“I went through the gamut of what to do for my child,” said Sharon Manner, whose now 25-year-old daughter Kerri has autism. “After she was hospitalized twice, I realized Western medicine was not working. I went back to my yoga roots to explore how to help her.”
Manner had studied the teachings of Swami Satchidananda at Integral Yoga in Manhattan. She taught her daughter yoga postures, breath work, meditation, and mindfulness. One day on the way to school, when Kerri seemed especially anxious, her mother asked what she was going to do that day. Kerri answered, “Take a lot of deep breaths.”
It was clear that yoga was helping her daughter navigate challenges and find calmness in a world that Kerri often finds overstimulating and overwhelming. Manner, who received certification as a teacher by Yoga Alliance, began teaching the techniques to other children with autism and staff at schools and centers. Her non-profit organization, Ashrams for Autism, has conducted programs at facilities in New Jersey and New York for the past ten years. Now she is bringing training programs to caretakers, staff, and parents in the Catskills, in conjunction with educator Marc Rosenbaum, who has taught parenting skills to over 5000 New York City residents and teachers through the city schools.
Manner realized early on that yoga principles would be helpful to staff, not only so they could help children assimilate the concepts but also to maintain their own balance while working with students whose social and sensory issues are often difficult to handle. Then she saw that mindfulness could be equally important in the home environment, and she resolved to bring the training to parents — but she wasn’t sure how to work with parents.
She had begun living part-time in Willow when she met Rosenbaum around the firepit at the Bearsville Theater complex. He has a masters in psychology and has studied with the Arica Institute, Swami Muktananda, and other spiritual teachers. After two decades as a dentist, Rosenbaum had felt a desire for more fulfilling work. “I saw the need for working with parents and staff in the public schools in the inner city,” he said. “I went into the schools for a year and looked at what was going in with social-emotional learning. I asked myself, ‘Would my life have been a lot easier if I’d learned how to take responsibility, how to communicate better when I was growing up?’ If I’d learned these things at home, I wouldn’t have had to go out and study with spiritual teachers and psychologists.”
In 1992, Rosenbaum designed a curriculum that he taught to parents and staff in New York City public schools. His book Masterful Parenting serves as a textbook for ongoing programs, now under the umbrella of his organization Education for Excellence.
Manner read his book and attended a few of Rosenbaum’s classes for low-income parents in the Bronx. “I saw people who were very open, loving, and in real need of support, without the resources to go out and get training,” she said. “I also saw a similarity to parents of kids with autism — depleted emotionally and financially, not thinking how to take the time to take care of themselves, in survival mode, trying to keep their kid okay and balanced.”
Rosenbaum’s approach to social-emotional learning complements Manner’s yogic perspective in a program designed to offer tools to parents. The training is also appropriate for staff, both at centers for children on the spectrum and at public schools, where mainstreaming has created a diverse student body.
Jamey Wolff of the Center for Spectrum Services in Kingston said she has not worked with Manner, but yoga classes have been offered at the center, which serves children with autism. “We have found children’s yoga to be a very useful tool in centering our students,” she said. “We use some of the yoga breathing in occupational therapy, counseling, and play therapy sessions to teach mindfulness and calmness and give children more control over their emotional states.”
Because people on the autism spectrum range from nonverbal to highly functional, Manner said, “We train our teachers to work with all levels of the spectrum. For those that are lower functioning, we use very few verbal cues. They may not be able to verbalize if something is overstimulating, so we always get as much information about the students as we can from staff or parents.” Children are not pressured to participate. One young man came to class every day but just sat with his arms crossed. “We didn’t think he was particularly enjoying the class,” said Manner, “until I went to a parent meeting. His mother spoke of how much her son loved yoga. In fact, when his stressed-out uncle came to visit, this young man suggested that his uncle get a yoga video to help with his stress.”
It’s important to know which postures are good for children with autism and which are not, said Manner. Classes begin with chanting and clapping, which bring oxygen to the brain, elevate mood, and provide grounding. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is calming and can be used by students at any time to self-regulate anxiety. Rapid breathing, however, can have an overstimulating effect and is not recommended. Inversions — headstands and shoulder stands — are also too exciting, while stretches such as the “cobra pose” are beneficial and soothing to overactive adrenals. The class ends with deep relaxation. “We’re always creating balance,” said Manner, “calming the nervous system so they can learn and be in a space where they feel safe and centered.”
Manner and Rosenbaum have presented their work at such venues as an accessibility conference in New York City. Last summer, they conducted a training in Willow that was attended mainly by people from New York and New Jersey. This summer, they hope to offer the program to upstate parents and educators.
“I have skills from raising a child with autism,” said Manner. “Learning to let go, to decide when to do things that either move the child forward or keep the child in a space that’s balanced. It’s counterproductive to move in and use some therapy tool when you’re not in a balanced state yourself. The program helps you stay balanced, take care of yourself, and discern how to make decisions.”
Ashrams for Autism provides yoga programs in ten locations, serving participants ranging from children to young adults. “We try to cover expenses when schools and facilities can’t pay,” said Manner, “but we end up having to raise $15,000 to $20,000 a year to pay our teachers in existing programs.” The money comes from grants, donations, and fundraisers. Many parents, Manner included, worry what the fate of their children will be after the parents die. The long-term goal of her organization is to establish communities based on a yogic lifestyle, specifically for people with autism.
Rosenbaum has been sensitized to the issues of autism by getting to know Manner’s daughter. “Kerri teaches me how to be a better person,” he said. “They’re all love — no egos. They deserve to have beautiful lives with dignity, and their families deserve to go from surviving to thriving.”++
Ashrams for Autism is scheduling programs to be held in Woodstock in the summer of 2017. A 100-hour certification course includes 50 hours on teaching yoga to children with autism and 50 hours on managing stress through yoga and mindfulness. Each of these two modules is expected to cost approximately $750. A 15-hour course will also be offered, at a price not yet determined. For more information, see http://ashrams4autism.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.