Yoga is an ancient practice that involves physical and spiritual elements. Although it is millennia old, modern practitioners have made this type of exercise more popular than ever. Many people around the world get benefits such as stress relief, flexibility, strength, and other health improvements. Yoga is also being used to help specific populations, like children and adults with cerebral palsy.
Large academic or clinical studies into the effects of yoga on cerebral palsy symptoms are limited. There is some evidence, though, that shows there are benefits, and there are plenty of individual stories, anecdotes, and case studies that strongly show this type of exercise, often modified for individual needs, can have a positive impact on the quality of life of someone living with cerebral palsy.
Yoga and its Proven Health Benefits
While larger studies into how yoga can benefit people with cerebral palsy are just beginning to gather data, there is already a wealth of evidence for how yoga provides health benefits in general. Yoga is an ancient practice that comes from India. There are several branches of complete yoga practice, including breathing exercise and meditation, but most modern practitioners focus on asana, the postures.
Asanas are specific postures that are held for a period of time and that are designed to prepare the body with strength and clarity for meditation. While these are the original and authentic purposes of the asanas, in modern practice they provide a number of health benefits, both physical and mental. Most people practice hatha yoga, which is a serious of poses that are held for a period of time with a focus on breathing.
Some of the general benefits that have been proven through studies of people practicing yoga, largely hatha yoga include weight loss and better eating habits. Yoga isn’t strenuous exercise or intense cardio, but it does help stimulate the metabolism and helps people to boost weight loss efforts and maintain weight loss. The mindfulness practiced during yoga also helps people eat more mindfully, eating less and making better choices. Other important and proven benefits of yoga are overall better physical fitness, improved cardiovascular health, and lower blood pressure.
Potential Benefits of Yoga for Children with Cerebral Palsy
Physical therapy is already a well-known and effective type of therapy to help children with cerebral palsy strengthen their muscles, improve balance, gain mobility, and get other benefits that improve symptoms. Yoga can be used in a similar way, often modified for an individual’s needs or limitations, to help children see benefits.
Many of these benefits are similar or related to the overall benefits that all people can get from practicing yoga. For instance, a child with cerebral palsy may struggle with poor muscle tone. Yoga is a good way to help strengthen muscles in a way that is gentle and that can be adapted for a range of ability levels. Another benefit of yoga is that it stretches the body and improves flexibility. For a child with cerebral palsy, this can help increase flexibility, motion range in joints, and overall mobility.
Especially important is that yoga can stretch the spine and help realign it better. This kind of stretching of the spine increases spacing between vertebrae, which in turn releases pressure on nerves. The overall result is a greater feeling of lessened muscular tension and relaxation throughout the entire body. There are also the less tangible benefits of yoga that can help kids with cerebral palsy: relaxation, less stress, better body image, and an overall better sense of well-being.
An important factor to remember in helping children, and even adults, with cerebral palsy use yoga for relief of symptoms, is that it often needs to be an adapted form of yoga. With any degree of physical disability, performing the asana postures exactly as they are described is not possible. This doesn’t mean that someone with a disability cannot benefit from the postures, only that the need to be adapted.
One example of adapted yoga is often used with people with cerebral palsy: chair yoga. This allows people with a range of disabilities, including those that confine a person to a wheelchair, to enjoy the benefits of yoga. The poses are modified from the perspective of sitting in a chair. So, for instance, a person who is struggling with balance can still use a pose, but while sitting. There are other adaptations for yoga that involve various other props, like blocks or straps, and the assistance of a trained practitioner or coach who has experience working with disabled participants.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Although asanas are the most common way in which people in the west experience yoga, a very important part of this ancient practice is mindfulness. Participants are supposed to be mindful—which means focusing on the body’s position and breathing—while performing the poses. Yoga can also include the active practice of meditation—sitting still and focusing on the present, most often by focusing on breathing.
Meditation is proven to have a number of benefits, which can help children and adults with cerebral palsy. These include lowering stress and anxiety, reducing gastrointestinal symptoms, improving sleep, and reducing feelings of depression. There is even evidence that meditation can actually change the brain and research is ongoing into how this may impact people with brain damage.
Getting Started with Yoga
If you are living with cerebral palsy, or you have a child with the condition, trying yoga is a valid way to see real and positive benefits. The important thing to keep in mind is that you need to work with a professional, someone who is not only trained in instructing yoga postures, but also in working with people who have physical disabilities. The poses will need to be adapted and it takes an experienced professional to know how to adapt them to each individual. Start with your doctor or physical therapist for a recommendation of a professional you can work with.
Yoga is thousands of years old, but today it is being modified and adapted in ways that are varied and positive. For children with cerebral palsy this can mean being able to participate in an activity that helps them move better, feel better, and have a greater sense of self-confidence and control. The many benefits of yoga are why everyone with cerebral palsy should give it a try.