Kids' Yoga

How one local therapy center's age-old-made-new wellness program gives renewed hope to kids with special needs.
From left: Olivia, Karen, instructor Maren Dahlke, Michelle, Evan, Holly and Ainsley take part in the healing children's yoga, taking kids with special needs to new heights, physically and socially.

Speech pathologists Kaye Koelker-Baumgardner and Julie Ernest have a wager for you: Apply an ancient wellness practice to the present-day complexities of speech therapy, and turn a 2,500-square-foot space into a place where miracles happen. Think you can’t?

Think again.

In its Plymouth location since July 2007, Minnetonka Pediatric Therapy Center (MPTC) is dedicated to providing quality occupational, physical and speech therapy services for children of all ages, infancy through adulthood. Koelker-Baumgardner and Ernest own the facility, and their staff takes a holistic approach to every child, tailoring therapies to meet the needs of the kids that come to them for help. And this year, the clinic’s new space has allowed them to expand their therapy programs outside the box as they look for ways to help their clients.

New to the MPTC’s list of program offerings and therapies last summer was yoga for children with disabilities. “We had some clients that were getting yoga for several years, but we had to wait until we got a bigger space,” Koelker-Baumgardner explains.


The Effects

The yoga class meets once a week for an hour during the eight-week session; the next session starts after the holidays. “So far, we’ve had a good response,” Koelker-Baumgardner says. “There’s a definite need for this program.” One of the duo’s goals is to make the therapeutic yoga affordable for all families, averaging approximately $10 per class. Additionally, yoga classes are open to everyone, meaning it’s not a pre-requisite that kids attend MPTC for therapy.

Different from regular yoga classes, instructor Maren Dahlke uses props, visual cueing and pictures to communicate with the kids and create a hands-on experience. The slow-pace of the instruction allows kids to easier comprehension and involvement. “It’s especially important to us that we have our staff involved in the yoga, helping the kids get into the right positions and staying calm and focused,” Koelker-Baumgardner says.

For example, one of the books used in the class is an Eric Carle book about moving the body. Just like the giraffe bends its neck in the book, the kids do the same. “We can then take that and use it in our own individual therapy sessions to help the kids translate and generalize the information,” she says.


The Benefits

So, just how beneficial are the yoga classes? According to Koelker-Baumgardner, the experience of yoga can be very helpful for kids with Down syndrome for example, or for nonverbal children. But the class is open to anyone dealing with a special need, whether it’s an attention disorder, a physical disability like a motor-based disorder, a mental disability like a sensory processing disorder, or even those on the autism spectrum.

“The yoga instructor is able to bring the yoga down to their level with props, pictures and books,” says Koelker-Baumgardner. And over time, the repetition of the postures and activities create increased flexibility and increased breath support. “You can teach yoga to any child,” says Koelker-Baumgardner. “It improves their socialization individually and in groups.”

During the initial yoga classes, Koelker-Baumgardner explains that some children have difficulty attending or comprehending directions. But the increased us of a visual schedule can be very helpful, so participants can predict what’s going to happen next in the class. “These kiddos need a little bit more support,” says Koelker-Baumgardner, adding that it can be helpful for these children to have an aid or another adult there to help.


The Anecdotal Evidence

Yoga instructor Mären Dahlke has been teaching yoga to kids with special needs since 2002. With a degree in occupational therapy, Dahlke has worked in pediatric home health and early childhood. A yoga lover herself, Dahlke decided to combine that passion with her love of working with kids and became a certified YogaKids teacher through their yearlong training program.

Dahlke says there’s nothing she doesn’t enjoy about teaching yoga to children. “There are not too many jobs where you have fun everyday and the people you work with do too,” she says. However, it’s more than a job to Dahlke - it’s about improving the lives of children.

“Through yoga, kids can increase their attention span, improve physical fitness for increased functioning in daily activities, cope with stress and improve self-esteem,” she explains.

Throughout her experience as a yoga instructor, Dahlke has heard testimonials from parents of her students of just how effective yoga can be. Children start to use the yoga techniques outside of class to help manage difficult situations and trips to the doctor become less stressful.

In fact, 14-year-old yoga student Maren Anderson and her mother Julie know exactly what she’s talking about. Maren has Down syndrome and has been seen for oral-motor therapy at Minnetonka Pediatric Therapy Center since its opening in July 2007. But her yoga experience goes back to 2003, when she took her first family yoga class. Anderson says that she initially thought yoga would be a fun way for Maren to interact with other children, which has been a challenge for her.

Since she started, Maren has really enjoyed yoga. “She already has the flexibility,” says Anderson. “So for her, yoga is used to build strength, stamina, focus and balance.” They’ve even used some of the breathing techniques she’s learned during trips to the dentist’s office. “It really helps her relax during stressful times,” adds Anderson.

Maren also has been able to build her breath support. Now she can get out six words, rather than two, which helps her speech too. In addition to the physical benefits of yoga, Maren has been able to build her self-esteem. “Maren knows a lot of animal poses and has been able to teach other children and a few adults how to do particular poses,” says Anderson. “Having an opportunity to be a leader really boosts her self-esteem.”

And this is exactly what Koelker-Baumgardner’s hope is for the yoga classes—that these kids not only learn about their body, but also learn about their peers, while gaining individual strength and stamina to improve other aspects of daily life that don’t come so easily. “There’s so much more to yoga than sitting down on a mat,” she says. “The kids can really get a lot out of it.”