Giuliana Fenwick on her book, ‘Indian Head Massage for Special Needs’

As a new author to Singing Dragon, Giuliana Fenwick’s first book, Indian Head Massage For Special Needs, sees the pinnacle of her work so far in a very short space of time. However, it is very much the beginning of the platform as she continues work as an author, public speaker and fundraiser for special needs, helping to give a voice to those who so often do not have one. Hear her story below…
Continue reading

Don’t expect it to go right – by Chris Mitchell

I have been asked frequently of late about whether or not mindfulness ‘works’. Personally, I think it neither does nor doesn’t work as it is something that one can neither succeed nor fail at. I appreciate that just because it can have an effect on the quality of life for some individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, including my own, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is for all. It can be easy to become put off from mindfulness practice when one feels that their mind wanders so much that they can’t calm it, and become more frustrated through just ‘trying’. But just simple noticing of the mind wandering is a good start. One of the most useful pieces of therapy I have had for coping with set-backs and disappointments is not to expect anything to go right, including mindfulness practice.

Too often when we set out to see or experience something that interests us or we are enthusiastic or passionate about or what has always been on our bucket list of things we would like to do, we almost expect to have a great time that we forget that there is the possibility that something might go wrong, and when it does, feelings can include not just disappointment, but also frustration, which in turns results in low mood.

northern light-smallAn interesting way to potentially experience disappointment as well as learn how to cope with it in a positive way is through chasing the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Some have been fortunate to have seen the Northern Lights in the UK 2014 courtesy of a recent powerful solar storm that resulted in a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) strong enough for its impact on hitting Earth’s atmosphere to be visible much further south than normal. But as Northern Lights enthusiasts know well, more than just strong solar storm activity needs to occur to have a chance of seeing the lights, even when one is around Earth’s magnetic pole above the Arctic Circle in Tromso, Norway, a clear sky is needed and for the phenomena to be visible, solar storm activity has to be at the right level and has to happen at a certain time.

It is human nature to want an explanation as to why phenomena like the Northern Lights happen and as a result many myths have been associated with them over thousands of years, as they could appear very brightly without warning. The Sami, native to northern Scandinavia, believed that they came about when an arctic fox ran over the mountains leaving behind a mist while the Greenland Inuit believed them to be the souls of babies yet to be born.  Though solar storm activity is generally constant, even with present technology, it is still very difficult for astronomers to predict when CMEs will hit Earth’s atmosphere. With the added need of a clear sky, those on Northern Lights chases can experience either wonders or disappointment.

However, being aware that the phenomenon isn’t guaranteed to happen is a good way to prepare for potential disappointment. From images of northern Scandinavia, it can be assumed warm fire-smallthat the Northern Lights appear just about every night, but when visiting, one finds that reality and perception are two very different things, including the often harsh reality of adverse weather conditions for those who live there. After two nights looking for any signs of looking for any signs of aurora with no luck and poor conditions for aurora viewing including low cloud cover, when the adverse weather conditions of heavy snow, wind and cloud cover continued into my third night, when instead of thinking about whether or not I would see any aurora activity I had become more accustomed to the thrill of being in the Artic in heavy snow with access to the warmth of an open fire in a Sami tent, there came a break in the clouds and I managed to see a green tinge of aurora activity!

The aurora display that I managed to see was visible for only a few minutes until it was obscured by cloud again. But when it did appear, it provided me with a little reminder of how to approach mindfulness practice, which similarly with aurora chasing, not to have any expectations as to what its effects may be.  Aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome, including high anxiety, low self-esteem and depression can’t be ‘eliminated’ through mindfulness practice, but in time, the effects of mindfulness practice can help one deal with such issues, including coping with disappointments in a positive way.

During CME’s, which cause the phenomenon, the Sun loses some of its mass, which weakens its gravity, contributing to earth’s orbital period, and the year, gradually becoming longer, a reminder that the concept of clock and calendar time is neither fixed nor permanent, as are any effects of mindfulness practice. Understandably, if a person with Asperger’s Syndrome who experiences high levels of anxiety relies on the relative predictability of structured clock and calendar time, natural time as it unfolds can be a difficult concept to grasp. However, by initially just noticing reliance on structured time can help to see how it can become a controlling factor in one’s life when, including noticing certain habits that arouse from such routines. Any effects of mindfulness are more likely to arise in the much more abstract nature; natural time that we can’t often see rather than in the clock and calendar time we see frequently and come to rely on.

Just as it helps when going aurora chasing not to expect to see any aurora activity, similarly when seeking mindfulness practice, it helps not to have any initial expectations of any effects.

