As I’ve mentioned before, I love yoga. Recently, I had the opportunity to observe an Aerial Yoga class for children. After that, I just had to try an adult class myself. I kind of had an idea of what to expect, but the class totally exceeded my expectations. I practice yoga and I use it with my Occupational Therapy students all the time. I think yoga is such a wonderful way to work on strength, balance, and coordination. It also helps to quiet the mind and increase focus. Aerial Yoga has all the benefits of traditional yoga, as well as the added benefits of sensory input. Traditional yoga provides sensory input, too, but in a different way. I am writing this blog post about my experience as an OT in both observing and participating in an Aerial Yoga class. I recommend that you also read the post “Aerial Yoga from an OT’s perspective” by the owner of the facility, who is able to give her perspective as an Occupational Therapist specializing in the treatment of Sensory Processing Disorders. I’ve attached the link for you at the bottom of the page.
You may be wondering exactly what Aerial Yoga is. Have you ever seen Pink do one of her performances where she sings as she hangs from the ceiling and twists, swings, and flips herself around? Picture that! Ok, ok. I didn’t hang or twist like a rock star… but the theory is there. And I felt like a rock star!
Lycra “hammocks” are suspended from two hooks in the ceiling. The height can be adjusted based on the size of the person who will be using it. The stretchy material hangs in a “u” shape. The material is super stretchy but also very strong, so it can support a child or adult size body midair. The instructor and staff members measured each person to make sure their hammock was the right height. Aerial Yoga focuses on strength, balance, and coordination through different poses with the Hammock. The children’s class that I observed was at Sensational Development in Massapequa. There were 8 students, a Yoga Instructor, and three staff members assisting the kids. The therapists at Sensational Development are trained in Yogapeutics. For more info on Yogapeutics, please check out the link at the bottom of the page.
Even the room itself was cool! The lights were dimmed and soft music was playing in the background. The floor looked exactly like a hardwood floor, but when I looked closer I realized it was made up of foam mats! The kids ranged in ages from about five to sixteen. The students seemed familiar with the yoga instructor’s verbal cues and were able to follow the directions. The music really helped to provide a calm and relaxing aura. Later, when I would get into the complex inverted positions myself, I was able to feel my body become “un–calm”. My heart would be racing from physically exerting myself as well as whatever else I was feeling from being upside down. Somehow, the instructor Linda, knew how I was feeling too. After the “stimulating” poses, she would go back to a relaxing, calm pose. She called it “chill-axing”. I loved it. She really knew how to get our bodies back to right “state”. Not too high, and not too low: Just right. The class consisted of children of all different levels of ability or “disability”. There were children on the spectrum, children with impulsivity and hyperactivity, and children with low tone. The instructor, Linda, had an awesome way of providing the kids with the cues and descriptions to follow her instructions. I was amazed at how the kids were able to follow up to ten-step directions to perform the different moves she was showing them. I was also surprised at how well the staff was able to manage all of the kids. They were all different ages and abilities! The owner told me later that the parents have to sign up their children for the class in advance so she can make arrangements to have the appropriate staff members present based on which kids were attending. That made sense. No wonder everything ran so smoothly. They had it down to a science.
Aerial yoga is one of those wonderful activities that works on a bunch of goals at once. Here are just a few of the areas that I saw being addressed:
Attention and focus – as I watched the children adjust their bodies according to Linda’s instructions I noticed that each child had a different way of listening and attending to her words. Some of the children stopped moving and watched her quietly and others kept bouncing as though they were on a trampoline. Each child was able to control their bodies and their positions to what felt comfortable for them. In the classroom, there are children who cannot sit still and listen. But just because they aren’t sitting still and just because they aren’t looking at the teacher doesn’t mean they aren’t listening and they aren’t learning. Some children need to move more than others. And some children need to move all the time. This class was the perfect example of showing that you can still listen when you’re moving around. All of the children followed Linda’s instructions. Occasionally one of the kids would try a different move than what Linda was explaining. The staff just gently went over and redirected them to stay on task and with the class. Some children needed more direction and more physical assistance than others. So the children who needed less assistance were able to “play” in their hammocks until everyone was ready. This worked out great for everyone. In the school setting, we sometimes talk about a child’s need for self-regulation in the classroom. What we really mean is that we want the child to be able to keep their own body awake and alert without being hyper or “wild”. The point is that every child’s body and sensory system is different and their needs can be met in different ways. It doesn’t mean that they have to sit still.
