their sympathy for these children that I understood on an intellectual level, but never really felt.  It never occurred to me to “feel sorry” for any of them.  To me, they were just kids, here to perhaps have an experience that we may not have chosen, but for some reason, they have.  I honor them for that courage and I am humbled by their profound wisdom.  

Today I had an experience that proved to me that their are energetic forms of communication that our raise awareness and connection with these “special” children.  My girlfriend asked me to take her daughter to the bus for sleep away camp.  We arrived at the designated parking lot with hundreds of other families saying good bye to their children for a few summer weeks.  From across the parking lot, I notice a man holding a baby in his arms.  Initially, I am not sure why I can’t take my eyes off of this pair.  I feel as if this baby is calling to me, “Hello. Hi there. I’m here.” I move away from my girlfriends daughter, just to get a better look.  I still have no idea why I am so drawn.  As I got closer, I notice, and I immediately know.  The extended posture of her head, the fisting of her hands, the rigidity of her extremities suggested the physical body of a child with cerebral palsy.  She was definitely energetically calling to me.  How do I respond? What came from my heart as I saw her father pull her closer into his chest and then lean his head down to kiss her forehead? “Yes, you are here.  You made it and you will be just fine.  There is love all around you and obviously very close to you.  You are fine.  Be well my friend.”

 Throughout the few seconds of this interaction, I felt as though I was in a vacuum, consumed by the connection we shared and fully aware of the feeling of peace.  Later, on the ride home, I wondered what “feeling” would I have left her with if I did, feel “sorry” or “worry” for her, or her loving parent. Perhaps ‘peace’ would not have prevailed.  What message do we send so many of these “special” children when we see them in grocery stores, schools and parks?  Do we worry, judge, shake our head, count our blessings?  What if we sent them all an “energetic” message of peace, compassion and, “You are fine?”  

I am eternally grateful to this child for inviting me into her experience and sharing this communication.  I am grateful for the confirmation that there is no need for words in order to be heard.

Love and Light on your journey,

Allison

The Power of Unconditional Love

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I recently read an article about the research that is being conducted to better understand the relationship between animals and individuals on the autistic spectrum.  In this article, children between the ages of 5-13 where given pet guinea pigs to hold while in the presence of other adults.  The findings were quite remarkable.

“They found that in the presence of animals, children with ASD demonstrated more social behaviors like talking, looking at faces and making physical contact. They were also more receptive to social advances from their peers in the presence of the animals than they were when playing with toys. The presence of animals also increased instances of smiling and laughing, and reduced frowning, whining and crying behaviors in children with ASD more than having toys did.”

Although these are all skills that teachers, parents, therapists, etc. all strive to teach their students with ASD, it is not very likely that schools will start bringing animals into the hallways and classrooms.  But I think we have to ask ourselves, “WHY are animals able to help these special children calm, centered, and organized in a way  that allows them to be demonstrate more social behaviors which reflect connectedness and  happiness?”  It may seem silly, that we are looking at animals to teach us something about our own connection to these children, but before your ego gets in the way here (hey, aren’t I the one that teaches the animals what to do and didn’t I go to school, get advanced degrees to learn how to help children on the spectrum???), allow yourself to be truly present with what is happening between the child and the animal.  It is easy to accept and acknowledge that animals provide unconditional love.  They don’t ask us for anything.  They don’t judge us for who we are, what we have, are success or failure.  They are pure love.  For children on the spectrum, there are ALWAYS demands placed on them by the parents and professionals that work with them.  All of the demands have to do with how WE want them to look, behave, socialize and participate within our community.  What a huge task.  What pressure.  From my extensive experience working with these children, they become guarded and stressed because of these demands (or should I say “goals”).

What if we took a lesson from these animals and dropped all of the expectations, lists of goals and objectives, future plans, hopes, dreams and desires.  What if we acted like the animals and became really connected to the present moment and found joy in the “being.”  Is it possible that we can have the same effect on these children as the animals?  Would we be able to facilitate speech, eye contact and happiness by changing how we were around these children????  The answer is YES.

Try this little exercise the next time you are with a child on the spectrum:

1. Become really aware of your breath.  You can place your hands on your belly if this helps you to “fall in” and slow down.  When we engage in deep belly breathing, our nervous system calms down.  This feeling of being relaxed and calm, can be felt by children with ASD.

2.  Have a quiet conversation with yourself in your own mind. ” I am just here to BE with you.  There are NO expectations.  I just am happy to be here in your presence and whatever evolves, evolves.  But I promise that I will be present enough to observe all the GOOD that is within you.