Chris Mitchell is the author of Asperger’s Syndrome and Mindfulness (2012) and Mindful Living with Asperger’s Syndrome (December 2013) both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Holding Calm Within, Concentrating Attention Beyond: Asperger’s Syndrome and Lake Meditation – by Chris Mitchell

Chris-Mitchell-2People with Asperger’s syndrome are known for a liking for solitude, particularly if they feel that they can’t be understood or don’t feel accepted within the social world. Though a person with Asperger’s Syndrome may be quite content in such a setting, they may not initially be aware that it can lead to excessive isolation. However, where such a preference can help develop social skills is through adapting qualities from spending time in solitude into social environments. To enable this, one must see solitude as a place to step back from the flow rather than as a place to hide. Since being  diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, this is an aspect of my condition that I feel I have gradually begun to notice more. I am more aware of how solitude affects me and others around me, including how my Asperger-related tendencies have an effect on others as well as how the moods of others affect me. When stepping back from the flow in a natural setting, particularly in a forest or by a lake and  applying my focus to the present, I am able to see how various inter-connected factors cause different effects to happen, as well as being able to observe and be present with the qualities of adaptability and receptiveness that nature has.

When practicing lake meditation, a meditation technique that can be practiced by an actual lake or just with the lake image in mind.  One begins to notice the receptiveness of the surface of the water contained in the lake, and the lake’s responses to constantly changing factors including responding to wind with ripples, which produce a sparkling effect when reflecting sunlight or moonlight. On a clear day, from a good vantage point, the depths of a lake can sometimes be seen. Lake Wastwater in Cumbria is one such lake where the depths of the lake, including what the lake is comprised of, can be seen from the ascent of nearby Scafell Pike. With continued and focused attention, one also notices that the surface of the lake changes colour in accordance with the weather, dark when cloudy and inviting in reflections under clear skies.

It is important to expand your attention during your practice to consider how factors that affect the appearance of the lake also affect how we feel within the body.  How we feel within affects how we present on the outside. For instance we may shiver when temperature drops or a when a draft blows in or ‘jerk’ when caught in a gust of wind. But rather than allowing such occurrences to become an interruption or a distraction to the extent that they lead us to giving up the practice, it helps us to notice and acknowledge any impulses we have to react. In turn, this helps one notice how when we act on our impulses we find ourselves on ‘automatic pilot’, almost being controlled by them.

When we transfer the qualities experienced during lake meditation to social situations, we notice how factors affect our moods and feelings. Like the surface of a lake changes colour in response to light, facial expressions in people often change in shape and form. People’s complexions can change in between moods  and a change in mood and feelings brings about different actions and responses. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I sometimes feel like I am an ‘actor,’ in that I learn non-verbal social skills from observation. But to enable appropriate acknowledgement and response in a social situation, it helps to be able to maintain the calm beneath one’s external presentation, relating to the calm water beneath the surface.

Taking a step back from the social world into solitude to practice lake meditation can help a person develop observational skills that are helpful in developing non-verbal social skills. To be able to be present with such observations, as well as to be able to apply attention when listening and retain the calm beneath the surface are qualities that when applied to social situations can enable social connection, acceptance and inclusion.

Chris Mitchell is the author of Asperger’s Syndrome and Mindfulness (2012) and Mindful Living with Asperger’s Syndrome (December 2013) both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Play the Frog’s Breathtaking Speech Game

Bring the benefits of yoga and yogic breathing techniques into the classroom and the home with this game from Frog’s Breathtaking Speech author Michael Chissick. Based on the book, the game is a fun way to help children to recognise negative emotions and lean how to turn these into positive ones.

Simply download the game boardcard set and instructions from these links and with some simple steps you’ll be ready to roar the house down with Lion, shake the walls with the Woodchopper Breath and more.

The game is at its most effective if used with the book, Frog’s Breathtaking Speech – find out more about the book here.

 Michael Chissick has been teaching yoga to children in primary mainstream and special needs schools as part of the integrated school day since 1999. He is a primary school teacher as well as a qualified yoga instructor. He is also a specialist in teaching yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Michael trains and mentors students who want to teach yoga to children.

© 2013 Singing Dragon blog. All Rights Reserved

Developing habits to restore calmness: Qigong healing sounds for children and adults alike

By Lisa Spillane, author and illustrator of Six Healing Sounds with Lisa and Ted: Qigong for Children.


The Six Healing Sounds teach children the calming benefit of pausing and using the breath to connect to the present. Observing the sensations of the body without thinking about the past or the future strengthens our awareness of the peace we have at the core of our being. In Qigong, negative emotions are not considered ‘bad’. Holding onto, cultivating and acting on negative emotions is when the ‘bad’ comes into things. Because negative emotions are part of the ego and have a role to play (mainly related to survival) it’s good to learn how to acknowledge them, listen to anything useful they are trying to communicate and then release the excess of them. Central to this practice is an acceptance that trying to resist, ignore or smother your feelings will only, in the end, make them grow stronger. Rather than letting negative emotions have the driving seat over your brain and body you can teach yourself how to regain calm.

