In seeking a way to help her autistic daughter cope with her stress and anxiety, longtime yoga practitioner Sharon Manner turned to her practice for guidance. The success she found led her to create Ashrams For Autism, which brings yoga to autistic youth in schools
in northern and central New Jersey and New York. She spoke with Karen Schwartz about the program’s key elements.
Karen Schwartz: How did you come up with this idea?
Sharon Manner: I started creating the course about 14 years ago when I had a dream: it was Swami Satchitananda, founder of Integral Yoga Institute, with his arm around my daughter Kerry. And he said, “You need to clean them, and you need to put out the fire.” I interpreted the cleaning as using yoga and diet to clean, and putting out the fire as using yogic tools to lessen anxiety. So that’s what we did.
Swami Satchitananda’s teachings are all based on love and kindness -- he says the happiest person is the one that makes another happy. And Kerry teaches me how to be a better person all day every day...she works so hard at being in this world with a lot of grace, and practices ahimsa continually. I wish I did it as much as she does!
KS: How does your organization use yoga?
SM: Ahimsa is one of the first and most important things we teach: “Adapting, Adjusting and Accommodating” to these individuals that have such hard time in our society. And using kindness and love as the watchwords and the most important foundation.
We run trainings all over the country, teaching all those that serve this population. We teach yogic tools and techniques on how to help reduce stress and self-regulate. We also run trainings on how to work with parents and help them to have a less stressful life and live in a space of thriving in possibilities...trying to give them back some of what they may have lost through the stress of having a child with autism.
I have a daughter with autism who’s 25. Over many years of watching the medical community not be able to solve a lot of what we needed in stress reduction and living a healthy lifestyle, I went back to my yogic roots. One of the very first things we teach is...be aware in your heart of where these individuals are coming from. What might seem as if it’s aggression or loud voices is really fear. We teach to “see from your heart.” They approach you with such open arms if you can approach them that way.
KS: How does this work with kids who have difficulty verbally?
SM: We chant, we clap, we do different things to ground the body. Then we use the breath to calm the nervous system. We use asanas to open the different meridians and give energy to all parts of the body...we finish with yoga nidra, but we do it with Reiki, in case there are people who can’t understand the words or follow the words that quickly.
The kids who are on the spectrum and are “low functioning” -- many times they are very intelligent but just don’t have the wiring in the brain to be able to access words. However if you sit in front of them and do a yoga class, they can copy that yoga class and get the benefits through the intention that the teacher has in their heart, through the music they may play...they’ll get what they need from it without you even speaking.
KS: Whose life has been made better by this work?
SM: We have a couple of young men that have Asperger’s that we’ve trained to be teachers, who have the greatest empathy, teaching from a real experiential place. Their lives have been changed not only by the benefit of yoga but also by the benefit of being able to give yoga.
Then there are a lot of people that work in the public schools, like guidance counselors. We teach them how to use acupressure on the feet, we give recommendations on essential oils (if smells are not adverse to the children). These kids go to the guidance counselor as a way to decompress in their regular school, so you’ve got some pretty nervous kids that can go to a safe place and get these tools, calm down and go back and complete their day.
KS: How can someone get involved?
SM: We would love for as many people who have the desire to serve to come and join us in
one of our trainings. It could be the full 100-hour teacher certification or it could be the 15-hour training [in how to] take it into schools.
If they have the ability, people can make a donation -- we definitely need the funding so that we can bring this to kids, we do need to pay our teachers. They travel far and they work really hard.
People can also volunteer with our fundraising. We’re going to be doing a bunch of events throughout the course of next year and we’d love to get some support. They could also come and help us in the schools and volunteer as an aide. They can send us an email on the web site, email@example.com.