Cerebral Palsy and Yoga


(To ensure privacy, all names have been changed)

Susan Smith is a tiny energetic Yoga Master and Teacher. She has numerous certifications in various kinds of Yoga therapy, and hundreds of hours of training. Because yoga has been become increasingly more mainstream both as an athletic pursuit, and as part of a holistic healing therapy, it’s not at all surprising to see people of different abilities enter her Yoga Center. From young people looking to supplement their gym workouts to middle-aged students seeking more energy, to senior citizens in walkers, Susan is used to assisting and modifying poses, either in a class, or in a private therapy session. Sometimes however, she finds herself in unknown territory.

Her new client Annie is 19 and she has cerebral palsy.
A young woman with a slight build, Annie has long brown hair, bright eyes, and a pretty smile. Diagnosed around the age of four months, she’s been assisted not only by her parents, but by daily caregivers, and a one-on-one teacher. Annie’s mom is also a student of Susan’s and knew of her experience with Thai Yoga Bodywork.
When Susan described Annie’s first entrance into the Center, she noted that she was extremely stiff. She displayed the beginnings of postural kyphosis (rounded upper back), had both fists in her mouth, and was walking on her toes. Susan initially feared that she might not be able to treat Annie. Pauline, Annie’s mother, was looking to add more flexibility to Annie’s spine and she assured Susan that Annie’s comprehension was fine, so she would be able to understand directions.

The first thing Susan did was to show Annie how to move her chin inwards, to allow her head to line up over her spine. This allowed her to sit and stand straighter, which naturally helps with spine curving. Just as importantly, the slight change in posture allowed Annie’s chest to open.

The next step was to have Annie sit in a chair. “I thought that Thai Bodywork would be best to work with her, rather than to have her perform poses herself…it might be easier for me to maneuver her through various postures, in the Thai Bodywork I do that, I put pressure on the client with my hands, elbow, knees, and feet.”
Susan described how after Annie was safely seated on a low chair, she removed her shoes and socks, and rubbed in a few drops of an essential oil blend into both of Annie’s feet. This blend contains oils of Blue Tansy, Frankincense, Ho Wood, and Spruce. (Susan also had the same blend in a going in a diffuser in the center) Next, Susan began to manipulate Annie’s feet, stretching and pulling, and gradually the feet began to relax, and so did Annie, just a little.
Then it was time to try lying down on the mat. “But she couldn’t just lay back, so I was trying to help her to relax back, and I was sitting behind her, and trying to help her lower her shoulders down, and she ended up just relaxing back onto my lap.” Susan smiled widely remembering this part, as she began to work on Annie’s arms, she relaxed further, “she obviously trusted me, it was really, really beautiful.”

Susan recounted that after a while into this first session, her four year old granddaughter, Rose, began to run around in the center. Typically Rose is used to being there during the day; she plays unobtrusively in her own area. But now she wanted to run around. Susan explained how Annie seemed excited and wanted to run around with Rose.

“I thought this would be good for her to relax, to help her to let go, have some fun, even bring her some joy in this moment, that’s good for her.”

The session ended with trying Annie on a Yoga ball. It was difficult at first, until Susan tried placing the ball on an upside down aerobic stepper to cradle it. Annie was able to sit, and then lay back fully over the ball, “she was getting a really nice opening for her back which was countering the kyphosis.”
As the session was ending, Annie was sitting up in a chair waiting while her mother was writing out a check, sitting, “reasonably straight, and her mother and her caregiver started saying, ‘look how straight she’s sitting, look at her!’ and of course, I had nothing to compare it with, not having seen her before…but they were quite impressed with how straight she was sitting.”

When Annie, her mom, and the caregiver left, Susan could hear her out in the hallway, “I thought that she was crying. So when her caregiver came in the next day [she came in for some Thai Bodywork] I asked her,

‘was she crying? NO, she was so happy; she was just squealing with delight and running up and down the hall’.”

So far Annie has been to see Susan for about four or five visits. Pauline said that the she’s noticed Annie acting a little more calm and relaxed at home. And her sleeping posture is not as curved either, Pauline seems some spine straightening. While she said that it’s too early to tell what lasting changes may come of these treatments, she’s pleased.
And judging by the smiles and visible moments of release between Annie and Susan, Annie seems quite pleased too.

Yogasync Me!  Always see an experiences Yoga Therapist if there are special needs.  If however you’d like to try assisted postures at home,, then here’s a great sequence to get you started:

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About Mary Williams

Mary is Boston-based writer and essayist. While she holds a first dan (first degree black belt) in Kenpo Karate, Mary is a beginner at Yoga. She was introduced to the art several years ago and has come back to the mat in the last half of 2013, attempting the practice twice a week. She has a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and her work can be found at Blogcritics.org, Cinema Sentries.com, Boston.com, Metronome Magazine and her own blog. Mary has written numerous entertainment reviews of film, books, music and TV, plus many essays on life and pop culture and is currently writing a book, Driving Home from Boston, Twelve Ways to Navigate Crisis. She lives with her husband, two sons, and one entitled cat.

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