Combining Iyengar Yoga in treating children with emotional problems

By Hagit & Eyal Shifroni

Hagit Shifroni is an Israeli movement therapist, with 20 years of experience; she works with both children and adults. Hagit has been studying Iyengar Yoga in Israel in the last 15 years, and also visited Pune twice. In this article, she explains how she combines Iyengar Yoga in treating children with emotional problems. She reports some cases and discusses the effectiveness of using Yoga in these treatments.

 

My working space is a Yoga hall which I share with my husband, Eyal who is an Iyengar Yoga teacher. The Yoga hall is equipped with all the standard props that are found in Iyengar Yoga centers (wall ropes, ceiling ropes, trestler, bolsters and so on). Movement therapy is a form of psychological treatment for dealing with emotional problems. The expression and movements of the body reflect the emotional state and problems of the patients. As a movement therapist, I suggest different ways of movement or activities to the patients to help them express their feelings. The environment in the yoga room exposes and attracts many of my young patients to try Yoga postures.

I have been practicing yoga for nearly 15 years and I gradually found myself using my knowledge of yoga and the available props in addition to the more 'conventional' techniques used in movement therapy, to treat my young patients, who are naturally curious to ‘try’ the props.

Movement therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on using movement as a medium for change. The basic assumption is that as the body and mind form an integrated and unified system, it is possible to use the tools of the somatic motion system to diagnose and treat mental disturbances.

 

In many cases the use of Yoga postures and props significantly improved the outcome of the treatment process. Yoga, being a psychosomatic science, is very appropriate for therapy that focuses on body-mind interplay, and I found that it has helped many patients suffering from emotional disturbances like low self esteem, poor social functioning, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression.

 

I present here, three case reports of treating children with emotional problems, which I used Yoga postures in addition to the conventional treatments that I had been using. This is just a sample of the many cases in which yoga was found to be very beneficial.

 

Dina[1]

Dina was referred to me when she was 12 years old due to anxiety, stomach pains, and regression in school. Dina's parents had divorced when she was 5 years old.

 

When I started the treatment, her anxiety was expressed somatically by symptoms like headache, stomachache and nausea. She was constantly afraid that something bad will happen to her, or to her relative in a terror attack (that was quite frequent in her town during that time). Every report, in the daily news, of such an attack was experienced by her as a personal threat, and disturbed her well-being and tranquility. I treated her with variety of classical movement therapy techniques, as well as with Yoga.

 

During an attack of anxiety, her breathing became shallow and fast with a sense of helplessness. For this reason I used postures that expand the chest, help to relax, and promote deep breathing. The main poses that were found beneficial were Supta Baddha Konasana and Supta Virasana with a bolster supporting her spine. I accompanied these postures with instructions for soft, slow and deep breathing as well as guided imagery. Controlling the breath helped her regain a sense of control.

Since Dina has very flexible hips, she enjoyed doing Adho Mukha Baddha Konasana, a posture which eased her stomachache. In addition to these postures, we also practiced balancing poses like Vrksasana, Garudasana and Bakasana. I tried to draw her attention to the fact that balancing physically can lead to inner mental balance.

 

After two years of therapeutic process, during the last war of summer 2006, I called her after Hizbulla missiles reached her town, to ask her how she was enduring this tense situation. She said she had no fears. She did her asanas every time she heard the sirens.

 

Lila

Lila was referred to me when she was 8 years old due to difficulties at school and a problem of encopresis. Her parents had separated and Lila has to regularly endure the difficult struggles between her parents.

 

Encopresis denotes uncontrolled defecation of emotional origin. It involves repeated, involuntary evacuation of feces into clothing without identified organic cause, after the age of 4 years, with or without constipation.

 

The father is mentally unstable and does not maintain any constant relationship with Lila; this causes her a lot of frustration and disappointment. The encopresis becomes worse when Lila experiences more frustration in her life's circumstances. At such times, she gets constipated for a week, and this causes swelling and severe pain in the abdomen.

 

To relieve the constipation and the pain, I would make her do Eka and Dwi Pada Supta Pavanmuktanasana, Supta Baddha Konasana, simplified Malasana with emphasis on breathing, particularly on complete exhalation. I also used different kind of relaxation techniques with sphincters contraction and expansion.

 

Lila’s family structure is very complicated and it is hard for her to balance her life. But, whenever she did manage to practice asanas on her own then she reported a remission in the constipation. As the feeling of organic release became more natural to her in her practice, she could use other means of expressing her difficulties, and did not need to regress to the 'holding' of the constipation that is so painful and harmful, physically as well as mentally.

 

Tom

Tom was referred to me at the age of 6 due to restlessness, impulsiveness, aggression, and low self-esteem. Tom was diagnosed as suffering from ADHD; drug treatment was recommended but his parents objected to such treatment.

ADHD Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a diagnostic label of children and adults who have significant problems in four main areas:
● problems with attention,
● problems with a lack of impulse control,
● problems with over-activity or motor restlessness, and
● problems of being easily bored.
ADHD is a medical condition, caused by genetic (and other) factors that result in certain neurological differences. Those neurological differences might affect one, two, or several areas of the brain, resulting in several different styles or profiles of children and adults with ADHD.

ADHD affects about 5% of the population.

In my treatment, I used different techniques to provide controlled outlet for his aggression (boxing sac, throwing balls, etc.); I also suggested to Tom some standing poses, especially Virabhadrasana I, II and III. Tom could identify himself with the character of mythological heroes, and understood physically that strength requires strong legs and firm grounding. Sometimes, when he was restless, I suggested making the transition between the Asanas with jumps, in a Surya-Namaskar style, at other times I suggested slow-motion transitions.

One of Tom's favorites is the rope Sirsasana; when he discovered this inverted pose he said: 'this is natural to my body'. The fact that this pose is so comfortable and natural for many children makes me think that it resembles the position of the baby in his mother's womb. The similarity to the embryo position has two facets: it is inverted, and there is a holding of the body. I found that the holding that the rope provides helped children suffering from ADHD calm down and relax. The use of props, especially the bolster, provided the support to the body that helped the child release tension and become passive.

 

Initially Tom got excited seeing the ropes, would swing on it and restlessly move his limbs. I provided him some guided imagery and told him that he is a batman that is hung in a cave. He must keep quiet and not move so as to hide from the strangers who had entered that cave. This imagery helped him; gradually he could relax for a few minutes and experience the wonderful sense of success and control. As the treatment progressed, Tom told me that he could use breathing exercises to defer his reaction rather then reacting impulsively.

 

To summarize, I feel blessed in that the world of Iyengar Yoga has opened up for me, both personally and professionally. As a movement therapist, it enriched my working tools. Today, Yoga is an inherent part of my work, and I employ it in almost every treatment. The asanas provide concrete physical and mental forms that supply a rich vocabulary for the therapist. In contrast to free movement which in many cases, demands exposure that is too threatening for many patients, the asanas provide structure that promotes confidence.

 


[1] In order to preserve the patients' privacy their names were changed

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