The exercise that generates the most feedback from my book,
Six Healing Sounds with Lisa and Ted: Qigong for Children, is the one that helps children to stop worrying. Basically, worry happens when we meditate on fear, and being fearful gets in the way of clear thinking. When faced with a threat, the mind instinctively becomes more focussed on the urgent actions needed for survival and less inclined towards higher levels of thinking. This ‘fight or flight’ response far exceeds the requirements of our contemporary daily stressors. For children, things like spelling tests and unfamiliar situations and ideas can be interpreted as a ‘threat’, stimulating their adrenal glands and provoking biochemical changes in the brain that incline them to freeze, fight, hide or run. Over-stimulation of the adrenal glands takes its toll on the body, so it’s especially important to develop habits to restore calmness. Through a combination of smiling, deep breathing, visualization, positive thinking, gentle movements and sound-making Qigong breathing techniques help to reverse the body’s stress response and instead support its physical and mental well-being.

These exercises might seem strange when you first encounter them but there is a growing body of scientific research to support them. In my book, Ted overcomes his worries by doing the healing sound exercise for the stomach. The stomach together with the oesophagus, small intestine and the colon, make up what we refer to as the gut. We all know what it’s like to have ‘butterflies in the stomach’ and ‘gut feelings’, but it is a lesser known fact that there are about the same amount of neurotransmitters (one hundred million) in the gut as in the brain. These nerve cells communicate with each other via chemical and electric signalling, processing information and learning from past patterns. The healing sound exercise for the stomach helps children to establish healthy patterns for when they encounter worry. Instead of supporting an anxiety-driven chain reaction, they learn to pause, close their eyes, smile and breathe in the feeling of trust and openness into the belly. They think about their stomach smiling and filling up with a warm yellow light. Then, with eyes open, they exhale worry with a ‘whooooooo’ sound, imagining it leaving them as dark cloudy smoke. Doing this helps the brain and the stomach to calm each other down. Smiling produces serotonin and nearly all of that ‘feel-good’ chemical goes to the gut to help it with digestion. It also reduces cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenaline and it helps you to relax by getting the brain to release chemicals that not only make you feel happier, but support your immune system too. And, breathing deeply gives the brain a chance to see the broader picture, it’s calming and detoxifying and helps you to feel more positive.


Click to hear what the Six Healing Sounds should sound like!


Worry and anxiety is what keeps most of us awake at night. I know from personal experience and from the response of many of my readers that this practice works as well for adults as it does for children. I actually get a lot of adults telling me they’ve bought my book for themselves!

When you are doing this exercise, yourself or with a child, gently rub your stomach in a clockwise direction. Cast your mind on beautiful images of late summer (in Qigong, each organ is associated with a season) and as you smile, picture your stomach smiling too. Practising gratitude is medicine for the body and the soul so as you do this exercise, say ‘thank you’ to your stomach for all the hard work it does.

A little bit of time spent doing the Six Healing Sounds helps to promote relaxation both physically and mentally. It is also a great way to introduce children to the benefits of Qigong from a young age, and crucially, gives them tools to help themselves to deal with life’s challenges.

Join the Six Healing Sounds with Lisa and Ted: Qigong for Children community on Facebook!

Copyright © Singing Dragon 2012.

Teaching Yoga to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders? A Piece of Cake!

By Michael Chissick, qualified yoga instructor, primary school teacher and specialist in teaching yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and author of Frog’s Breathtaking Speech.


Exciting New Training Project

An exciting new initiative which delivers the benefits of yoga to hundreds of children with autism will be the cherry on the cake. The project will be in action at a Special Needs Academy in Lincolnshire, UK, after Easter with more to follow.

Over the past thirteen years I have developed a model of how to teach yoga to children with autism. The model can be used by class teachers and teaching assistants with no previous experience of yoga. The structures, activities and postures are easy to learn and are safe to teach. The model is suitable for children across all key stages.

Special schools that have a high proportion of children on the autistic spectrum will use the model. The advantages are that teaching and training are geared to the specific needs of their pupils, and staff can be trained economically without time away from school; and the icing on the cake is that staff can use the model immediately.

How did we reach this point?

I have been teaching Yoga to KS1, 2 & 3 pupils as part of the integrated day at Special Needs School for thirteen years. Many of the children I teach have autism and sensory processing disorders. During each thirty minute session I work with the whole class, class teacher and teaching assistants. Time restraints make it impossible for me to teach all classes in my schools, so I tend to alternate classes every half term.

I had noticed that when I returned to a class to continue after a 5/6 week break there was a need to start over again, which can be frustrating. For many years I simply regarded it as part of the job of teaching pupils with ASD.

However over the last couple of years I have noticed that some classes had retained what I had taught them and were as enthusiastic as ever for their yoga. So what distinguishes the ‘ready-for-more-class’ from the ‘let’s-start-again-class? The answer is that the class teachers and teaching assistants have been teaching their pupils yoga without me… and doing a brilliant job at it too!

Why does it work?

The answer also lies in the fundamentals of my highly structured approach. For example, the children are seated on chairs in a circle. I use a visual timetable and posture cards to keep my verbal input to the minimum. Within the structure I target several layers or elements simultaneously; it’s like a multi-tiered cake. These layers are easily recognised by colleagues who are already experts at working with children with ASD and are using similar models in other curriculum areas.

