INTERVIEWEE - Dr. Lina Barot Rathod,
Yoga Consultant at Tender Hearts Arena, Dubai

Yoga offers something for everybody, regardless of age, gender, race, size, shape and background. Now, it is proven that the practice of yoga for children with autism and other special needs, teaches many skills. Sometimes they are not able to communicate well. Yoga helps them with behavioural management. It teaches them coping skills and how to respond to stress, tension, worry, anxiety and depression. When the kids become more independent, it makes their parents happy. Children with autism and special needs can learn coping strategies through the practice of yoga so they may live calmer, happier, peaceful and healthier lives. In this interview, Dr. Lina Barot Rathod, Yoga Consultant at Tender Hearts Arena, Dubai, speaks to Dhanya AK explaining how yoga can benefit kids with special abilities.

Can you trace your journey? How did you start teaching yoga for kids with special abilities?

 I am a homeopathic doctor by qualification. I began practicing yoga from my college days. My father Dr Gopal P. Barot introduced yoga to me as he was an Ayurvedacharya and Naturopath. He was strict about exercise and food. We had many books at home about yoga, naturopathy and other alternative medicine and I was drawn to yoga as part of my fitness regime. And recognizing its value, I pursued some courses in Mumbai in India.

 I came to Dubai 14 years ago. Here I worked as freelance yoga teacher for some years. While working at Global Indian International School (GIIS), Dubai as a yoga teacher, I found that children were very interested in the practise. It was part of their curriculum in school. Some of my students were the ones with special needs. I witnessed improvement in them. That’s how I decided to concentrate on teaching yoga for kids with special abilities. I joined Tender Hearts, Dubai in 2015. For the last three years, I take regular classes at Tender Hearts. Here we offer yoga as a recreational activity. We accept students of five years old and above.

 What is your teaching method?

 We cannot teach yoga to the children as we teach other subjects. We need to create interest for yoga and convince them to practice it regularly and with enthusiasm. Every child is different. So we cannot generalize the teaching method. I tailor-make teaching patterns according to their abilities and learning difficulties. When a student joins class, I prefer to take individual classes for a few days. Once they are ready to join the group, they are moved to group sessions. During the one-on-one sessions, I can get to know their limitations - physical and mental. Friendly conversations helps to build a rapport. This makes them acquiescent to join a group. In a group session, we start with body awareness. By knowing the function of each organ, they are able to communicate better. This helps them while doing yoga postures too. 

 What I have noticed is that entertainment and yoga helps gaining their attention and interest, and therefore I play songs and narrate stories as well. I explain the asanas in stories and songs; so that they can imitate them in an entertaining way. I also narrate the science behind each asana and highlight the importance of doing it. When they do asanas knowing its importance, they do it with integrit and don’t feel bored. This style has been successful with  the students, such that some of them come early and wait for the yoga classes.

Most of my students were not exposed to yoga earlier. Their parents were also not confident. But, I am happy to say that each of them is doing very well. Some of them even do complete postures of Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutation). I had a student on wheelchair. He was doing chair yoga initially. Later, I took him off the wheelchair and moved him to the regular classes which he is doing quite comfortably.

 We have to focus on the children’s strengths. Often, a weakness in one area creates strength in another. If we start where it is easy for that child, they will gain confidence and slowly be ready to approach more challenging areas. Also, I emphasize on touch, hands-on assistance, sound and breath.

 What are the benefits yoga could offer to the kids with special abilities?

 There are many ways yoga can be beneficial to kids with autism and other special needs. Many struggle with language-processing difficulties, identifying and communicating emotions and not knowing how to control their physical and emotional states. Children with autism also may struggle with anxiety and obsessive thinking. Yoga poses and breathing strategies can support them in expressing and releasing difficult emotions, reduce anxiety and improve social and communication skills. Physically, it makes them flexible. Their coordination and interaction skills are improved. But it’s a slow process for them. They cannot learn poses as normal children do. So we need to be really patient and wait for the results. But, changes will be seen for sure. Parents are giving good feedback. We, at Tender Hearts, send weekly reports to parents with pictures and videos.  Parents are able to identify the improvements in every report.

 What kind of obstacles do you face? How do you overcome them?

 There is nothing like obstacles. I enjoy training them. They are more expressive. We should be able to capture the messages they convey. Sometimes, I find difficulty in teaching breathing exercises since  many students do the physical movement rather than the breathing exercises. So I have to devote more time for the breathing classes.  

 Do you recommend any special diet chart for your students?

 Diet has a vital role in everyone’s life. My  mother used to say: “As the food, so the mind, As the mind, so the man.” Overall health depends on our choices of food. The Yogis advise Sattvic diet which includes food that is “pure, essential, natural, vital, energy-containing, clean, conscious, true, honest, wise”. This necessarily indicates the whole experience of selection, preparation, consumption should be Sattvic in nature. As I mentioned earlier that I am a person who is very vigilant about what food I eat. So I regularly check what my students eat. In the beginning, I saw they were bringing unhealthy foods and snacks. Then, during my class, I demonstrated healthy and unhealthy foods in separate baskets. And explained what to eat. After that, many of them started to bring freshly prepared food. Parents should take responsibility of this. They should focus on fresh foods cooked at home. As a doctor, I always suggest to add more fruits and vegetables to the diet. Kindly avoid fried items, canned juices, frozen foods and junk food. Parents and teachers should coordinate to encourage healthy eating habits among children.

What is your message for the parents?

 Without the cooperation and support of parents, teachers cannot do anything. Parents should be aware of the talents and limitations of their child. Especially, the children with special abilities should get help and support from their family first. These days, smart gadgets are the major culprits. When parents are busy, children get addicted to these smart gadgets  which is growing to alarming levels. Parents should make sure that their children are engaged in wholesome activities, essentially outdoor games. Along with that, they have to offer a healthy diet to their children. To the parents of my students, I always recommend to practice yoga everyday at home with their children. It will make children more comfortable.

 How has this teaching impacted your life?

 The level of satisfaction I get from training  children with special needs is really high. Through this, I realized that such kids have many different and exceptional abilities. If only we are able to show some patience,  will they flower and show wonders. It’s heartwarming to see the baby steps they take, the small improvements they make. I find it a privilege to help them and their parents.

 When teaching yoga to kids with special needs, we have to open our eyes, ears, heart, and mind. We have to start from where they are. When we start from where they are, they will be able to do everything, gradually.

 How does yoga help children with Autism and special needs?

  • Decreases anxiety and depression
  • Increases relaxation
  • Improves sleep
  • Supports healthy digestion
  • Supports healthy respiration
  • Reduces muscle tension
  • Reduces fatigue
  • Improves circulation
  • Therapeutic for thyroid conditions
  • Improves mood
  • Supports positive behavior
  • Supports sensory integration
  • Supports language and communication
  • Increases social communication skills
  • Increases awareness and expression of emotions
  • Increases body awareness

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