Strength – the kids used their core (abs and back) muscles throughout the session to arrange their bodies according to Linda’s instructions. When I had the chance to try the poses myself, I really felt the muscles in my back and abs working to keep myself in the right position. I also felt the strength in my arms and legs during every pose. When we did the upside-down poses, we had to use our arms to pull ourselves back up. You know in the action movies when someone is hanging from a bridge or a train or something and they miraculously pull themselves back up? Yeah. That was me! One thing I didn’t expect was the amount of fine motor coordination and dexterity that was incorporated into the aerial yoga class. Linda often had us re-orient our swing, to make sure it wasn’t all bunched up so that our bodies would end up in the correct positions. She used cute expressions like “make a bikini bottom” to help the kids understand what she wanted. The kids learned to use their fingers to bunch up the material the appropriate number of times according to Linda’s request. It kind of reminded me of scrunching up a sock or a pair of stockings before you put them on. It takes a lot of small movements in your fingers and hands to get that material all bunched up. We had to do it over and over again, so those muscles got a great workout. What an awesome way to hide fine motor strengthening in a gross motor activity.
Motor planning – as I mentioned before, following Linda’s instructions required a lot of listening and watching her physically demonstrate the movements. She made it look so easy! It was much harder to get my body to do what she just did. Motor planning is the ability to cognitively plan out how you’re going to move your body to complete an activity. We take motor planning for granted, but it can be really hard for some people. The entire one-hour session was filled with motor planning challenges. Any new movement can be tricky if you’ve never done it before. The staff was awesome about making sure that each child in the children’s class as well as every adult in the adult class was able to complete the movements either with or without assistance from staff.
Tactile and proprioceptive input – As the children stretched and pushed their bodies against the Lycra Hammock, they were receiving tactile and proprioceptive input throughout their entire bodies. Our largest organ is our skin. So when you engage in an activity that stimulates your entire body, the receptors in your skin are sending a ton of feedback to your brain. This can be calming or alerting; it depends on the child as well as the setting of the activity. Proprioceptive input is also known as deep pressure. Inside that Lycra swing, your whole body is pressing against that material. And the material is pressing back as you hang against gravity, providing proprioceptive input throughout the entire class. When I had the chance to do it myself, I was surprised at how my perceptions of the input changed throughout the hour-long class. There were times when I was calm and relaxed and there were times where I felt a little nervous or anxious. The sensations and my emotions changed in different poses.
Vestibular input – Hanging from the ceiling with nothing holding you but a large stretchy sock (hammock) can be a little unnerving. Most adults rarely go on rides. I am no exception to this. In fact, I’ve been on a roller coaster twice since the eighth grade. The reason for this is that most rides make me feel sick. Even swinging on a playground swing too high or for too long can make me a little nauseous, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Aerial Yoga. The instructors told me that it’s normal to feel a little lightheaded or dizzy after class. For the most part, I was totally fine. Vestibular input can be extremely calming or alerting to a person’s sensory system. Many children actively seek out vestibular input by swinging, rocking, or hanging upside down. They simply know what their body needs. Then, there are other children whose bodies need vestibular input, but it makes them uncomfortable. Some children avoid having their feet off the ground at all. This is called gravitational insecurity and it can really interfere with typical childhood play. I thought it was amazing how aerial yoga, with one piece of equipment, could provide so many different kinds of sensory input. How awesome!
Self Esteem and Confidence – There was one student, a teenage girl, who was the sibling of one of the kids in the class. She was very quiet, but she was great at the poses; maybe even the most comfortable and skilled in the class. The staff told me that she attends the class every week with her sister, who is on the spectrum. This is one of her “extra-curricular” activities, such as taking dance or gymnastics. When I commented on how good she was, the staff told me that she progresses each week, learning new and more difficult poses. They tailor certain things to meet her need for a challenge since she is capable of more than some of the other children. The best part was that the staff reported that this girl had really transformed since coming to aerial yoga. She has become more confident, more self-assured, and more outgoing. How cool is that?
For a more detailed description of how Aerial Yoga can impact a child’s sensory system, you should read this post by Sara, an Occupational Therapist specializing in the treatment of Sensory Processing Disorders, and one of the owners of the facility where I took the class. Click here for the link.
- Check out the website for a full list of their services and offerings at www.sensationaldevelopment.com
- For more info on Yogapeutics, watch this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mm1wr4TZwE
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