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Yoga and Sensory Integration: A Therapist’s Story

17 Jun 2020 11:54 | SIE News (Administrator)

We are looking back at this article, first published in 2016 in our SensorNet magazine, in celebration of the International Day of Yoga on 21 June...

Mel has been an Occupational Therapist for over 20 years. After taking time out to raise her children, Mel went on to study Yoga, as a way of developing her own self-practice and has since become a teacher and author in Yoga. She has over 10 years Yoga teaching experience and is the author of ‘The Yoga of Pregnancy’ book and DVD. Returning to her profession as an Occupational Therapist, she found herself drawn to the study of Sensory Integration. She always maintained an interest in Neurology and was fascinated by the Sensory Integration approach. The more she studied the theory of Sensory Integration, the more she found her two worlds of being a yoga teacher and an Advanced Sensory Integration Practitioner merging.

Yoga is an ancient practice originating in India thousands of years ago (Adamson E, Komitor J 2000). It combines physical exercise in the form of different yoga poses, known as asanas, with meditation and breathing exercises, synchronising the mind, body and breath to enhance a healthier and more whole self. (Desikachar T.K.V 1999).

Similarly, theorists in Occupational Therapy also link the mind-body experience and this is represented in both Kielhofner and Fisher (1991) and Ayres (1972) work. Ayres named the vestibular (movement), proprioception (body awareness) and tactile (touch) as the three major sensory systems from which information is received and interpreted by the central nervous system. Ayres believed that the integration of these sensory systems provides the foundations from which higher-level brain functions such as academic learning, complex motor skills and social skills develop. Disturbances with the processing of sensory information within these different systems can lead to difficulties with planning, conducting motor skills and responding appropriately to sensory input. When the body and mind interact effectively within our environment, we are able to receive, modulate, integrate and organise sensory stimuli, responding with appropriate motor and behavioural actions. Neuroplascitiy is the basis for sensory integration. The more sensory enriched opportunities we have, the more it facilitates the laying down of new neural pathways in the brain which supports cognitive development, growth and behaviour.

The asana aspect of a yoga practice, moves the body in different planes. The enhanced vestibular input supports balance, eye control, inversions and bilateral integration. The proprioceptive and tactile sensory systems are stimulated through muscle stretching when forming the various postures. The breathing and relaxation exercises in yoga help to calm and focus the mind which has a direct influence on the parasympathetic nervous system. These exercises can often override the sympathetic components of the autonomic nervous system which can be activated regularly when individuals become over reactive to certain sensory experiences and thus live in a near continual state of flight, fight or freeze.

Yoga poses which can induce a feeling of calm and help balance the nervous system include:

  • Balasana - Child’s Pose - Provides both vestibular and tactile input having a calming influence on the sensory systems.

  • Reclined Bound Angled Pose - A relaxing pose providing both proprioceptive and tactile input.

In addition to the yoga poses themselves, the art of breathing, known as “Pranayama” in the Yogic world also has a calming and balancing effect on our nervous systems. Although breathing is under autonomic control, we can consciously change it. How we breathe affects the way we think and feel and links the mind and body together. Many of the children we work with, don’t breathe properly. By teaching them to breathe effectively it improves their ability to self-regulate, while also assisting with the development of body awareness and postural stability. Breathing exercises can include:

  • Belly breathing - Lie on your back and place a soft toy on your belly, as you breathe in (inhale) and your belly fills watch the soft toy raise up, as you breathe out (exhale) and your belly empties watch the soft toy fall back down. Repeat several times.
  • Alternate nostril breathing
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Breathing in
  • Breathing out

Flowing through different asanas such as the Sun Salutations, can help individuals to move and coordinate their body in different and unfamiliar ways, supporting motor planning skills and bilateral coordination awareness. Some examples of these poses include:

  • The Triangle Pose - (Trikonasana): using both sides of the body simultaneously

  • Practicing Bilateral Motor Skills: the ability to coordinate and use both sides of the body at the same time in a controlled and organised way. For many individuals with sensory processing difficulties, Occupational Therapists devise sensory diets to help individuals to develop their sensory processing skills. Through personalised programmes which involve various vestibular (movement/ balance), proprioception (movement and resistance) and tactile (deep pressure and touch) activities, individuals can receive the sensory input they need to help them become focused and organised through-out the day. Yoga poses and exercises can complement and contribute to these programmes. Yoga has become embodied in Mel’s practice and an integral part of her life, just as Sensory Integration is to the children and young people we work with.

Mel has developed a Sensory Processing Yoga training course for professionals, yoga teachers and parents. For further information on Mel’s work please visit her website.


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