Special needs yoga: from disabilities to chronic illness and cancer, the group making yoga accessible to all
- Hong Kong’s Yama Foundation teaches yoga to children and adults with various disabilities and illnesses who might otherwise not get to practise it
- Since 2016, the foundation has provided more than 450 free classes to 900 people across nine districts in Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s yoga scene is thriving, but people with disabilities or chronic illnesses have limited opportunities to learn yoga and benefit from its practice. The non-profit Yama Foundation is addressing this gap by making yoga more accessible to such people.
“We started Yama Foundation because we believe that people, regardless of their age, ability or background, should have access to yoga,” says 41-year-old Hersha Chellaram, who established the foundation in 2016 with her husband Shaman. “We wanted to share these ancient teachings with communities that are unable to attend a regular class.”
Chellaram grew up practising yoga with her father, a student of the renowned Indian spiritual and yoga master Satchidananda Saraswati. She went on to study yoga in Satchidananda’s institute in the US state of Virginia, and later in Coimbatore, India. She became a certified yoga instructor and has been teaching for 16 years.
The idea for Yama came from two key events in her life. The first was more than 15 years ago when a woman with a wooden leg walked into one of her yoga classes. “I was taken aback and didn’t know how to instruct her. It made me realise that yoga was not accessible to everyone, especially to those who may need it the most,” Chellaram says.
Then a few years later, Chellaram’s niece, Talia, was born with a rare genetic cognitive disorder.
“Talia started learning yoga from a very young age. I saw how immensely yoga benefited her, both physically and mentally, enabling her to cope with her condition. It inspired me to help children in similar situations,” she says.
Chellaram learned to teach yoga to disabled children and adults under the world-renowned yoga teachers Sonia Sumar, founder of the “Yoga for the Special Child” method, and Jivana Heyman, founder of advocacy organisation Accessible Yoga.
She started teaching children with special needs via yoga classes at Hong Kong’s Jockey Club Sarah Roe School and the Joshua Hellmann Foundation. She says her passion has blossomed from a labour of love into a thriving organisation.
Today, Yama teaches children with special needs and terminal illnesses, teens and at-risk youth, adults with disabilities, and women in prison. Since 2016, the foundation has provided more than 450 free classes to 900 people across nine districts in Hong Kong.
Yama is an acronym for yoga, arts and meditation accessible, and is also the first of the eight limbs of classical yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras, a fourth-century text compiled by Sage Patanjali. Yama emphasises the practice of five moral imperatives: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-covetousness), brahmacharya (sexual self-restraint) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
One of the foundation’s first initiatives was to share yoga with children living at Ronald McDonald House, which provides accommodation for families with children suffering from cancer.
“Dealing with cancer is very stressful for the whole family,” says Pacsy Lam, 56, a senior yoga teacher with Yama who conducts classes at Ronald McDonald House. “Treatments are brutal, often leaving children and their families exhausted, anxious and stressed out.
“Children and their parents come together [here] to practise yoga. The aim is to make them feel at peace. We keep the poses gentle and fun. Kids love the ‘tree pose’, so we try to include it as much as possible. A gentle stretch is all they need to feel better after chemotherapy or radiotherapy.”
Yama also holds classes at the Platform Events Space in Sai Ying Pun on Mondays.
“We teach yoga through a combination of chanting, physical movements (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), relaxation (yoga nidra) and meditation,” says 42-year-old Aurelie Gauthier, a senior yoga teacher at Yama. “Witnessing how our students’ bodies and breath relax and seeing the big smiles at the end of the class is magical.”
Lam, who grew up with a younger brother with special needs, says the classes help children feel better and make new friends. “We focus on postures for spinal movements and poses to encourage digestion, strength and balance. At the end of class, remaining in that stillness after the ‘oms’ [chants] have led to silence is one of the deepest connections I’ve felt.”
Ashven Shivkumar, 17, has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and has been attending yoga classes at Yama for the past few months.
“Before I come for class my mind is ‘busy’, but after we chant ‘om’ a few times I feel calm,” he says. “I do poses like downward-facing dog. My favourite pose is Warrior one.”
Shivkumar’s mother, Asha Nair, says yoga has helped him relax. “He is shy but looks forward to going to his yoga class. He has opened up and is making more friends.”
Teaching yoga to children with special needs had a profound impact on the way I approach yoga – as a student and as a teacher
Catrin Anderson, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy – a permanent movement disorder – started practising yoga five years ago with Chellaram.
“Catrin was 15 years old when I met her,” Chellaram says. “She is unable to speak and communicates with her eyes, a computer, and an augmentative and alternative communication board [called an AAC]. I had to break down poses into many components to teach her. It was hard for her at first, but she persisted.”
Since then Anderson has progressed tremendously. She is now certified to teach yoga to people with disabilities and is preparing to teach her first class using AAC. She has also created a blog called “Shift Yourself Now”, focused on the emotional well-being of non-verbal communicators.
“I am passionate about yoga,” she says. “It helps my body and mind relax. It gives me energy.”
Yama also offers yoga and meditation classes for adults with special needs in residential care homes in Ho Man Tin run by Hong Kong’s SAHK social services organisation.
“The main challenges facing [these] adults are lack of employment opportunities, isolation and low self-esteem,” Lam says. “They are often forgotten by their families and many residents haven’t had visitors in months. Yoga in a group class provides a wonderful social setting to help participants make friends and feel good.”
Yama also runs yoga programmes in women’s prisons in Hong Kong. Gabi Baumgartner, 49, a senior yoga teacher with Yama, conducts weekly classes at the Tai Lam Centre for Women, a maximum-security prison in Tuen Mun.
“Women in prisons have faced traumatic situations like abandonment, domestic violence and sexual abuse to name a few,” says Baumgartner, who has been teaching yoga for 11 years. “Our classes are simple, focusing on breathing techniques. Practising yoga nidra with the women is my favourite part of the class. Yoga nidra is an extended deep relaxation practice that offers guided relaxation. It brings the body and mind into a state of deep rest, allowing a person to come out of any stress response, so the body can rest and repair.”
One of her prisoner students sent a thank-you letter that read: “Yoga has helped me heal emotionally and I’m learning to forgive and love myself.”
“What could be a better reward for a yoga teacher?” Baumgartner says.
Yama has brought together a community of like-minded teachers who have dedicated themselves to people who might otherwise have difficulty accessing the practice.
“Teaching yoga to children with special needs had a profound impact on the way I approach yoga – as a student and as a teacher,” Gauthier says. “It taught me that whatever the physical abilities, the soul is intact. It’s about connecting with the soul. When you teach to children or adults who can’t easily move, who are non-verbal, you need to find another way to connect and yoga has been a wonderful tool.”
Chellaram says: “My motivation stems from my deep belief that everyone deserves compassion, kindness and equal opportunity. While we cannot eliminate the hardships people face in life, we can empower those in need to overcome fear, anxiety and depression arising from traumatic situations.”