Key Benefits of Yoga for Improving Speech and Learning

October 30, 2013 No Comments » Blog

By Christine Ristuccia, M.S. CCC-SLP,
Speech Pathologist Entrepreneur

I work at a school as a speech language pathologist with children who have stuttering problems, difficulty producing their sounds or are unable to express themselves due to lack of  vocabulary or understanding what others say to them.

When the kids first walk into my room before doing yoga, they are full of energy, so it’s challenging for them to sit down in a chair, focus and learn the lesson for the day.

I can sense their frenetic energy as they sit at the table. Instead of starting the lesson and having to stop due to fidgeting and frenetic energy, I incorporate four-to-five yoga moves which connect breath with movement and cross the midline of the body (e.g. right arm crosses over the left arm). Research has shown that crossing the midline of the body with movement helps to coordinate the two hemispheres (sides) of the brain and that the two sides begin to work together in a synergistic manner.

Another benefit of doing yoga in a learning environment is that yoga moves incorporate knowledge of basic directional concepts such as right and left, up and down. Kids who have challenges with learning these concepts required for following verbally presented instructions in the classroom greatly benefit from learning through yoga.

Following a series of five yoga moves combined with mindful breathing, I decided to interview the students. The general consensus was that after yoga their brains felt ready to learn, whereas before, they were not.

I have noticed a profound difference in my student’s ability to focus, understand and respond to their speech therapy lessons before and after yoga. I’ve seen a difference even after only three-to-five minutes of combining breath with movement.

Ocean Breath-Relaxing The Sympathetic Nervous System

When we breathe in a rhythmic and audible fashion breathing in and out of the nose with the mouth closed, sounding like the waves of the ocean or Darth Vader, we are actually doing more than just breathing, we are stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.  The breath is the steady part that resides within all of us.  It is always there and automatically occurs whether we are aware or not.

Whereas most of its actions are involuntary, some, such as breathing, work in tandem with the conscious mind.

When we breathe in a mindful manner, it calms the  autonomic nervous system, which consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are located in the portion of the brain stem entitled the medulla oblongata.

The sympathetic nervous system is fight or flight.  This happens when we get stressed or have to run away from a bear, for example.  Our heart rate accelerates, our breath is either rapid or non-existent and we feel tightness in our body.  Most of us stay in this state of mind when we get in this state, we need to breathe and that is usually the first thing that. The parasympathetic nervous system is the relaxation response in the body.

 Mindful breathing can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and help us come into a relaxed state of mind.

What is your Yoga?

What is your Yoga?

What about bridge pose? To bridge the gap between yourself and your breath.

I love yoga because it helps me restore a sense of balance and self reflection.  When I wake up in the morning or after a long day, I need a way to reconnect.  I do this through mindfully moving my body.  This could be through a series of asanas (poses linked with breath), a long walk with my kids, alone, or just simply quiet time; doing nothing, being nothing, and not being responsible for anything even if just for a few moments.  Taking this time, helps me recharge and self nurture, so that I can be of service to others.

Many other people, especially children, have their own yoga.  Surfing, shooting baskets, playing with legos, climbing a tree, bird watching, to name a few. These could also be considered forms of yoga.  When I instruct children, I encourage them to find an activity that they enjoy which links them to the present moment and where they come out of the activity better than when they came in.

That in my opinion is yoga.  

Yoga has touched my life.

     We all know that Yoga is highly beneficial for the mind, body, and soul. It reduces stress, anxiety, illness,and injuries. Most of us treat ourselves with this wonderful Yogi Method but do we treat our children? Children are constantly going through changes through mind, body, and soul and sometimes it takes its toll. Growing pains set in, hormones change on a daily basis, and the stress the world puts on them in their daily lives can sometimes be too much.

