Yoga and Special Education in India

I am deeply grateful to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust that gave me a unique opportunity to gain knowledge and insights into yoga for disabled people in India. I travelled over 6,000 miles in seven Indian states where I meet and learned from some of the renown yoga masters and eminent educationalists.

The highlight of my Fellowship was meeting Education Psychologist, Dr P. Jeyachandran, Director of Special Education in Tamil Nadu. 

We met at Vijay Human Services, a small school for special children in Madras (now Chennai). He greeted me with pleased surprise, because we had just learnt that we had both introduced yoga to people with severe learning difficulties around the same time, even though we were at opposite ends of the earth. His book ‘Teaching Yogasana to the Mentally Retarded’ (pub. 1983) showed me that we used the same yogasanas (yoga postures) with breath and relaxation. 

He told me about the facilities at his training centres, as the Director of Balar Vihar Special Education programmes for teacher training special educators, the children in special schools, and the parents of special children in day care.

My visit was such good timing because in January 1985 Yoga was just being implemented into the National Curriculum of Special Education, under the auspice of Dr Jeychandrans’ pilot programme, with approval from the Department of Education. (Details of this ‘Report on the pilot yoga study programme’ can be found at the end of this article.)

Six years previously in 1978, Dr Jeyachandran had initiated yogasanas (yoga postures) training for his special educators to teach small groups of special children as an experiment at Vijay Human Services. Two other educational psychologists assisted him managing this project in collaboration with the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, a yoga therapeutic centre registered with the Health Ministry.

The following three videos show interviews with these three psychologists: Dr Jeyachandran, Ms Vimla and Ms Lata in their respective training centres, along with demonstrations of the special educators’ and childrens’ yoga training sessions.

Note: At the time of my visit in January 1985 and up to quite recently, people with learning difficulties / intellectual disabilities were termed ‘mentally retarded’. In this report I will use the terms special child and children with learning difficulties, however mentally retarded is mentioned in the accompanying videos. Please allow 20 minutes for viewing these videos below, showing the unique yoga teacher-training programme, yoga being taught to groups in a special school, and the children’s pilot yoga class.

Bala Vihar Teacher Training Centre
Here I was invited to attend the teachers’ yoga training class. Both Dr P Jeyachandran and the Principal Ms V. Vimla greeted me warmly and escorted me into the long hall. Where four male teacher trainees were standing, and on the other side of a wall-divider about twenty female teacher trainees were, all waiting to start their weekly yoga class. The two groups inhaled during the expanding movements - which opened out their lungs - and exhaled to the sound of ‘ha’. I was very impressed with the beautiful atmosphere and unison of the groups.

Dr Jeyachandran said, “Our special children do not all understand the teachers’ instructions to breathe out, so what we now do is instruct then to make a sound as they breathe out. This has been the greatest innovation in the yoga programme, because the key to success in yoga with disabled students is the breathing, which is a means of controlling the vital life force. Also using sound ensures that all students are breathing out together, which helps them to perform in time with each other while at the same time it helps to govern the pace of the groups’ practice. If a student gasps for breath, this would indicate fatigue, and he should be stopped immediately and told to rest. “

Every week for one-hour the teacher trainees were taught the next lesson on yoga. Their yoga teacher showed then illustrations of the sequence to practice, and at the end of the session they had to copy these into their exercise books. So they could continue practice on their own each day, and gain experience to teach the same yogasanas to the children the following week.

At the end, some of the trainees told me of their personal benefits gained from the yoga practice such as: overcoming emotional problems with yoga breathing and relaxation; relief from severe back-ache caused by spondylitis; increased flexibility in hips; improved breathing and relief from chest infection; sense of enjoyment from the practice; and one man said he had considerable relief from various pains since practising yoga.

I was thrilled by their enthusiasm and thanked them for allowing us to video their yoga training.