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Yoga Therapy for Children and Adolescents

By March 7, 2022NESCA Notes 2022

By:  Stephanie Monaghan-Blout, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

As a pediatric neuropsychologist, I often recommend yoga therapy for children with anxiety, impulse control, and/or motor/coordination/sensory issues, as well as issues that alienate them from their body (e.g., eating disorders and trauma). Another group for which a body-focused therapy like yoga would be helpful is children with language challenges who are not equipped to manage the challenge of “talking” therapy.

Yoga is a 4,000-year-old practice that originated in what is now known as India. The word means “yoke” or “union,” and the practice of yoga aims to quiet the mind in order to find the unity within ourselves and with the world around us. This ancient practice was developed to facilitate development and integration of the human body, mind, and breath to produce a strong and flexible body free of pain, a balanced autonomic nervous system with all physiological systems functioning optimally, and a calm, clear, and tranquil mind (1). As we make this transformation in ourselves, we hope to affect the larger world. This is done through a variety of elements, but the western world tends to focus on movement (asanas), breathwork (pranayamas), and meditation (dhyanas).

Yoga was introduced to the west in the 19th century and has become a popular form of physical fitness and injury rehabilitation. More recently, we have begun to investigate its impact on physiological function, specifically the autonomic nervous system which controls vital life functions and regulates our stress response and return to equilibrium. Research has shown that chronic activation of the stress response (“fight/flight/freeze”) is strongly associated with increased risk of cardiovascular problems and autoimmune disorders (including diabetes), as well as psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Yoga has been found to be effective in damping the stress response and allowing the body to return to equilibrium (“rest and digest”), resulting in lower heart rate and blood pressure, improved hormone regulation and gastrointestinal processes, lowered levels of anxiety, and better emotional and behavioral control. It is now included in cardiac rehabilitation programs, chronic pain programs, and psychotherapeutic treatment modalities.

Recently, I became curious with what exactly happens in yoga therapy and decided to talk with the new yoga therapist at NESCA, Danielle Sugrue, M.S. An athlete throughout high school and college, Danielle became involved with yoga about 15 years ago because she was looking for something that “would get me back into movement.” She quickly fell in love with yoga and completed her 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. In the meantime, she also completed her master’s degree in Marriage and Family Studies at Salem State University. With this combination of expertise, she is able to help children and adolescents become more in touch with their bodies and find their words through movement, breathing, and relaxation.

I asked Danielle what a yoga therapy session with a child would look like. She quickly assured me that interventions with young children hold little resemblance to adult yoga classes. Danielle described her sessions with children as a playful movement exercise to learn to come to their breathing when things get challenging. If a child becomes dysregulated, she helps them tap into their senses to ground them and begin to put words on the feelings. A session may start by spreading cards with animals doing various poses out on the floor and asking the child to pick the card that looks like how s/he is feeling. Based on the cards selected, Danielle may develop a flow of postures based on those selections. The poses and concepts are taught through stories and games using mythical characters, like Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god who clears obstacles and paves the way for us to move forward in life.

The sessions for adolescents tend to take a more direct approach to the issues of concern as described by the teenager. Learning breathing techniques tends to be a key element; because of body issues, many teenage girls don’t breathe deeply (belly breathing) because it makes their stomach stick out. This kind of shallow breathing activates the stress response, making the person feel more anxious, while deep breathing “turns on” the rest and relax function. Moving freely without self-consciousness is another big challenge for teens—and developing a flow that allows them to feel themselves moving with ease but also makes them feel capable of holding a pose just a little longer than they thought they could—helps with developing self-confidence. Directly addressing mindset (self-love and self-compassion) also tends to be an important focus of work with teens and may involve activities such as a mirror challenge of looking at oneself and identifying what s/he likes about themselves.

Yoga therapy usually involves purchasing a 10-session package of once weekly meetings of an hour’s length. If you are interested in having your child work with Danielle, please contact her directly at: dsugrue@nesca-newton.com or complete an online Intake Form at: https://hipaa.jotform.com/220393954666062.

In addition to her work at NESCA, Danielle also teaches yoga at Power Yoga Evolution in North Andover. Dr. Monaghan-Blout is in the process of completing her own 200-hour yoga teacher training.

  1. Kayley-Isley, L., Peterson , J, Fischer, C, and Peterson, E. Yoga as a Complementary Therapy for Children and Adolescents, Psychiatry 2010; 7(8): 20-32.
  2. Nourollahimoghadam, E., Gorji, S., Ghadiri M., Therapeutic Role of Yoga in Neuropsychological Disorders., World Journal of Psychiatry 2021, October 19; 11 (10): 754-773
  3. Permission to Unplug: the Health Benefits of Yoga for Kids. https://www.healthychildren.org, the American Academy of Pediatrics
  4. Barkataki, Susanna. Embrace Yoga’s Roots; Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice 2020, Orlando, FLA, Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute

 

About the Author:

Formerly an adolescent and family therapist, Dr. Stephanie Monaghan-Blout is a senior clinician who joined NESCA at its inception in 2007. Dr. Monaghan-Blout specializes in the assessment of clients with complex learning and emotional issues. She is proficient in the administration of psychological (projective) tests, as well as in neuropsychological testing. Her responsibilities at NESCA also include acting as Clinical Coordinator, overseeing psycho-educational and therapeutic services. She has a particular interest in working with adopted children and their families, as well as those impacted by traumatic experiences. She is a member of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) associated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Harvard Law Clinic, and is working with that group on an interdisciplinary guide to trauma sensitive evaluations.

To book an evaluation with one of our many expert neuropsychologists and transition specialists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.