Yoga for Children with Emotional Disturbance
The greatest reward of teaching yoga for the past 26 years has been getting to know my students. Maybe this is true of everyone’s yoga classes, but I am continually in awe of the wisdom, kindness, generosity and the diversity of gifts my students bring to this world. I am grateful beyond measure that this sangha of wise and spirited people has chosen to meet and share their gifts in my classes. Each one has a story to tell, and wisdom to share. A few weeks ago I got to take a peek into the life of just one of them, and the incredible, sorely needed work she is doing, teaching yoga for children with emotional disturbance.
Judith Zimmerman has been attending my classes for years. Judith is a painter and photographer who is also the school psychologist at Jordan School District Title I elementary school. In addition to her meeting with children individually and in small groups, Judith began teaching yoga to elementary students with severe emotional disturbances at this school three years ago. “These are really bright kids,” says Judith, “but they have severe psychological issues. Most are on medications. They suffer from all kinds of issues—autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, reactive attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and random, ‘Heinz 57’ psychological disturbances.”
I attended one of Judith’s classes a few weeks ago. The class I visited contained children from first through third grades, all boys. Although the class has 12 children, only 8 were present that day, including a brand-new student. To be honest, they appeared to me to be like any other children in a yoga class—slightly fidgety at times, but basically attentive and more than willing to follow Judith’s gentle instruction.
This was not always the case. “If you could see how they were for the first few weeks of this class, you wouldn’t believe it,” says Judith. In the first weeks of the yoga class, Judith remembers that the kids made their mats into weapons and hit each other with them. One child hid under tables and chairs for the first three weeks before he gradually began touching the mat with his toe. Blocks and straps are still out of the question, as is using animal names for the poses. These things become distractions, things to obsess over, says Judith. Her instruction was simple, direct and quiet, setting the perfect atmosphere for a group of highly distractible children.
The intention of offering yoga to these children is to teach them to self regulate—their bodies, minds and emotions. Judith says these students’ biggest problem is that they don’t know how to regulate their behaviors. “If they can find a place of peacefulness, even for a second, this gives them a skill they can use to self-regulate. For example, saying ‘namaste’ is a cue to take a breath, calm down. It’s a tool. The yoga not only gives them something physical to do, but it gives them a skill they can bring into their lives.”
Judith began practicing yoga at age 16. She says a crush on a cute lifeguard who practiced yoga initially motivated her to start. But her dedication to yoga didn’t end when the crush faded. In fact, Judith has practiced yoga almost continually since then along with Zen meditation. She has taught yoga to special populations for 30 years, including seniors, adolescents residing in psychiatric facilities, people in wheelchairs and intellectually disabled children and adolescents. She has also taught to school children in the general population. She says she likes to think of her role as being like a “Johnny Appleseed, planting the seeds of yoga.”
Judith’s class is gentle, calm, and above all, compassionate. The boys, who readily welcomed me into their class, followed her instructions and stayed quiet through the duration of Savasana—a full 10 minutes. “They really like doing yoga,” says Judith. “It’s amazing to see the changes. The relationship between the students and myself has evolved so much over the time I’ve taught this class. Seeing the changes in their behavior is what keeps me persevering.”