This is so beautiful, I recommend watching it all the way through.
This is a draft of the paper I will be presenting at the Cultural Studies Association of Australiasia Conference in December. The slideshow to accompany is here:
Minor Bodies: How Disability Is Figured In Children’s Yoga Classes
In this presentation I will present a final chapter of my PhD thesis, on children’s yoga. In this discussion I address how the concept of minority is used to represent children’s bodies, and particularly disabled children’s bodies. I will examine how these representations function in the yoga space, and whether yoga either reinforces or challenges existing representations of (disabled) children’s minority status. I will focus on individual participants who may, in some way, be understood to be especially marginalised either in or outside of the yoga classroom. I will examine how children, parents, teachers, and peers use terms such as ‘dwarfism’, ‘ADHD’, ‘autism-spectrum’, ‘Asperger’s’, and ‘sensory processing’, and what relationship these terms have to constructing individual children’s identities as ‘disabled’. I will utilise Alan Prout’s suggestion that such terms cannot be understood as purely biological, yet nor are they entirely social constructs. Instead, as Prout argues, they develop as heterogeneous assemblages produced through society, technology and biology (139). This means that while there are biologically driven differences between children’s behaviours, these are only significant within an educational context which compares and relativises children with one another. I will consider whether (and for what purposes) yoga reconfigures behaviours which might be associated with either the majority of children, and/or a disabled minority, such as being unable to pay attention, control impulses, or sit still. This reconfiguring may have the potential to change social circumstances, and historically associated meanings, for individual children.
We are now creating mentally disabled young humans in epidemic – perhaps even dominant – numbers. ADHD, Asperger’s, bipolar disorder, depressive and anxiety disorders, and their resulting addictive behaviours such as binge drinking or drug use, are now affecting 10 to 20 per cent of all young people. …The sudden epidemic of mysterious brain abnormalities is almost certainly the result of this disrupted parent–child interaction. We can blitz the child with medication, but the success is partial, temporary and sometimes harmful. We can ameliorate the deficiencies with love and care, but they are hard to undo. – Steve Biddulph, Love and Money 113
As a popular author on parenting, Steve Biddulph, demonstrates there is a perception that children in the 21st century are plagued with disorder. Parents are under pressure to appropriately prevent, diagnose and/or treat any and all ‘abnormalities’ with a combination of ‘medication’ and ‘care’. Children’s yoga is sometimes offered up as one part of the solution to this problem, providing opportunities for healthy development (prevention) as well as alternative therapy (medication) and nurturing (care) to remediate a range of ‘abnormalities’. However, not all forms of children’s yoga approach disabilities and/or disorders in the same way, and the differences in approaches signal wider debates in critical studies of disability and childhood development. As exemplars of the different ways that children’s yoga approaches disability and disorder, in this paper I will provide evidence from interviews with yoga teachers, Lisa, Carinda and Bess. The different perspectives of these teachers demonstrate that yoga is sometimes seen as a way to medicalise, diagnose and treat disorder or disability; at other times seen as a way of embracing difference and enabling multiplicity; and other times functions as an separatist practice that disallows particular students from access to ‘normal’ children’s yoga practices. Each of these three approaches reacts against the other, and plays into wider discourses surrounding disability and childhood development.
The first perspective on disability and disorder that I discovered amongst yoga teachers in this study revolved around a concept of separating disabled and disorderly children from other ‘normal’ children. This approach was exemplified by my interview with Lisa. Lisa termed children with either disabilities or disorders as having ‘special needs’, and being very different from other children. Lisa was a yoga teacher in Sydney and single mother of a her four-year-old son, at the time she was interviewed. Lisa owned a children’s yoga business and contracted out several other teachers to work in studios, halls and preschools. She explained to me:
I would never have a challenging child in a class, any kind of special needs in my public class, because I think that would distract. If you’ve got ten kids, to have a special needs class it would have to be separate. If anyone rings me with any kind of special needs I always say, ‘look, I would rather create a class separate and really focus on that behavioural issue’, or whatever it is. That’s just too hard to manage.