 

The Layers

  1. Engagement tactics are, for example, encouraging children to choose from posture cards hanging from an umbrella; or children throwing tiny bean bags into the holes on a colourful board as a means of choosing a posture.
  2. Fun is key! Children eagerly get out of their chairs and into the posture because it’s fun; if it continues to be fun then they will want to stay in the posture.
  3. Repetition of postures over the weeks is a crucial; as children become more at ease with the posture leading to improved skills and greater confidence.
  4. Every child Achieves in the lesson.
  5. Social Skills like waiting, listening, speaking, helping each other, taking turns and following rules are targeted.
  6. Fitness Flexibility and improved co-ordination are the layers that tend to hit the news.
  7. Sensory is the sweetest layer. The vestibular system ‘tells us if we are moving or still, while our proprioceptive system is the unconscious awareness of our body position’ (Yack et al 2002). A combination of both systems gives us vital information about movement and where we are in relation to, for example, the floor. I teach many children whose vestibular and proprioceptive systems are dysfunctional. Using yoga postures I help to regulate those dysfunctions.

Feedback

Feedback from the Academy in Lincolnshire was wonderfully positive describing the day as excellent and staff commented that the model:

‘…does away with many pre-conceptions and prejudices – it helps make different types of movement accessible to all.’

It is early days in Lincolnshire, but soon the children and staff will be enjoying their yoga while I’ll be teaching 175 miles away. Seems like I’ll be having my cake and eating it.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Can Yoga Improve a Child’s Behaviour? A case study by Michael Chissick for World Yoga Day

Michael Chissick has been teaching yoga to children in primary mainstream and special needs schools as part of the integrated school day since 1999. He is a primary school teacher as well as a qualified yoga instructor. He is also a specialist in teaching yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Michael trains and mentors students who want to teach yoga to children.


While the main focus of World Yoga Day is on Human Rights, I thought I would give myself poetic licence to focus also on Children’s Rights – specifically the rights of those children whose behaviour is often labelled ‘disruptive’, because, frankly, it is.

In the following case study from my personal experience as a yoga teacher, you can read how *Sinclair’s behaviour improved significantly because of his success in the yoga lessons over two terms. The plan, to teach challenging postures with aspects of social and emotional learning at the core of the programme, helped change Sinclair’s attitude and behaviour.

*Not his real name.

Is this scenario familiar?

Sinclair was a Year 4 pupil child in a primary school where I was asked to deliver yoga for a year. His class teacher described him as having a low self-image; often being moody, with a short attention span; and often disrupting the class with silly noises or swearing. Sinclair was aggressive to other children and found group work difficult. On the positive side, Sinclair enjoyed Physical Education, loved football, was sharp and incredibly flexible.

My main focus

Whilst I am a specialist children’s yoga teacher, the main focus of my work with children centres on the social and emotional aspects of learning. I teach the whole class and everyone is included. The foremost aim in every lesson is to enhance children’s self-esteem. Other benefits like improved flexibility, fitness, better concentration and calmness, for example, are natural when you practice yoga, yet combined with the emphasis on the aspects of social and emotional learning contribute to a powerful increase in the child’s sense self-worth.

Photo: Michael Chissick’s yoga class students in Tiger Posture (courtesy of Michael Chissick).


Individual Aims for Sinclair

Working with his Class Teacher we decided on the following specific aims:

  • Improving Sinclair’s self-esteem
  • Encouraging Sinclair to be a role model 
  • Improving Sinclair’s group communication skills

Our Approach

Our approach was to cultivate and build on the following three positive aspects:

  1. Sinclair the demonstrator
  2. Sinclair the ‘helpful teacher’
  3. Sinclair the ‘star’ at school and at home

Sinclair the demonstrator

Sinclair was a natural yogi and we quickly realised that he was excelling at the posture work. We decided to use Sinclair as much as fairly possible to demonstrate new postures and reinforce old ones to the whole class. Before the lesson, the class teacher would remind Sinclair that he was being given the responsibility of showing the other children postures and it meant that he had to show responsible behaviour too.

Sinclair the ‘helpful teacher’

Group work was an essential ingredient of the lesson in achieving our aims. The children worked in groups of six. Each group was to work as a team to find a way to perform a specific posture in an interesting way that also supported and connected with each other.

We made it clear that we were looking to reward group skills which included listening and making decisions. Above all there was an emphasis on group members helping each other in a kind and encouraging way. In other words, children were given the responsibility of looking out for each other.

Sinclair’s expertise at the postures set him up as a natural leader and his attention to detail meant that he could spot ways to help children in his group.

We had given him some input on how to get his classmates to change an aspect of the posture in an encouraging way, and Sinclair learnt and applied these skills with ease and a gentleness that his teacher had not seen before. Sinclair was also very keen to be the group spokesperson, yet gradually, over time, he more readily agreed to let someone else have a turn.