3.  Remember, no judgement, no demands, just BE.

There is actually a lot of research and science that supports this heart centered approach.  I teach a course called, “Yoga for Differently-Abled Children,” with  http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0057010 Kaur Khalsa.  In this training, we teach you how to hone your unconditional love, awareness and authentic self so that you can communicate with these amazing children on this level.  We also provide therapeutic techniques to help their sensory systems regulate and their light to shine.  You can find out more about this training on my web site www.zensationakids.com.

Here is the link to the research article :  http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0057010

Helping Children Become Independent Using Breath in the Classroom


Last night in my Webinar with Donna Freeman from Yogainmyschool.com: Yoga for Children with ADHD, I talked about breathing techniques that work well with this population, and are easily incorporated into the classroom. Here is another idea that I tried out today and had great success with.
I made these bracelets with a group of 2nd grade boys. We have been working on breathing techniques in our sessions together, but when they get back to the classroom, they seem to forget to use the strategies when they need them the most. The TAKE 5 Breath is a simple technique. To complete: inhale for a count of 5, hold the breath for a count of 5, then exhale for a count of 5 and repeat. These simple bands (rubber bands actually), just serve as a visual reminder to use the breath occasionally in class. Since it is on their wrist, it is also with them when they change classes, go to a special and during lunch/recess. It helps them to be more independent with using the strategies that we learn in yoga.
During our yoga time together, we talked about how we feel after we do our TAKE 5 breath. The first word they thought of was CALM. They then decided that they wanted to think of other “C” words that also described how they felt. They came up with CLEAR and CONTROLLED. We put these words inside the bands so that they could remember those too. The other added benefit from having the band: it actually worked as a fidget for one of the boys and helped him to attend during the class as well.

I AM

One of the most effective ways to help children see the positive sides of themselves is through “I AM” affirmations.  I have seen a child go from a blown-out tantrum to attaining a calm state in a matter of 60 seconds.  How is this accomplished????  There is nothing magical that I had done.  When they are able to connect to their breath and link it to a self affirming characteristic, they create the change within themselves.  Here is a very simple way that I have introduced this into my therapeutic yoga classes for “differently-abled” students.  Have the students use a balloon breath with an affirmation that they think of, or read off of a card.  Here is how it is done:

1.Standing tall like a mountain, inhale your arms out to the side and up over your head.

2.When your hands meet, say, “I AM”

3.As you bring your hands down to your heart in prayer pose, say your affirming word.

If they have difficulty thinking of something positive to say, below is a list to help the positive juices flowing.

I AM characteristics

4.Another thing I like to add is having them write down one of the affirmations.  This is a great way to practice handwriting and becomes more memorable as well as believable when they see the sentence in their own handwriting.  I encourage them to keep the sentence where they can see it, or refer to it on occasion throughout the day.  Taped to the side of their desk, or folded in their pocket are 2 options that have worked well.

 

Zensational Kindergarten

Kindergarteners are so eager to learn and share their views and ideas.  I love getting to bring yoga into their classrooms each week.  Although I always plan to bring enriching lessons to their education, I ALWAYS find that I am the one who gains so much inspiration and knowledge from watching and listening to them.  This week, my lesson theme was BE HAPPY WHO YOU ARE.  We read The Mixed-Up Chameleon by Eric Carle.  All of his books are so conducive to introducing in a kids yoga class.  The students loved becoming “part of the book.”  All of the animals that the chameleon wished he could be where brought to life through yoga poses:

ANIMAL:            POSE:

Polar Bear            Down Dog and walk around on hands and feet

Flamingo           Tree pose with your hands on your shoulders to make the wings

Turtle            Child’s pose and rest in shell

Elephant            Stand with feet apart, clasp hands together and swing side to side           

Fox            Down Dog and lift one leg in the air to wag your fluffy tail

Giraffe       Stand tall on your toes with your arms reaching high towards the sky

Seal            Lay on stomach, arms extended in front of face and clap hands

Chameleon      Slither on stomach and extend tongue to catch a fly

There are even eye exercises in the book: The chameleon moves its eyes up and down and sideways while keeping his body still…….in order to catch the fly.

Practice tongue movements, pretending to catch your fly.  Move your tongue in/out, up/down and all around.

After we read the book, every student created their own page to a classroom book titled,

THE MIXED-UP KINDERGARTEN

Each student picked an attribute that they like about themselves and then picked an animal that also is like that attribute……such as:

I am happy like a seal

I am brave like a polar bear

I am kind like a flamingo.

I printed out a sheet with 6 positive attributes such as happy, funny, kind, brave,…

When the sentences were done, they became the illustrators as well.

