Anyone can practice yoga. It is welcoming, embracing, and available to anyone regardless of age, fitness level, and health status. There is no pressure to achieve an ideal version of postures. The only requirements are to roll out a yoga mat, find a safe space to practice, and give it a try. Yoga allows us to recognize that our body may feel different on the right side versus left, and differently today than yesterday or a week ago. That is exactly why we are on the mat: to experience our body today this very moment.
If your child has a musculoskeletal condition, practicing yoga can quiet the mind, elongate tight muscles and strengthen weaker ones, decrease pain, improve stamina, posture, body awareness, balance and coordination, and boost self-esteem. Participating in a group activity for children with more limiting conditions can be very rewarding, as often they are exempt from physical education classes or team sport activities and may feel left behind.
There are a variety of props (blocks, straps, blankets, wedges, bolsters) and modifications that a knowledgeable teacher can offer to each child-yogi to help achieve a pose (asana). Depending on a child’s limitations, different modifications to the poses and arrangement of props can be made and will be unique for each child. For example, children with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis may have painful joints and range of motion limitations, which can be particularly bothersome during an acute stage of inflammation. Adding small soft wedges under palms, or weight-bearing on elbows instead of palms, may allow the child to achieve cat and cow, downward dog and plank poses. Using a rolled up blanket, yoga block, or bolster may help support the trunk, legs or pelvis during prolonged stretches, allowing the body to melt into the supportive surface.
For children with severe musculoskeletal disabilities (such as osteogenesis imperfecta or cerebral palsy), yoga helps to improve breathing patterns, which are often restricted by tight muscles in the chest wall. Pranayama (breathing exercises) help to elongate the breath and quiet the mind by shifting focus away from the pain or discomfort in the body. Supported yoga poses allow for the safe and gentle elongation of tight muscles, which are often overused due to the excessive demands of postural control. For children affected by other neuromuscular disorders, yoga helps “overexcited” muscles to quiet down and improves breathing patterns, self-esteem, and quality of sleep.
Yoga for children with idiopathic scoliosis has been controversial in the past and was not recommended. Today, knowledgeable yoga teachers and practitioners who understand the pathologic mechanism of scoliosis will know which poses to avoid, including forward flexion, backbends, and trunk rotation (twisting), all of which have the potential to worsen the curve. However, many poses can be modified to include trunk elongation in the midline.
Most of all, yoga can be adapted to any child regardless of their age, abilities or musculoskeletal condition. Children who are dealing with a sports injury will benefit from yoga as much as children with severe musculoskeletal impairments. Yoga can be used for all medical conditions as long as precautions prescribed by the physician are maintained and poses are chosen that will benefit a specific child. Two children with the same condition may not present the same way, but there is a yoga practice that can be adapted to meet the needs of each one of them.
Magdalena Oledzka is a pediatric physical therapist and is the Director of the CA Technologies Rehabilitation Center at the Lerner’s Children’s Pavilion, Hospital for Special Surgery. She is NDT trained in the management and treatment of children with cerebral palsy and other neuromotor disorders.