Sinclair the ‘Star’ at school and at home

Sinclair performed the most challenging postures to the whole school at two achievement assemblies, where he was encouraged to explain how yoga had helped him to be calmer and more focused. We also discovered that his family eagerly awaited his return from school on yoga day when he would teach them new postures and play yoga games with his two brothers.

Certificates and stickers

Sinclair worked hard to get the special certificates that were awarded to children who could show:

  • Good listening skills to teachers and children
  • How to help other children in group work
  • Improved behaviour

He also earned his fair share of stickers for good listening, learning to be still in calming postures and games and relaxation, as well as increasing concentration and being well-mannered.

Summary

The combination of our behavioural approach and the yoga improved Sinclair’s self-esteem and consequently improved his behaviour because:

  • he experienced a great sense of success in the yoga.
  • the calming and relaxation aspects of the lesson gave him experiences that helped him feel in control.
  • he was perceived as an expert by his class and earned their respect
  • he tried hard to overcome his disruptive behaviours in order to win the special certificates and stickers that were an incentive for him to change.
  • Sinclair’s parents were able to celebrate his success at home and give lots of genuine praise.
  • the combined effect of rewards and praise from me, the class teacher, peers and parents had a very powerful and positive effect on Sinclair’s self-esteem.

Conclusion

This case study is yet another example that supports the case for yoga to be taught in schools as part of the integrated school day on an ongoing basis. Clearly, it also shows the importance of placing the social and emotional aspects of learning at the core of the yoga lesson.

If there is one message I hope teachers and parents take away on World Yoga Day, it’s that yoga can help children foster a sense of achievement regardless of stature, academic ability, upbringing and other differences.

Read a Preview of Frog’s Breathtaking Speech »

This post was adapted with permission from Yoga at School. Visit www.yogaatschool.org.uk for more info.

Yoga breathing techniques to help children deal with anger and stress and build self-esteem – An Interview with Michael Chissick

Michael Chissick has been teaching yoga to children in primary mainstream and special needs schools as part of the integrated school day since 1999. He is a primary school teacher as well as a qualified yoga instructor. He is also a specialist in teaching yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Michael trains and mentors students who want to teach yoga to children.

Michael is the author of the forthcoming children’s book, Frog’s Breathtaking Speech, which teaches four yoga breathing techniques in a fun and interactive way and shows how they can be used to deal with anger, anxiety and tension.

In this interview, he shares the story of how this beautiful book came to be and the rewarding experiences he’s had teaching yoga to children; why he believes children nowadays need tools to cope with life’s stresses more than ever before; and how the breathing techniques in the book can be used with all children, including those with special needs.


Tell us a bit about you – how did you get into yoga, teaching yoga and teaching yoga to children?

I first came to yoga in 1974, and although I practised regularly it was not till 1990 that I consciously stepped up my practice and interest.

In 1990, following the death of my wife Jill, I decided to give up my business and look after my children. I made up my mind that Jill’s death would not be wasted and that I would do something meaningful with my life. I signed up to an Access Course, which got me back into studying and prepared me for University. As a mature student I simply thrived on the course and it unleashed a creative side of me that I had never known before. I went on to take a four year degree course in Education, (BEd Hons) and eventually took up my first post as a primary school teacher in Old Harlow, Essex, UK at the age of forty-six.

It was during my four year degree course that I established my deep interest in children’s self-esteem – specifically how it can be damaged and how it can be improved. Of all the areas that I studied this was for me the most important and I determined to make enhancing children’s self-esteem the core of my approach to teaching.

In the nineties yoga was such an essential part of my life that soon I had completed my yoga teacher training with the British Wheel of Yoga, and was able to begin my new career teaching yoga to adults. It was an obvious next step to merge my skills and experience as a primary teacher and qualified yoga teacher, and thus I become a children’s yoga teacher. I set up an after school club but found the work frustrating primarily because of my realisation that yoga needed to be taught as part of the school day for children to benefit most.

Nevertheless word of my work had spread and one day I was asked to teach yoga to children in a Special Needs School in East London. That day was a turning point in my life. Despite all my experience I stood there not knowing what to do while this group of children were going absolutely crazy, at one time cussing at me and throwing shoes around – it was chaos. I tried various activities, all to no avail. Then, amazingly, with one specific activity (it was Sun Sequence), they were suddenly hooked… and I even got them to do a relaxation. The transformation was astounding. I came out of there that day, sat in the car and cried tears of joy that I could make such a difference. That was a Tuesday Morning in 1999 and I have taught there every Tuesday ever since. Over time the school has become a beacon school for teaching children with autism. This means that for more than a decade I have been developing teaching approaches for teaching yoga to children with autism. I am now regarded as a specialist in teaching yoga to autistic children. I am very proud of that.

