How Yoga Can Benefit Children with Cerebral Palsy

February 10, 2017    BY Shawnee Thornton
Yoga for children with cerebral palsy

Over the course of my 17-year career as an educational/behavioral specialist, I’ve developed a great deal of insight into the challenges and obstacles faced by children with cerebral palsy. That insight, along with my personal experience using yoga to address stress, anxiety, and physical and emotional challenges in my own life, led to my decision to use yoga and mindfulness activities to support children with special needs.  

I found that yoga offered a holistic approach to reducing anxiety and helping me cope with physical limitations resulting from both an earlier injury and an autoimmune condition I’d developed. Through my yoga practice, I learned that while I did not have full control over my diagnosis and certain physical challenges, I could learn to face those challenges with ease and grace.

My heart’s work has been sharing these tools with children with special needs and with those who work with them, helping them to face their own challenges with more ease and effectiveness. I hope that these tools will allow them to see themselves—regardless of their differences—as beautiful, radiant beings, with much to offer the world. Yoga and mindfulness teaches acceptance of one’s current situation, and it can offer children extremely helpful strategies for coping with the daily emotional and physical challenges of living with cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is the number one cause of childhood disability. According to the CDC, “Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.” Cerebral palsy can be caused by prenatal, natal, and postnatal factors or injury to the developing brain.

Cerebral palsy-related impairment can range from severe to mild, with individual children affected differently, depending upon which parts of the brain are affected. The disease affects muscle tone, movement, and motor skills. Common physical challenges for children with cerebral palsy include muscle spasticity and tightness, low muscle tone, hyperactive reflexes, lack of voluntary motor function, cognitive delay, respiratory issues, seizure disorders, and vision impairment. A child’s social and emotional development, speech and language development, attention skills, sensory integration, and ability to self-regulate can also be impacted.

At this time, there is no specific treatment or cure for cerebral palsy. However, yoga may provide many benefits for children affected by the disorder. These benefits include:

Improved Respiration

Specific breathing strategies, as well as physical poses, open the diaphragm and the front of the body to allow for deeper, more rhythmic breathing. Yoga poses that open the front of the body (such as backbending postures) also counteract the closed and restricted posture that can occur from continual sitting (in a wheelchair), or from poor posture resulting from lack of core or trunk stability. Further, more controlled, diaphragmatic breathing can be soothing to the nervous system and can be effective in reducing anxiety.

Improved Motor Coordination

The practice of physical poses support children in developing fine and gross motor skills, balance, bilateral coordination, and improved muscle memory. Yoga poses can be modified to meet the physical needs of the child, based on their level of mobility and motor coordination.

Reduced Muscle Tone

Gentle stretching along with breathing and deep relaxation can help in reducing excessively high muscle tone and spasticity. In particular, restorative yoga in which the child is supported and can move into a deep relaxed state is a form of yoga that can help reduce spasticity and open parts of the body that can be tight.

Increased Muscle Tone

Specific poses can be chosen to strengthen areas of the body that are low in muscle tone.

Increased Focus and Concentration

Many yoga poses, breathing strategies, and visualization strategies support increased focus and concentration. Specific yoga poses involving movement toward the midline of the body, or crossing the midline of the body, can support communication and integration of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which support brain/body connection, brain function, and fine/gross motor development. The “midline” is an imaginary line down the middle of the body (from the brain to the feet), separating the left and right halves of the body. Crossing the midline means that a hand or foot is able to cross over to the other side to complete important fine and gross motor tasks that support development and learning. Crossing the midline is a necessary action for bilateral coordination and thus many physical activities. It also supports thinking and concentration, because such actions necessitate communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which can directly impact writing, reading, and attention skills.

Improved Self-Regulation Skills  

Due to the many challenges posed by the disorder, children with cerebral palsy may struggle with expressing frustration or other difficult emotions, which can sometimes result in behavioral issues. The children can be taught breathing strategies and physical poses that allow them to release uncomfortable emotions. Yoga also helps to combat stress and anxiety, which can be factors in a child’s ability to self-regulate.

Teaching yoga to children with cerebral palsy requires knowledge, patience, a supportive approach, and understanding. Depending upon the nature of their unique challenges, children with cerebral palsy will have varying needs, but even those with severe impairments can benefit from yoga.

Yoga offers a calming experience to not only the child, but also the child’s caretaker or support person. Breathing and stretching with the child helps to create a loving and peaceful energy within the adult, and to elicit a deep and compassionate connection with the child.

To learn more about teaching yoga to children with special needs, visit Shawnee's website.

#arts & culture Photography: Tim Hardy

Shawnee Thornton
Shawnee is an Educational/Behavior Consultant, 500 RYT, E-RYT, RCYT (Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher), Yoga Therapist and M.Ed. Shawnee has worked with children and adults with autism and special needs for over 16 years. She has specialized in working with children and adults with significant cognitive and language delays, sensory processing deficits, as well as severe behavior challenges. Shawnee works with private clients of all abilities to facilitate health and healing. Her goal is to... Read more>>

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