Yoga clichés and woolly language are out when teaching adults with Asperger’s and Autism. Fancy phrases such as “open your heart” are more likely to conjure an alarming vision of a scalpel-wielding surgeon than a spiritual awakening. Students punish me with puzzled faces and testing questions if I spout nonsense – so I keep it literal.
People with Autism and Asperger’s suffer from social anxiety and loneliness – so my goal is to create a warm and welcoming environment where they can improve their relationship with themselves and others. In short, I want us all to have a nice time. The yogic principle of contentment santosh is at the forefront of my mind.
On the one hand this is my most fun and laid-back class. Lessons rarely go to plan and I relax my ideas about precise form and alignment. On the other hand, it calls for a disciplined commitment to the ideals of compassion, non-attachment and truth.
My instructions relate to tangible, bodily things. We put our hands on our hearts to notice the sensations – heartbeat, heat, sweat, bone, and flesh. They inspect their feelings, I scrutinise my words. We breathe.
This class is not shy giving honest feedback. Sometimes it is brutal – one student shows boredom by yawning, fiddling with a phone or wandering off to look out the window. Sometimes it’s funny – I’m told to stop giving him instructions, “go away” or “hurry up” so we can do the other side, “please”.
Often it is warm and affectionate – a welcoming bow, a happy sigh at the end of the class when I give stiff shoulders a mini Shiatsu massage, a hug goodbye,
Some students have dyspraxia, which means they find it hard to copy my movements and translate verbal instructions into physical actions. I abandon the traditional teaching position in front of the class to find other ways to help. The results are surprising and interesting.
One student was slow and disengaged when following group instructions but leapt gracefully into action when I asked him to demonstrate for the rest of the class. At times I defer to their better judgement and ask the class to translate my instructions into their own words to help a fellow student.
With permission, I am hands-on, manually adjusting feet, arms and hands like mannequins. Sometimes I sit beside a student and we do it together. Other times we simply move on.
After all it doesn’t really matter, it’s only yoga. If I cling too tightly to the idea of my authority and importance as a teacher things go awry. When I think of myself as helper the session flows better.
This class turns worlds upside down for student and teacher. I make them huff, puff and loosen up with bizarre contortions and inversions using chairs, belts and blocks. They make me examine my habits of speech and behaviour which relaxes the iron grip of subconscious ideas about social norms.
Self-reflection – svadhyaya – is important in yoga so I remind students to notice how they feel. They often blurt out uncomfortable emotions in ways that are unthinkable in so-called “normal” classes where a stiff upper lip is practised. One man announced he had not been to class because he had had a breakdown and been in psychiatric care for three months. Another said rolling around on the floor made him feel like a fat Humpty Dumpty and brought back sad memories of The Priory. At first I was startled by confessions, fearing they would disrupt the orderliness of class. Now I accept these difficult truths. I am honoured, enriched and liberated by such openness.