In the last few years I have been fortunate to have taught continuously in the same nucleus of schools. This means that I am there on a specific day every week, every term, every year. It also means that I have had to be creative and develop fun and interesting activities or risk the children’s boredom. I have taught yoga in schools as part of the integrated school day for more than a decade now and have developed many approaches and activities that the children love.

One of those activities has now been turned into a book called Frog’s Breathtaking Speech. Now my enthusiasm for writing knows no bounds and I am busy with three new books that will enable me pass on my considerable expertise to others. Frog’s Breathtaking Speech – and incidentally The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Gruffalo, and Going on a Bear Hunt – all make terrific stories to embed yoga postures in.

What inspired you to write this wonderful book?

I have been using Frog’s Breathtaking Speech in children’s yoga lessons for many years. The story grew out of the need to increase children’s awareness of their breath and, more importantly, how to apply it in stressful situations. Situations such as dealing with exams, spelling and table tests, being bullied, tension, headaches and anger, and of course performing or presenting to their peers and parents in assembly.

Although, as an adult, I had experienced the benefits of yoga breathing techniques I had honestly found them dry and unexciting. If I was to grab the children’s attention I needed to teach breathing techniques in a way that was fun and relevant. My strategy was to use the story in a yoga/drama format and it was an immediate success.

I would set out the yoga mats in a circle in the hall. As many children as possible would be given the opportunity to be Frog. I would ask for sad faces and then ask for less sad faces as the story unfolds. The other characters, Crocodile, Lion, Humming Bee and Mr Gumble the Woodchopper, would be played by the whole class. To keep the “chorus” in unison I would hold up placards in pantomime style saying, “Why so sad Frog?” and “I know an interesting way to breathe”. We have also performed Frog on stage to great applause.

I think there are several reasons why this approach worked well, including:

  • there was sufficient repetition for everyone to be able to join in;
  • it was obviously great fun;
  • the children were learning the techniques in a fun and relevant context;
  • children found the characters interesting.

Looking back I think that one of the main factors that inspired me to turn the yoga play into a book was the feedback from the children. I have lost count of the amount of times that children would tell me how they had used the techniques to deal with incidents in their lives. Problems ranging from being angry at siblings who stole their sweets or broke their toys, to being the calming influence in big family arguments. My two favourites will always be: the nine-year old boy who was terrified of the dentist and who quietly sat in the waiting room, and ultimately the dentist’s chair, practising his Crocodile Breath to calm himself; and the ten year old girl, who was angry with her parents, who would go to her room and practice Woodchopper Breath every day for three weeks, who eventually came and told the class teacher and me that that she had Haaaa’d out her anger.

The other main factor that inspired me to turn the play into a book was, simply, to get it out there. If this story helped the children that I taught it would help all children.

Can you tell us about your collaboration with the illustrator,
Sarah Peacock?

I have worked with Sarah Peacock in her Hertfordshire Primary School for five years. Sarah would come into in the yoga lesson with her class and over the years had been involved with Frog’s Breathtaking Speech on many occasions. She knew the story very well and how much the children liked it.

Examples of Sarah’s amazing illustrations were displayed around school. Often over lunch she had talked about her dream of being an illustrator. When I finally wrote the story as a book, I asked her to illustrate and she came up with the wonderfully timeless and charming illustrations that make the book so readable.

Where did the character of Frog come from?

Frog came about for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, children can stay in Frog Posture easily for longish periods without too much discomfort (and it’s great for their knees and hips). Secondly, I like Frog characters – they make me laugh; and thirdly, there is a long history of Frogs (and Toads) in children’s literature – for example, The Frog Prince and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher.

I saw Frog as a character that boys and girls could relate to because he was honest about his fears. I think they could also relate to his courage in taking action, facing his fears and achieving a victory.

I suppose he is based on many of the children that I have taught and if I am being honest there’s a lot of me in Frog. (Well, even grownups need to calm themselves and get angry sometimes.)

Can you describe scenarios in which the different breathing techniques would be especially useful?

I think that being a child nowadays is stressful. I have already mentioned my two favourite examples of how techniques from the story have helped. However as educationalists we are constantly aware that the children in our care are travelling through a minefield of emotional problems in different areas of their lives.

For example children are dealing with major blows within the Family like divorce; separation from parents; death of a family member or friend or pet; worries about family’s financial situation; worries about a family member’s health; or perhaps a new baby brother or sister has arrived.

At school children are often anxious about their lack of specific skills, being bullied, tests, SATs, how to deal with an overload of activities, a belief that they do not have enough friends, lack of self-esteem, fear of failure, and even fear of success.

On the social side, children can be anxious because they may see themselves not “in” with the right crowd, too fat, too thin, too tall, too small, too ugly and so on.

I believe the social pressures on children – in or out of school – are immense today and we need to teach them all manner of strategies to help them deal with the pressure. Yoga and breathing techniques being at the top of the list.

