Managing Sensory Overload with Yoga Poses for Kids

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Lindsay Hall is a Certified Yoga Teacher (200 YYT) with additional training in prenatal yoga as well as yoga for the pelvic floor. In this blog post, Lindsay tells about the benefits of yoga poses for kids in relation to sensory sensitivities.

I love yoga!

There, I said it. I don’t really consider myself a true yogi, but I’ve experienced so many positive changes since yoga entered my life. I also love being an occupational therapist (OT). Yes, I do love lots of things, like coffee, reading, anything with salted caramel and chocolate, skiing. However, other than my family and friends, yoga and being an OT definitely rank near the top of my list of loves.

I’m an occupational therapist, with a love for yoga that developed after having my second child. I came to the revelation that yoga and OT, especially the sensory processing side of what occupational therapists do, seem to truly go hand and hand.

As I mentioned, I am a mom and it is my favorite occupation. I am a mom who introduced yoga to her children from an early age. One of my favorite videos of my children is of my sweet daughter at the age of two, flowing through her own Sun Salutation, in footed PJs. When her father asked what she was doing, she responded “I do OGA”.

I also have a charming son, who, like his mother, can struggle with certain sensory inputs. He doesn’t like the feel of certain clothing and can be very particular when it comes to the gear needed for sports (skiing, running, soccer, hockey, to name a few). When it comes to sleep, he has very specific needs, as do I. He craves movement and is always on the go. He can also get easily overwhelmed in certain situations and truly did not know how to calm himself, nor really did I, that is until we began yoga.

For many other children, kids with autism, anxiety, and sensory overload are linked and yoga definitely helps!

Mother and son sitting on yoga mat doing stretches.

Yoga and occupational therapy for kids

Yoga is a practice that combines the body, the mind, and the spirit, through breath, movement, and meditation. In occupational therapy, our focus as clinicians is to enable individuals to participate in what they want and need to, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Both defined practice areas focus on the needs of the “whole person”. How great is that?!

So, how is it that yoga is now an intervention I never thought of before? Even after working as an OT for over 15 years and 4 years spent in pediatrics. Luckily, the “aha” moment happened and it’s my hope it can happen for many others.

Daughter and mother sitting on yoga mat meditating.

Breath or pranayama

First of all, the introduction of “pranayama” (breath work) as part of the practice of yoga has given my son the resources for his own sensory tool kit to be able to help self-calm and refocus. He uses breathing techniques at night as needed or when he is simply overwhelmed with the world around him. He knows now how to sit in quiet and simply focus on his breath when things may seem out of his control at home. (i.e., His sister did something to make him angry!)

Breath practice can regulate the heart rate, refocus the mind, increase blood flow, and most importantly, can move someone from the “fight or flight” reaction that occurs when our sensory system is overloaded.

Yoga poses for kids, or asana

Learning various poses or “asanas” tap into my son’s need for movement. He is an athletically gifted kid and loves more advanced poses such as crow pose and handstand (a very difficult pose that I cannot seem to master!).

These yoga poses for kids, as well as so many others like downward dog, plank pose, and tree pose can provide individuals who need vestibular, tactile, and even proprioceptive feedback their body may be seeking. Partner poses, such as downward dog, and lizard lying on a rock provides deep pressure which is often found to be calming or soothing.

Meditation/mindfulness or dhyana

One of the other key components of a yoga practice is meditation and mindfulness.

Mediation is our ability to connect or to disconnect from the world around us and focus on the mind and body. There is evidence that has found that meditation can turn off the stress responses in the body and change the structures in the brain to become more resilient to stress. This is rather impressive!

Here is an article about mindfulness I found to further explain this.

When we meditate, we focus on our breath and truly let go of the thoughts that might enter our brains. We can think of them as clouds floating in and floating out. We can acknowledge them, but not focus on them. This work towards clearing the mind and connecting with the breath can go along way in terms of self-regulation when someone is experiencing sensory overload.

My aunt, a long time yogi, has told me she can meditate for the length of a flight now and this has helped her cope with her anxiety of flying. I have seen children simply go into the easy pose (cross leg sitting) with hand on their knees and eyes closed to help center themselves in the middle of a room.

Meditation is such an amazing tool to have in one’s sensory toolbox.

Other benefits of yoga for kids

In addition to breathing, yoga poses for kids, and meditation, there are many other wonderful features of yoga that I feel tap into the needs of both children and adults with sensory processing challenges.

The yoga class environment is typically calm and welcoming, with limited distractions and dim lighting. This tends to be very calming for the visual system. If someone were to practice at home, I would recommend a similar environment, maybe a quiet bedroom or study.

There is also no need for special clothing or equipment. This is a huge bonus for children, who like my son, finds any form of sporting equipment, (i.e. hockey or even skiing), very overwhelming to his tactile system. Additionally, lack of footwear in yoga allows for feet to obtain the tactile and proprioceptive feedback from the ground and mat.

Music is generally very calming at a slower tempo and helps regulate our auditory system. This helps to guide the breath and movement.

Mother and son stretching and holding their knees.

Tying it all together

When I teach my weekly yoga class to adults, my favorite part is the last 5-10 minutes. As I wrap up each class, I encourage everyone to find their favorite resting pose, most often Savasana. Each person has an eye pillow filled with lavender and flaxseed and a cozy blanket to cover up in.

The music is soothing and the lights are low. I travel around the room providing deep pressure touch to the shoulders or feet of those who are requesting it. I guide participants through a brief meditation. Then, I encourage them to find their breath and let all their thoughts go.

For those that have had an overload of stimuli or are in sensory overdrive, this is often the ultimate way to re-set the sensory system (which has 8 senses).

I am so grateful when I watch my participants breathe deeply into relaxation and let go. This class truly taps into all the sensory systems, and the benefits of taking this time, even only 10 minutes, can change so much. I encourage everyone to give yoga a try. For people with sensory processing challenges, it is a wonderful, underutilized intervention.

Partaking in a yoga class and having the chance for the ultimate relaxation at the end of a class is so worth it. My son and daughter would agree.

Namaste.

  • Lindsay is an Occupational Therapist (OT).
  • She holds outdoor classes in Bloomfield, is a teacher at Lifestyles Fitness and Wellness, Hampton, New Brunswick Canada. 
  • She often partners with Archstone Physiotherapy to offer classes like prenatal yoga and more.
  • Reach Lindsay by email
  • Follow Lindsay on Facebook at Lindsay Hall

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