Adaptive Yoga for Kids: Nine Guidelines for Teaching Children Who Use Crutches
I have taught children’s yoga since 2002, and for much of that time I only taught typical-bodied students. This changed, however, after I began practicing with my son more than four years ago. He was born with a gross motor disability, and he currently relies on braces and crutches to walk and stand. Based on my experience doing yoga with him at home and in my classes, teaching yoga to other children with various disabilities, and helping to conduct pediatric assistive technology research in my job as a professor, I have developed a set of guidelines for teaching yoga to children with disabilities who use crutches.
1) Take the time to learn about your students’ abilities and needs. Doing so will allow you to work with them effectively and mindfully. What is their diagnosis? How has it affected their bodies’ development, strength, coordination, balance and movement? Do they use crutches for walking, standing, or both? Does they use two crutches or one? Can they stand or walk for limited periods of time without their crutches? Do they wear braces and shoes when using their crutches? Can they stand while holding onto someone's hands, a wall, or other props? Do they need a parent or assistant to help them during class? Also remember that some children may have surprising levels of strength in non-affected parts of their body as a result of compensation and/or crutch use. Learn what your students’ particular strengths are, too.
2) Incorporate postures, creative movements, games, breath work, mindfulness exercises, and other class activities that your students can do without the use of their crutches. If they can only stand with one or both crutches, for example, include sitting poses, prone and supine poses (e.g., happy baby and snake), and poses that allow them to use their arms for partial support (e.g., downward dog and boat). You can also use props to help them experience greater ranges of movement than crutches allow. Chairs, for instance, can be particularly good for students to experience the upper body benefits of forward bends, as sitting in the chair allows them to keep their arms free for the pose.
3) At the same time, make sure to incorporate their crutches into thei yoga sessions. Crutches function, in a sense, as yoga "props." Like blocks, chairs, bolsters, and belts, they enable children to experience certain poses—or go deeper into poses—that would be difficult for them to do without them. Crutches, for example, may make it possible for them to do standing poses such as tree, the warrior series, and even forward bends. Although they may have limited arm use when using their crutches, they can still experience and benefit from other aspects of the poses.
Just as importantly, children who depend on crutches to walk and stand often view them as extensions of their bodies. Their body, muscle memory, and sense of self have developed in relation to their crutch use. Given that yoga embraces a "whole body" approach to teaching and practice, it is vital that teachers embrace children’s crutches as part of their embodied practice.
4) Consider the benefits that particular poses have for your students’ therapeutic needs, and the ways that yoga can complement their ongoing physical therapy, occupational therapy, and/or other rehabilitative modalities. If your students are working to improve their leg strength or weight bearing ability, incorporate standing poses and squats into their sessions. If they are learning to stand and walk with one crutch, have them try standing poses on one crutch instead of two.
5) Yet do not only approach the students’ yoga practice as a form of rehabilitation. Children's yoga has many other benefits, including overall physical health, emotional wellbeing, spiritual growth, and connection with others. Children with disabilities can and deserve to experience these yoga benefits just as much as their typical-bodied peers do.
Likewise, include poses that draw on your students’ physical strengths, as such poses can help to build their self-confidence and self-efficacy. My son, for example, has disproportionately strong arms and decent core strength, and he loves to push himself up into a handstand from a seated position. He can also do an impressive peacock pose. Doing these poses makes him feel strong and powerful.
6) Although it is important to provide your students with suggestions for adapting poses, it is just as important to let them come up with their own ways of doing them. After all, practicing yoga is not only about proper alignment but also about learning to listening to one’s self and one’s body. Letting your students develop their own adaptions also empowers them to take charge of their bodies and their abilities. They may even devise modifications that are better than the ones that you developed. When coming up with a modification for triangle pose, for example, I assumed that my son would need to lean on a chair instead of his crutches. Before class, I placed the chair next to his mat and showed him what to do. When it was time for the students to do the pose, however, he spread his legs and leaned on his left crutch and lifted his right crutch (and arm) into the air. Okay, then—much simpler than my adaptation!
7) When teaching a mixed-ability class, make sure to develop your class plan with your students’ range of abilities in mind. Your class should consist of poses and activities that can be done by and/or adapted for the children who use crutches. This guideline applies to partner and group poses, too. When having my students turn their tree poses into a group forest, for example, my son could not hold hands with the children on either side of him. Thus, I asked those two children to place one of their hands on each of my son’s shoulders while holding hands with the students on their other side.
When applicable, also provide modification options for all your students so that those who use crutches are not the only one doing the activities differently. As part of a “free dance” with scarves, for instance, encourage everybody to move around on their feet, their bellies, or other body parts. This way, your student who decides to do the dance without her crutches won’t necessarily be the only one spinning on her bottom and rolling around on the floor while waving her scarf in the air.
Finally, you may need to slow down your class pace in order to give your students time to transition from sitting to standing, to pick up their crutches or put them down, or to get in and out of the pose at hand. If your typical-bodied students get antsy while waiting, suggest that they use the time to breath mindfully in mountain pose or pretzel pose.
8) If you teach in a studio, take a relaxed approach to its shoe policy. Many studios forbid shoes and other rubber-soled objects (e.g., crutch tips) from coming in contact with the floor. Not allowing students with disabilities to wear their shoes (which they need for their braces) and use their crutches may limit their ability to participate in your class. If you are stressed about the impact of their shoes and crutch tips on the floor, perhaps you could encourage them to clean off their bottoms before entering the studio. Or perhaps you could place extra mats around the room so that they can stand on them as they move around during class.
9) Remember that your students’ disabilities are just as much a social construct as they are an embodied reality. That is, their limitations result not only from their medical conditions but also from societal policies, physical environments, and social spaces that have been developed and designed with typical bodies in mind. The more that you work to incorporate “universal design” into your classes so that students with various needs and abilities can participate, the more that your yoga teaching will become a vehicle for social justice. In other words, you will empower your so-called disabled students to reach their physical, emotional, and social potential as well as provide all of your students with principles and tools for practicing compassion and promoting equality in their lives both on and off of the mat.