Some other ideas to add to your exploration of this book can be found at

http://www.eric-carle.com/bb-chameleon.html

Animal pictures to go with the story:

http://storytime-storytime.blogspot.com/2009/02/mixed-up-chameleon.html

the children LOVED this lesson…..and so did the teachers.  We worked on self-esteem, gross/fine motor skills, coordination, space/body awareness, phonics, reading, writing, cutting, gluing….the lessons are endless.Image

Yoga 4 Classrooms: Helping students of ALL abilities learn

As an occupational therapist and a yoga teacher working in schools, I have had the honor of helping children of ALL abilities find comfort within themselves and within the classroom.  Both can be a great challenge for any child, let alone a child that has a diagnosis of autism, ADHD, Down’s syndrome, etc. Yoga has been an incredibly useful and effective tool when working with my students in therapy as well as helping them learn within the classroom.

The more I introduce breath, movement and mindfulness, the more I am shown that these aspects of yoga help children gain strength and awareness of Self, necessary components to learning.  My greatest hurdle within the walls of many schools is finding ways to support my students beyond the therapy room and into the classroom. Over the years I have become very creative in peaking the teachers’ interest and awareness of the benefits of yoga as they pertain to education.  I was extremely excited when Lisa Flynn of Yoga 4 Classrooms released her newly published yoga cards that she designed specifically for the classroom.  Although these cards stand on their own as a great learning/teaching tool, I wanted to share a creative way that I help teachers integrate the cards into their own lessons.

Handwriting is a daily practice in every kindergarten and first grade classroom.  That alone makes it a perfect fit to establish a routine for doing yoga in school.  Traditional lessons for perfecting handwriting skills involve that tried and true method of practice, practice, and practice.  Unfortunately, this method is ONLY effective if taught in a manner that is conducive to the students learning style.  While some students remember how to form letters; their shape, size and direction of each line, by writing them over and over again, other students are more kinesthetic learners and need to move more of their body and feel the direction of the lines.  This may involve moving large muscle groups rather than the small muscles of their hand.  Other students respond better to remembering information when it is relevant to something in their life.  For example, it is easier to remember how to form a “T” and the sound that “T” makes if you picture a pedestal table.  There is a tall center structure and the flat top that sits across the center support, just like the letter.   Many children (with and without a specified diagnosis), flourish in educational settings when they have the ability to connect information to their particular learning style.

The Yoga 4 Classroom cards offers the ability for teachers to integrate movement, breathe and visualization into their own lesson plans while reaching the students with a variety of learning styles.  Here is an example of how I used them to teach other letters prior to ever picking up a pencil.

For the letter A, I used the RED Stand Strong cards of Star and Triangle.  “A” is actually a tricky letter because it is composed of 2 diagonal lines. These are harder to draw than vertical and horizontal lines because they require crossing of the midline of your body.  To use our body to make an “A”, I tell the students that we are an airplane and our arms are the wings.  We start in STAR pose, stretch our arms wide and take in a big breath.  On an exhale, our plane then goes to make a turn and leans to the side (coming into triangle pose).  I tell them that our arms are now forming a diagonal line, just like in the letter.  We inhale and come back to STAR, exhale and turn your airplane to the other side.  Inhale back to STAR and this completes the horizontal line across the letter.

When teaching handwriting, we start with all of the straight lined capital letters first, so “E” is next

For the letter “E”, I used the MOUNTAIN pose.  This letter starts with a long, up and down (vertical) line.  Three horizontal lines meet the vertical line.  These lines are made with the SITTING PIGEON pose.  From their knee to the bottom of their foot forms this short horizontal line.  Once in this pose, I have them draw along their leg with their hand 3 times.  They do this with both legs.  For an added brain balancing benefit, I have them use their right hand to draw across their left leg and their left hand to draw across their right leg.

For the letter “F”, I use SITTING RAG DOLL and simply FOLD our body forward.

 

For the letter “H”, POWER BREATH is perfect since you exhale forcefully with the “Ha” sound.  Did this lesson right before the holidays, so we exhale with a hearty “HO.”

For the letter “I”, we became icicles.  Standing in MOUNTAIN with arms reaching for the sky (in the shape of the letter), we breathe in deep and slowly melt into CHAIR.

The ideas of how to creatively use these cards are endless.  The other feature of the cards that make it so easy to use within the school is that a teacher can simply read the directions in the back of the card to direct the students.  They do not need years of yoga training to effectively offer movement, breath and mindfulness into their class.  Simply put, these cards offer accessibility to the open hearted novice and facilitate creative options to the open minded.  It is a win-win for teachers and students.

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