Ryoko Ohtaki: Yoga for Special Needs Children
Meet the woman who helped introduce a unique yoga program designed to enhance the natural development of special needs children to Japan.
Yoga for the Special Child (YSC) training programs offer a unique learning environment for children and their parents, special education teachers, yoga teachers and healthcare professionals. Courses are taught by internationally renowned yoga therapist and author Sonia Sumar, whose innovative teaching methods have been improving the lives of children and adults with special needs for over forty years.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryoko Ohtaki, who brought the YSC method to Japan. She is also a psychologist specializing in trauma care and treatment for PTSD and a researcher at the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry in Japan.
Tell us a little about the Yoga for the Special Child program.
Sonia Sumar developed the YSC program after giving birth to her second daughter Roberta Sumar in 1972. She was born with a genetic condition known as Down syndrome.
A physician told Sonia there was nothing she could do besides waiting until Roberta reached the age of seven and then put her in a school for special needs children. That sounded like an eternity to Sonia, and she knew how much difference those seven years could make in a life of a child.
Back in Brazil, she recalled having seen many special needs children who could not even put their clothes on by themselves. This was a result of society regarding them as being incapable of even the most straightforward learning.
Sonia was a Portuguese language teacher and decided to stimulate her daughter as soon as she could. Though physician talked about plans, she would like to begin a program that could encourage Roberta right away.
Sonia had already been a dedicated yoga practitioner for some years. She realized that yoga, mindful breathing techniques, and yogic postures could improve her child’s physical condition, aid concentration, and relieve stress. It would be a perfect way to work all those parts from the inside out.
As Sonia was working with Roberta, she sensed the positive impact it was making on her daughter’s condition; improving her health and developing her mind. Despite not having yet considered working with other children, the results of Sonia’s work soon began to spread, and other parents were asking her to help their children.
Sonia continued to work with Roberta, and she was a great yogini for her entire life. Building on her excellent results with Roberta, Sonia started working with other special needs children and developed the YSC program. Today, her methods are used all over the world and have been improving the lives of special needs children for over forty years.
How did you get involved with this program?
I took the YSC program in 2009 for the first time when I was a graduate student in developmental psychology. I was already studying child psychology and had been practicing yoga for years. So, when I found the YSC program with Sonia, I felt like two of my paths came together.
Feeling inspired to share this knowledge in Japan, I arrange for Sonia to visit and teach here each year. I also fly to other countries to undertake more training and attend conferences with YSC practitioners.
Having the opportunity to learn from Sonia and becoming part of the worldwide community that her organization has attracted has been a life-changing experience for me. Whenever I am with Sonia and her students, I feel so grateful to be part of this big family.
What approached do you use to teach yoga to special needs children?
The YSC program gently guides each child to various yoga poses and breathing exercise designed for each stage of development. We also use music, mantras, and deep relaxation techniques to enhance the child’s development further.
When we see a child, we don’t focus on their diagnosis or “disability.” Instead, we see the child as a whole, including their physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects.
How do special needs children live in Japan?
Depending on their physical and intellectual abilities, special needs children can go to schools for special education or special education classrooms in a regular school. They can also receive social welfare for their health care and other services.
Could you share a couple of stories of how yoga has benefited special needs children?
I’ve been working with an eleven-year-old girl with an infantile epilepsy spasm called West Syndrome. She uses a wheelchair and is not yet verbal. She has frequent seizures due to her abnormal brain waves.
When I started working with her three years ago, she was a mouth-breather, and her breathing was very shallow, which was adversely affecting every aspect of her life. For this reason, each yoga session with her has started with a focus on breathing.
When I work with her physically, I talk to each part of her body so that she can become more self-aware. Her mother also completed the YSC, Basic1 program last year so that she can practice with her daughter at home on a daily bases.
As a result of daily yoga practice over the past few years, this girl is now much more focused, responsive, and relaxed. Her breathing has improved, and her heart rate is more stable. Her mother also reported that their relationship has improved and they feel more connected.
Another child whom I’ve been working with has cerebral palsy. He is bright and smart in many ways. Standing and walking on his feet without support is still quite challenging for him, but he has a strong desire to walk better.
Since starting yoga, he feels more positive and hopeful. His mother reported that even on those days when I don’t visit him for a session, he sometimes takes time for himself to calm down on his own using yogic breathing. He is very good with Sanskrit mantras and remembers them right away. This boy is a true yogi!
How difficult is it to work with special needs children?
The YSC method recognizes that each child is unique and encourages the therapist to work with their individual needs and support their natural growth. Everyone’s physical and emotional condition changes daily. Therefore, each yoga session is different, and we need to be meeting the child’s needs in every moment.
Working with these children has been a great pleasure, and they teach me so much. It can sometimes be challenging, but I believe they can access an even deeper level of yoga practice.
Could you tell more about the events you organize for these kids?
As the YSC program coordinator in Japan, I’ve been organizing YSC Basics programs annually for the past few years. Sonia Sumar comes to Japan to offer one-week teacher training courses in the YSC method. These include Sonia’s demonstration sessions with special needs children.
These programs have been attended by yoga teachers, school/nursery teachers, nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, and mothers of special needs children. The Basic 1 program provides the essential tools for working with special needs children.
Other than annual teacher training by Sonia, I work with the community privately to offer yoga sessions at homes and schools.