The four strategies that are taught in Frog are:

  • Crocodile Breath. Situations where children could apply the technique are: tests, exams, sports day, making speeches to peers and parents, going to the dentist, finding courage.
  • Humming Bee Breath. Situations could include: headaches, feeling tense, panicky in the middle of a busy shopping centre at Christmas.
  • Woodchopper Breath. Situations could include: venting anger or frustration.
  • Lion Breath. Situations could include: strengthening voice or loosing tension.

How can this book be used with children with special needs?

Frog can be used with all children and that includes many children with special needs.

Used purely as a story, Frog is highly engaging, the illustrations compelling, and there is sufficient repetition to help reinforce readers and invite anticipation. There are also ample opportunities to compare the Frog’s experiences to the children’s if the children are at a suitable level.

On a higher level, if you are reading the book to children and encouraging them to practice the postures there is a lot to be gained. Firstly, the children will benefit from increased flexibility and better muscle tone. The big reward, however, is that yoga postures can help children with Sensory Processing Disorders.

Many children with autism, for example, have Sensory Processing Disorders which affects their Vestibular, Proprioceptive and Tactile systems. This is a vast subject that I will deal with elsewhere. Suffice to say that yoga can go a long way to identify any extremes in a child’s sensory behaviour and provide strategies to help regulate their nervous systems away from those extremes.

Using the story in a yoga/drama format also creates opportunities to work on speaking and listening skills and other communication skills like, for example, projecting the voice. Also social skills such as taking turns, waiting or applauding another child will come up when you use this story.

One massive benefit of using the story with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), for example, is the opportunity to be acting out different emotions. Frog becomes less sad as the story progresses. In fact, emotions range from sad to happy, scared to brave, beaten to successful. A great excuse to give those face muscles a good workout.

Finally, if you are using the story in a yoga/drama format and including the breathing techniques then you are encouraging the children to be “in the moment” – a well hackneyed yoga term, I know, but totally appropriate for children on both extremes of the hyperactivity scale who need to find “that middle ground of alert interest where they are not overwhelmed or underwhelmed” (Sher, B. 2009 p. 22).

Copyright © Singing Dragon 2011.

Qigong Massage for Your Child with Autism – An Interview with researcher and author Dr Louisa Silva

Dr Louisa Silva has a medical degree from the University of California, a Masters in Public Health from the Medical College of Wisconsin, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. She is director of the Qigong Sensory Training Institute, Oregon, where she has completed multiple research studies into the effects of qigong massage on young children with autism.

Here, she answers some questions about her new book and DVD, Qigong Massage for Your Child with Autism: A Home Program from Chinese Medicine.


How did you become interested in traditional Chinese approaches to health, and in working with children with autism?

I am trained in three disciplines that are of equal importance to my work: Western medicine, Chinese medicine, and public health. My interest in Chinese approaches to health began when I was in Medical school at UCLA. Nixon had gone to China, and the nation had just heard about acupuncture being done on his aide. My Medical school invited a team from China to come over, and together they did a radical mastectomy under acupuncture anesthesia. At that moment, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Chinese medicine was powerful, but was too buried in my medical studies to begin to study it. It wasn’t until I had been out in practice for a few years, that I began to hit the wall with allopathic medical understanding and treatment of chronic conditions that I turned to Chinese medicine and began to study it. I found that Chinese medicine offered a way to strengthen the body so that it could throw off illness, and that it had much to offer to help improve general health and vitality. I saw the research showing that chronic conditions could be improved or cured. Over the years, I integrated what I had learned in medical school about Western diagnosis and treatment of illness, with the ancient Chinese techniques for improving health and removing illness. My interest in public health led me to pursue Chinese medical approaches to chronic illnesses that are natural, non-invasive, and easliy available to families.

My interest in autism began in 2000, when the son of a dear friend was diagnosed with autism, and I realized how little there was to offer parents of newly diagnosed children. At that point, I decided to teach a qigong massage protocol that I had learned from my Chinese medicine professor to the boy’s parents, and we found that it was helpful. This began a whole new career path for me in research, as I knew that for qigong massage to be accepted in the West as a treatment for autism, the research studies would have to be carefully done and published in scientific journals. I joined Teaching Research Institute at Western Oregon University, and now, 11 years later, we have published many research studies showing that the massage is effective, and explaining how it works.

What is Qigong Sensory Training (QST), and what are the benefits of QST for young children with autism?

Qigong Sensory Training is the name that we chose for the qigong massage methodology that is described in the book. It is a five month program of daily parent-delivered massage, and it has shown improvements in behavior and social and language skills in controlled studies. Not only does autism become less severe, but the child has general improvements in health in important areas like sleep, digestion, ability to calm themselves down, and toilet training; there is less aggressive and self-injurious behavior, and parenting stress is considerably lower.

How did the book/DVD come about and what is the idea behind it?