     My name is Shani and I would like to share a story with you. It’s about my younger sister with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of Autism. First let me give you a little background about myself. I am a 23 year old woman balancing college, a job, and my own illnesses. I suffer from Scoliosis, Interstitial Cystitis, and daily amounts of stress while I juggle my life. I do yoga on a regular basis to aid in my back therapy, alignment, posture, muscle tenderness, and my sanity. My mother is a single mother taking care of our grandparents and a child with autism. Now I would like to tell you a little bit about my sister, Savannah.

     Savannah is 12 years old and has a hard time controlling her body, facial expressions, and emotions at times. She is highly intelligent and excels beyond her peers in some subjects while falling dangerously low in others. English is her strength but she struggles with handwriting. Math is her weakness. When it comes to sitting down and learning Math or doing homework it is usually approached in a negative way. Her eyebrows scrunch up, her eyes start darting at other things to do anything but look at the numbers on her page, and her attitude skyrockets into unstable premises; agitation, over sensitivity, and sometimes aggression. Once she begins her math it’s an ongoing roller coaster to get through five problems that would be simple for you or me. She copies her problem onto the paper, this takes time as her handwriting skills are weak due to her sensory issues. She begins adding her numbers and puts down the wrong answer. “Savannah,” I say, “You’re really close but about two numbers off. Let’s count 289 plus 30 again together and double check the answer.” Her eyes get wide, and her brow wrinkles more. The first sound out of her mouth is, “Whaaaat??? I did it?!” “I know but lets just check your answer to make sure there are no mistakes,”I reply. The pencil flies across the room and the papers fall to the floor. She is in full tears screaming and crying and frantically flailing around. “I hate this! I hate this! I don’t want to do this anymore!” She screams. The rest of the evening she is emotionally distraught and no homework is completed. She cries for three hours.

     It’s not always this bad but sometime during the assignment this response happens more often than not. This isn’t her fault. Her patience is hard for her to grasp and she honestly does not understand why she is being tormented like this. I decide to try something different. The next day, preparing for her assignment, I suggest we do something fun before we begin. She is fully aware of the assignment she has to do. “Want to try yoga, Savannah?” I ask. “um, ok.” She replies, unsure. She knows she would rather do another option than her homework at the time. So whatever prolonges it is ok with her. I walk her through 20 minutes of breathing exercises and light stretches. We practice inhaling deeply and exhaling completely, even controlled breaths. She gets the blood moving into her joints and relaxes her mind. After the 20 minute session I ask her if she is ready to begin her homework task. She replies in a calm voice, “Ok, I think I can try it.” And we begin her assignment. We are slow and careful with what we write and how we count. We count together and sometimes make mistakes and check our answer. Two times she comes inches away from another temper tantrum but I remind her of the breathing exercises we did previously and she pauses and practices them. WIthin 45 minutes we have completed her math homework and checked our answers to make sure they are correct. She flops onto her back with a big sigh and says, “YES! Thank goodness it’s over!” I tell her what a good job she did and we have a nice snack downstairs to make up for the brain work. Then she is free to play outside for an hour before dark.

     Even though Savannah has sensory issues, attention issues, and the seemingly inability to stay calm; she was still able to remember what we practiced in yoga and applied it to the homework situation. She calmed her nerves, mind, body, and spirit before tackling the task at hand and was fully aware that she was about to indulge in her least favorite topic. When we were completed with our warm up of the body and got the blood properly flowing and carrying oxygen to the proper places, the back aligned and joints lubricated; she was ready to face her challenge. I was pleasantly surprised that it worked and we made it a routine. Now she looks forward to our practices, getting a bit longer each day, and has the confidence and patience to get through her most challenging tasks. Yoga has helped her face her challenges head on.

     Not only has she benefited from yoga for school but she also practices the patience she learns with her peers outside. When she starts to lose control of her facial expressions, her hands, and the other kids start picking on her; she reminds herself to breathe and clear her mind to properly deal with her challenge. Yoga has touched her life and mine and I hope that it will touch yours, your children’s, and your student’s.

If you need some ideas or just to know how to get started. Try out the ABC Yoga cards for kids and the Instructional Workbook. Also try the Yoga for Small Spaces if you have a packed classroom of kids with little to no space.