When I met with Jo Manuel, the founder of the Special Yoga Centre (SYC) in Kensal Rise, it was like cosying up to the fire burner at the very heart of this truly special place. Jo’s hope with SYC is that “every child in this country has the opportunity to receive the gift of yoga”. She went from yoga practitioner, to yoga teacher, to teaching children’s yoga, to specializing in teaching children with special needs after she met Sonia Sumar, founder of Special Yoga. Now she is leading the way in the UK in research and teaching of yoga to children with special needs.
The SYC is setting a precedent for extending the benefits of yoga beyond the affluent middle class. They are pioneering ways of teaching yoga to children with special needs and other focus groups. What’s more, this old printing press next to a railway line is now one of the leading yoga centres in London offering top-class yoga to adults.
Yoga for everyone
Jo explained to me that the centre is founded on the principle of inclusivity. They are a charity and a yoga centre at the same time: the yoga classes and workshops fund their charity which teaches yoga to children with special needs. This concept means that the children can come to practice in a place which is used by everyone and it gives the studios a special harmony.
SYC highlights that yoga can and should have a much wider reach than it does at present. Yoga can help many different people in different ways: everyone can find a yoga which is uniquely beneficial to them. Three hundred and fifty children with different special needs come to this centre to improve concentration, mobility, motor planning, coordination, strength and general well-being. Jo has found that yoga doesn’t just help the children to become happier and more in control of their minds and bodies but the calm that the children find in yoga helps the carers and families manage too. Jo says that “We spend a lot of time as parents ensuring the welfare of our children, but too often we are not able to find the time to look after ourselves.”
From the studio to the classroom
Jo has found that yoga helps to create a more peaceful environment where children are more receptive to learning. The benefits of yoga extend far beyond the studio. Yoga is about finding harmony in your body and mind, using breathing and concentration to find a stillness and calm and living in the the present surroundings rather than letting your thoughts fill with anxieties about the past or future. This can have an incredibly powerful effect at home or in schools. Jo encourages parents, carers and teachers to practice yoga. At SYC groups and individuals learn the tools of yoga which they can use in their daily lives.
I asked Jo about the alternatives for families to improve their children’s well-being and she said that there is very little available. Funding in physiotherapy and occupational therapy is limited and the care stops during the holidays as play schemes are heavily oversubscribed. Yoga is the best, if not only, option and to prove as much, SYC has hired a medical researcher to monitor and evaluate the effects. The results will be published later this year.
Yoga breaking social boundaries
The theme of inclusivity is not only felt in the mix of people who use the space of the Special Yoga Centre but also in the range of parents who attend the classes for children with special needs. For example, in the family group class for children with cerebral palsy, celebrities practice together with families from deprived backgrounds. Disability crosses social boundaries and brings people together to face the most fundamental human problems, which affect anyone regardless of social status. Why is yoga still a middle class pursuit when it has important benefits for everyone? (I feel very strongly about this topic and will pick up on it again).
Yoga for teenagers
At the Special Yoga Centre, they also run a range of workshops to fund their charity. A workshop that I found most interesting was one for teens. Jo started yoga at the age of 15 and she runs the workshop herself. She told me that teenagers are a fascinating group to teach yoga to because their minds are so open to explore new ideas and yet they feel that they are controlled by their mind rather than having control over it. The pressures on teenagers lead to all sorts of other problems: obesity, anorexia, depression, anxiety, stress. Yoga is a way to channel difficult feelings and to regain control in a turbulent period of your life.
The Special Yoga Centre is a very special place to be and has a wonderfully all-encompassing approach to yoga. It just shows that the benefits of yoga have a much greater reach than it currently serves. Yoga is the foundation of a very adaptable and powerful way of improving our general well-being.