Lisa made a distinction between physical and intellectual differences:
It’s behavioural for me. It’s ADHD. It’s Autism. I’ll take a little girl with Down Syndrome, they’re just beautiful. They’re flexible and they love the movement, and I never would exclude. So it’s more physically, fine, if mentally they’re able to follow instructions and join in the with other children. But if it’s behavioural and it’s really going to disrupt the class, and I really feel like, you know, a lot of Autistic children, you really can’t engage in the same way….I feel like they need a different structure….I’d love to put on special needs classes, but haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’ve definitely had enquiries.
Lisa’s view of children who have been labelled as having ‘ADHD’, ‘Autism’ or ‘Down Syndrome’ is very singular. ‘Down Syndrome’ children are universally ‘beautiful’ and ‘Autistic’ children universally ‘can’t engage’. There is very little room for understanding a spectrum of behaviour. Lisa’s assumption is that a ‘normal’ class will be structured and tailored for a uniformly ‘normal’ child, revealing that her concept of normalcy is just as static and singular as her concepts of various kinds of difference. This view is in contrast to Alan Prout’s suggestion that disorder labels like ADHD use behaviour to diagnose as part of a continuum, with no point of disjuncture between ADHD and how other children act (The Future of Childhood 138). In this way, having ADHD or Autism, or delayed motor skill development, is a variable judgement – seen in comparison to other children. The ability to pay attention, control impulses and sit still varies between children, and ranks children according to the demands of mass, compulsory schooling (139). Lisa’s view is a demonstration of ‘popular vernacular’ referring to disorder as ‘constitutional deficit’ (Wappett and Arndt 170). Unfortunately, Matthew Wappett and Katrina Arndt may be correct when they claim that the tendency to ‘reduce individuals to their assumed deficits in the process of identification, intervention, and remediation has overridden the largely competence-based, strengths-focused narrative’ that counters it (185).
The second approach to disability and disorder uncovered in my research involved the incorporation of medical and psy- discourses into yoga discourse, in a push to diagnose, treat, enable and manage children’s behavioural “symptoms”. Carinda’s interview typified this approach. Carinda was a yoga teacher in Tasmania, and owned her own business travelling to schools and studios to conduct children’s yoga classes. Carinda and Lisa’s business were different franchises of the same business, so were united by similar programs and company structures, but their pedagogies were still very different. Carinda had left a corporate career to pursue teaching yoga so that she could have more time with her eleven-year-old son, Conor, and seven-year-old daughter, Mia. Carinda told me that her particular teaching philosophy surrounding disability and disorder was heavily informed by her experiences with her son, who had been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder.
Carinda had an informal method of diagnostic criteria which she used to identify programs of yoga poses that she could prescribe to individual children. In this way her practice beared striking similarity to medicalised discourses which attempt to label and treat children’s symptoms. Yet I would also argue that Carinda understood “disorder”, as Prout suggests, as an assemblage of the biological, physiological, social, cultural and material. Carinda did not discussed medication at all, but if we can accept yoga poses as a form of technology on the body, or a Foucauldian technology of the self, then the assemblage also includes technology. Technology, in this understanding, could apply to many other forms of alternative therapies as well, such as massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy and herbal medicine. However, I also want to suggest that Carinda empathised with the “disordered” children she discusses. She attributed more than just “bad” behaviours to the children, as she said that they ‘enjoy’ certain poses and are probably able to hold them ‘longer than other kids’. She gives reason to behaviours such as ‘bouncing around’, as an attempt to gather information. This offers a way of understanding “disorder” which sees it as something other just deficit, or a problem to be solved, it has potentiality.
Yeah, the kids that I work with, they have a whole range of other issues going on [laughs]…. I do a lot of work with kids with special needs because that’s just such an issue so close to my heart. Whether it’s motor delay, or hyperflexibility, or low muscle tone or whatever it is, there’s usually a suite of things that go along with that. It’s like a herd. It travels in a herd. You might have an issue around low muscle tone but very often that will also come along with behavioural issues and possibly ADHD or something on the spectrum, something in their Sensory Processing Disorder, for example. Things very rarely happen in isolation. So after a while you kind of get a sense of the likely groupings without trying to pigeonhole kids. They’re not cookie cutters. Of course they’re not, but you do sort of heighten your radar to look for certain things as an explanation for behaviours that you see.
