A yoga therapy approach to impacting cognitive development.

DOES THE MIND control the body or the body control the mind? From a yoga therapy perspective, the most effective way to impact the mind is through the breath and body. When dealing with cognitive issues, we look to the relationship between the gut and the brain, knowing that by targeting the gut and intestines, we can target the brain. Interestingly, science is also looking to this exact same link, as Dr Cryan noted at his recent talk for the Integrative Medicine Research Lecture Series at NIH, “Research shows that altering bacteria in the gut through specific diets may help to treat stress-related and neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and hyperactivity.”

Why this is so important is because of what is happening across Australia. According to Beyond Blue, around one in seven children, between 0-12 years old, will experience a mental health condition during childhood, approximately one in 35 Australians aged 4-17 experience a depressive disorder and given that half of all mental health conditions in adulthood begin before the age of 14, it is critical that we start practices to prevent this in early childhood.

ADD and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are also on the rise, by a staggering 25 percent in the last 30 years. The Australian Medical Association reports that one in 68 children are impacted by ASD and four times as many boys as girls. According to the Social Care Foundation Australia, “Almost 230,000 Australians have been diagnosed with ASD,” which it believes, “is a crazy large number for a disability that was once considered rare.”

The question is, can diet have an impact and how can yoga therapy help? Nutrition does play a big role for children with cognitive issues, because if we can change their gut, we can impact the brain. Master Oki, who brought meridian-based yoga therapy to the West, believed that nutrition is the basis of all therapy for children up to the age of seven. He explained that yoga gives clear guidelines of nutrition. The modern diet and its high concentration of stimulating foods is not the path to health. What leads to gut health is following a whole food diet and that is where we focus for cognitive problems.

Andzej Gospodarczyk of Ryoho Therapy agrees, “Nutrition plays a big role for children. With cognitive problems in children, change their gut.” He further explains, “Change the bacteria in your guts and you change the structural integrity of your digestive system, stabilise and nurture it in a stable way.”

If food plays a role in over-stimulating children and affects how they act, it stands to reason that if we feed children calm, non-stimulating, nurturing food, this balancing effect will flow on to their moods and behaviour. Take this one step further and introduce food that helps to rebuild gut flora and then you get lasting change.

Nutrition is essential, but including specific yoga therapy corrective exercises and breathing techniques brings results faster. When we work with children on this wholistic level, we see profound effects. Over the last 20 years, I have seen children respond instantly to the yoga exercises, becoming calm, settled and focused. A special-needs teacher once commented how surprised he was that there were never any emotional outbursts, temper tantrums or behavioural problems during yoga. This is not an isolated incident, hundreds of children’s yoga teachers are experiencing the same result in Australian classrooms and yoga studios world-wide. Recently a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s shared how quiet his mind had become by the end of his first yoga class. “I’ve never felt this relaxed, ever,” he exclaimed.

Movement makes a huge impact, because it stabilises and burns out any excess stimulation or tension. But we cannot put the stimulation back in again or the effect from the yoga will be temporary. Yoga therapy gives children the opportunity of feeling better physically, mentally and emotionally through the physical movement. It allows them to experience calm, often for the first time.

Yoga therapy movements to choose will be those that target gut health, bring back function to the large intestine and relax the upper body. This results in children feeling more stable and calm. Quite simply, if we strengthen the lower body, bring stability and security inside, the brain calms down. Accuracy is key, which is why meridian-based yoga therapy works so well. It isolates the part of the body that is not functioning well and directs our attention through movement and breath to bring back function.

Breathing exercises are the final key ingredient when designing a strategy for children with mental health issues, ADD or ASD. In yoga we use the breath to create calm, focused minds and for children and teens the impact is immediate. The moment breathing exercises were introduced into a classroom of children at a special needs school with intellectual disabilities, autism and ADD, a moment of peace filled the room.

The release 7-year-old Tom experienced was instant; tears streamed down his face as he breathed out all the pent-up emotion he had been carrying and was unable to process or release verbally. This was a turning point for Tom, who had previously been sent out of the yoga class for disruptive behaviour.

The impact was so evident, that Tom’s foster mum called the school to ask what new therapy had been introduced. When she found out it was yoga, she wanted to keep it going at home and contacted me. Her words resonated, “I wish I’d known about this years ago.”

Yoga Journal: April 2018 – Issue 66