Our research suggests that behind the delays seen in children with autism lies a sensory nervous system that is out of kilter – the child’s skin, eyes and ears aren’t perceiving the world around them the way others perceive it. The senses are hypersensitive or hyposensitive or both. Many children have problems recognizing gentle touch and pain, some children don’t seem to notice when they are injured, and the senses don’t seem to work together – they don’t turn their head to look at someone’s face, and coordinate listening at the same time. Ordinary events can be confusing and upsetting for the child, and in the end, the brain doesn’t reflect accurate information about the world around them.

The hallmark of autism is a delay in social development that is apparent by age three. However, before age three, the important self-regulation milestones must be achieved for social development to proceed. The self-regulation milestones of the first three years of life are the foundation for healthy development. They are: 1) the ability to have a regular wake/sleep cycle, 2) the ability to have regular digestion and elimination, 3) the ability to self-soothe when upset, 4) the ability to regulate orientation and attention, 5) the ability to toilet train, and 6) the emerging ability to regulate emotions and behavior in response to social cues. Without these milestones, social development is delayed.

We know that all self-regulation takes place in response to sensory input. There was never a self-regulatory event that was not in response to sensory input. When sensory input is faulty, then self-regulatory output is also faulty. When sensory input is severely faulty, as it is in autism, then there is global delay of self-regulation milestones. Our research shows that children with autism have severely abnormal sensory responses, expecially of touch, and globally delayed self-regulation milestones before the age of three.

The massage works three ways: 1) it improves the circulation to the skin and normalizes touch pain responses. 2) it triggers the self-soothing response, and allows the child’s nervous system to learn to self-soothe. 3) it improves the health and vitality of the body so that digestion, elimination, toilet training and the body’s ability to remove toxins are improved. The child becomes stronger, healthier, more aware, and better able to pay attention at home and school, and to learn.

In our research, we used trained specialists to teach parents the massage, and work with them and their child over a period of months while the child overcame their barriers and difficulties with touch. We have trained a number of therapists on the East and West coast of the US, but the vast majority of the world has no trained therapists in this method. The book came about in response to many requests from parents the world over who did not have access to a trained therapist to learn the massage, and were asking for information about how to give the massage at home. It contains the full curriculum that the trained therapists impart to the parents over the months that they work with them.

Who is the book for, and how much do you have to know about TCM to use it?

This book is for families of young chldren with autism. They do not have to have a background of TCM to use it. We have explained the important ideas that they will need to use when they give qigong massage in ordinary, everyday language.

In the book you talk about the Chinese medicine explanation for the (behavioral and physiological) symptoms of autism as blockages of energy. Can you explain a bit here?

Chinese medicine considers health a state where there is abundant, free-flowing energy and circulation, and illness a state when there are blocks in the energy flow, which interfere with the free flow of the circulation. According to Chinese medicine, there is a block of the circulation to the skin, which results in the sensory nerves being over or under-sensitive. The massage normalizes the circulation and the sensation returns to normal. When the skin feels normal, many self-injurious behaviors simply disappear. The brain receives normal information about the surface of the body, and motor skills improve. For example, very quickly after sensation on the hands becomes normal, fine motor skills increase; after sensation on the feet improves, gross motor skills increase. Constipation is another example of a block of energy in the bowel, so that it does not eliminate normally. The massage quickly restores strength and energy to the bowel, and constipation resolves.

What are some challenges that parents face when attempting this kind of intervention, and how can your book help to overcome them?

At first, it can be challenging for parents to establish the massage in the child’s daily routine, as there are many parts of the body where the child is uncomfortable to touch. Often, the part of the massage that they like the least is the part where they need the most help. For example, many children with autism refuse touch on their ears. These are often the same children who do not listen or have language. Once touch on the ears becomes normal, they begin to use their ears to listen, and we see language pick up. Overcoming difficulties in particular areas is where it can be extremely helpful to have a therapist to work with. The book contains many ways to approach difficulties with touch on the different areas, as the most direct way for the child to overcome these difficulties is for the parent to continue to work with the massage. The techniques are also demonstrated on the accompanying DVD. Our program is a minimum of five months, and by the end of the first month, the majority parents have been able to help their child overcome their difficulties with touch, and both parent and child are enjoying the massage as a nice part of the daily routine.

Copyright © Singing Dragon 2011.

‘The 12 Chinese Animals’ Wins Silver at ForeWord Magazine’s 2010 Book of the Year Awards!

We are thrilled to announce that several of our books have been honoured in ForeWord Magazine’ Book of the Year Awards, which were established to bring increased attention to the literary and graphic achievements of independent publishers and their authors.

Master Zhongxian Wu’s The 12 Chinese Animals was among the award winners, scooping the Silver medal in the Body, Mind & Spirit category.

Other medalists include books from Jessica Kingsley Publishers, of which Singing Dragon is an imprint.

Dr Darold Treffert’s Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant won the Silver medal in the Psychology category;

Susan Yellin and Christina Cacioppo Bertsch’s Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families won the Bronze medal for Education;

And Rudy Simone’s Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome received an Honorable Mention in the Women’s Issues category.

Congratulations to our award-winning authors and everyone who worked hard to publish these books that make a difference!

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.