Carinda predominantly seemed to function within the biomedical model of disability, understanding there to be “normal” and not-normal behaviours, and diagnosing a child’s body accordingly. Yet she also acknowledged that children could not be so simply categorised. Carinda is driven to diagnose disabilities and disorders, but she also tries to avoid understanding those diagnoses as simply evidence of children’s failures ‘to meet standardised developmental targets’ (Watson, Roulstone and Thomas 415). Yoga teachers like Carinda seem preoccupied ‘with measuring children’s bodies and minds’, but the purpose for it seems to be ‘facilitating their inclusion in society’ (415). The end to this means is entirely the opposite of Lisa’s perspective – where Lisa wanted to separate disabled and disordered children from ‘normal’ children, Carinda wants pedagogy to adapt to suit the needs of all children, disabled, disordered, disturbed, distressed and ‘normal’.
Carinda’s approach takes a step away from Lisa’s in moving towards more inclusive pedagogical practice. Yet there was another approach, that extended beyond Carinda’s approach, to try to deconstruct an understanding of difference, and normalise disabilities and/or disorder. This perspective on disability has the potential to change historical representations, of both disability and children. Disabled children are arguably in need of new forms of understanding and embodied education, as Lindsay Stephens, Susan Ruddick and Patricia McKeever found in their ethnography where disabled children expressed feeling ‘excluded’ because ‘the teachers understand every other perfectly able-bodied person in the classroom but when they get to us it is a mystery’ (195). If we are to move beyond the conception of both children and disabled people as ‘less capable’, or ‘less mature’ (199), we need to stop constructing ‘difference as a problem or an abnormality to be resolved’, and be ‘more open to unorthodox movements’ as children negotiate space (210). Yoga teachers, parents, other adults and children would stop talking about the disabled body as signalling ‘some exceptional lack or failure, but simply one mode among multiple ways of becoming’ (39). I do not claim that these approaches to children’s yoga completely revolutionises ways of conceiving disability and childhood, because it will inevitably fall short of that. Instead, I suggest that this approach to children’s yoga offers one, among many, explorations in this direction.
The approach was epitomised by an interview with Bess, who saw great advantages in incorporating ‘special needs kids’ into ‘regular kids classes’ because it sent the message that:
You are different, and so is everyone else. Like, that is what yoga is about, and who cares if they are different from everyone else? So is everyone else.
This particular approach can also be conceptualised as an extension and appropriation of an arguably Romantic drive to appreciate what children are in the present, rather than what they might become. However, unlike the Rousseauian child, as seen in Emile, who develops on the margins of society, this child is an active agent contributing ‘to shaping and changing culture’, ‘not simply restrained by the structures they encounter, but also shape them’ (418). We can hope that yoga classes are one place where children may not wish to identify with the disabled and disordered diagnostic labels that they may experience elsewhere, because in these environments they do not seem relevant. This echoes Bess’ suggestion that children with ‘special needs’ should learn that they are ‘different, but so is everyone else’. In this way ‘we cannot understand disabled children lives in isolation from the adults that they interact with’ (421), since adults and children together create the environments in which these identities are formed and maintained. I do not suggest that all children’s yoga practices will function in this way, or even any of them, but some have the potential to do so. The process of facilitating inclusion is also problematic. Indeed, it would be foolish and naive to claim that some yoga teachers are entirely free from the drive to diagnose and treat children’s differences.
This is a great little playbook to keep yoga kids happy over the long summer holidays. Enjoy! 🙂
I am very excited to announce that the wonderful people at Bourke St Public have given us space at the school to do yoga every Tuesday!
All kids are welcome to attend, whether they are enrolled at Bourke St or not.
