Children's Health: Yoga for the Special Child
See Also: Extended Interview with Dr. David Rothner: Headaches in Children
Every Wednesday, in the Giberson living room in Lakewood, furniture is pushed aside to make way for three yoga mats. These yoga preparations are for 16-year-old Grace Giberson. She suffers from spastic dyspecia, a form of Cerebral Palsy, which makes her hands and legs very stiff. So her instructor, Michelle Star, has customized normal yoga poses for her. Each yoga session begins with a warm up of deep breathing and relaxation, after which Star inquires about how Grace is doing.
Michelle Star: So how does your body feel today? What's going on in your body?
Grace Giberson: Feels loose.
Michelle Star: Any tight areas at all?
Grace Giberson: Maybe in my legs.
Michelle Star: In your legs, okay.
Before tackling the mobility problem in Grace's legs, Star helps Grace take control of her eyes. Grace was born four months premature, with a 15% chance of survival. Early in her life, her brain suffered a hemorrhage, which doctors suspect lead to her Cerebral Palsy. Her eyes are also in consentient motion from side to side, called nystagmuss. Grace says this particular disability, dramatically nfluences the way she sees to world.
Grace Giberson: It's like non-stop, and everything in my world is just movement... it's like 24/7, it never stops.
So Star moves her finger in front of Grace, forcing her to focus.
Michelle Star: Now let's circle around here...
After five minutes of deep breathing with the exercise, Grace's eyes begin to slow down.
Michelle Star: Excellent, you're doing so well!
However, when she stops the exercise, her eyes return to consistent motion. Grace will have to practice this exercise insistently, if she hopes to strengthen the muscles behind her eyes.
Next, it's on to addressing the Cerebral Palsy. Star and Grace go through modified yoga poses to stretch their backs. Then Star asks Grace to move her feet in a circle. She can't move them very much, so Star moves and stretches the ankles for her student.
Michelle Star: So let me have your leg, but keep your breathing going. Nice deep breaths.
Star says over the long term, the breathing and stretching will give strength and flexibility to Grace's muscles. It's Grace's immobility that first prompted her mother to hire Star. Over evening tea at the family's kitchen table, Carole Giberson says these private yoga sessions, which often start at $35 a day, make up for physical therapy previously offered by the state before funding was cut.
Carole Giberson: So I'm concerned without that intervention she'll get too tight, and of course that just makes it difficult for her mobility and really her daily skills.
This type of yoga, called "Yoga for the Special Child," originated from Brazil in the 70s. 36 years later, it's spread to at least 17 states, Canada and the United Kingdom. Over Star's 20 year career, she's helped children with Cerebral palsy, Spinal Bifida, ADHD and Down Syndrome.
Michelle Star: I think for the special needs child, it helps them to accept where they're at. Whatever their challenge is, it takes them deeper over time into their essence where there are no challenges.
In the first three weeks of her yoga lessons, Grace says it's not just her muscles that are improving.
Grace Giberson: And really yoga has changed my life, it's changed my outlook on life, how I perceive myself - like I saw myself as not being able to move, to coordinate myself. But no, no, no, I don't really see myself like that now.
Another quick result is some relief from her debilitating, daily headaches.
Has the yoga impacted your headaches at all?
Grace Giberson: Yeah.
Grace Giberson: It's made them not come as often, not at all.
Grace says she isn't doing anything new or different for her headaches, except the yoga. This revelation is a big surprise to Mom.
Carole Giberson: I never knew that much about yoga to be honest, and I'm seeing that its obviously it's having more benefits than I dreamed it might have.
Grace's pediatric neurologist is Doctor David Rothner at the Cleveland Clinic, and he's considered one of the best in the country. To him the reduction in Grace's headaches isn't such a surprise.
David Rothner: My guess would be that doing this yoga has helped her deal with her stress and this has resulted in improved headache control.
As science continues to investigate the effects of stress on the body, Rothner suspects relaxation techniques like yoga will seep into the mainstream.
David Rothner: I think we doctors are on a learning curve. So in the case of yoga, it's easy for me to say this isn't hurting you, it's helping you - please continue it. It's doubly easy for me to say it because everything I've tried until now has failed.
In the coming weeks, Star will teach "Yoga for the Special Child" to 25 doctors and nurses. And she'll continue to hold private and group sessions, where children with mental and physical disabilities can bring their minds and bodies into balance.
Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.