If your child is enrolled at Bourke St I can collect them from school at 3pm and get them ready for class by 3.30pm. Class finishes at 4.30pm. Classes are held in the school library.
Hope to see you there! 🙂
This is so beautiful, I recommend watching it all the way through.
In conjunction with my research at the University of Sydney on children’s yoga I have been busily making this film. It highlights some of the things that my research has found and gets kids to talk about their yoga. I hope you enjoy!
Yeeha! In December 2012, whilst on holiday in Bolivia, I managed to take a call from a wonderful reporter at the ABC on my work researching Children’s Yoga. Both I and Carinda of YogaBugs Tasmania were interviewed by Jodie at the ABC. It turned into this awesome little piece which aired in early Jan 2013… Thank you again Jodie and Carinda!
I was always pretty dorky – I always got excited about going back to school after the summer – but now that I teach children’s yoga I get SUPER excited when it is time for classes to rev back up again after the long Christmas holidays. Although I have to count myself lucky, over January I have been able to see most of my students and interview them about their yoga practice and what it means to them – so at least I have had a little fix to keep me going!
I am totally over the moon that next week, 4th Feb, classes start back up at all my studios and we get to embark on a whole new year of adventures and learning together. For a full timetable of my teaching, see here.
See you on the mat!
Join me in January for Kids Holiday Yoga Workshops at FluidForm Pilates and Yoga! Last holidays we had so much fun in our workshops we decided to do them again. I can’t wait!
Yesterday this lucky duck got to teach seven amazing budding yogis for two hours! It was a total blast – the theme of yesterday’s class was Chandra – Moon, so after starting with our Oms we launched our rockets into space for an inter-galactic adventure! This was the first time I have ever tried Moon Salutes with kids and they loved it! We did them singing ‘Mrs Moon Moon’ (to the tune of Mr Sun Sun, but the kids insisted that since the sun was a boy the moon must be a girl). I love that these kids have started trying to do their salutations with their eyes closed, trying to remember what comes next and focus more on how it feels. It’s really cute seeing them sneak peaks when they forget what’s next and ever cuter when they just don’t worry and are in the middle of the group doing their own thing but with eyes closed and not a care in the world!
I often think more adults need kids’ yoga, so that utkasana (powerful pose) can be a rocket launching off, dekasana (aeroplane) can be done connecting hands in a circle and falling over is absolutely hilarious. Nirvasana (boat pose) is a lot less difficult when it’s actually a space station which opens its doors (legs) to receive a spaceship and then begins to orbit in rock’n’rolls and somersaults. And what do aliens look like in a kids yoga-space class? Well, they’re often upside-down, in shoulderstands, handstands and standing splits, which curl up into tiny little balasana (child’s pose**) alien eggs to rest afterward.
I find it interesting that as adults we always think of kids being so full of energy we can’t keep up with them, but I find that often it’s the rest and relaxation that the kids ask for most. Halfway through the class they start asking me if we are going to do our relaxation (savasana) which often lasts up to ten minutes. Of course we take little breaks during the class too, like lying down in suptabadakonasana (bound angle pose) and using our hands on our bellies to feel our breath going as deep as it can. However, I often hear from my child students (very similarly to my adult students) that the full savasana relaxation is the best bit of the whole class. I always take them on a journey, for instance yesterday when we went to space our relaxation was floating through a rainbow of stars, feeling how each new star and colour affected our bodies in different ways (inspired by the chakras). Afterwards the kids will sometimes tell me that their mind wandered away from the journey, but that they soon came back – sound familar adult yogis?
For me the best part of class comes straight after relaxation, when everyone sits up still silent and with their eyes closed go straight into Omming. It’s amazing to hear. As they open their eyes they look around the room and say to one another ‘I love you and I love myself. Namaste.’ And I know I have the best job in the world.
Kids Yoga Holiday Workshops will be returning to Fluid Form Pilates, Dank St, in January. I can’t wait!
**Whenever I have told a child in balasana that the name of their pose is ‘child’s pose’ they look at me quizzically, wondering why that movement represents them. I can only think it must have something to do with the fetal position.