When I tell people I am a yoga teacher and a speech therapist, they often ask me what the two have in common. How can yoga help children with speech and language problems? There are many answers, but I know you’re busy, so I’ve have outlined the 5 major ones below to satisfy your curiosity…
- Breathing: yoga brings awareness to the breath, and breath support is essential to speech. If our breathing is shallow, our speech is choppy. This is distracting for the listener and makes the message difficult to understand. If one feels anxious, the muscles of the body tense (including the chest, neck, and mouth- key regions for speech production) and the mind may have difficulty retrieving words. Speech fluency can be affected; this is commonly known as stuttering. Actively slowing and deepening the breath sends signals the brain and nervous system to relax. The muscles of the body relax, as does the mind, resulting in more fluent speech.
- Focus and attention: a great deal of our day is spent attending to our environment. Whether it’s your speech therapist, teacher, parent, or boss, you must pay attention in order to know what is expected, what you need to do to get the job done. In yoga we practice attending and focusing with our eyes; this focus (known as drishti in yoga talk) is key to maintaining balance in challenging positions. We concentrate on different parts of our body to strengthen, stretch and/or relax.
- Comprehension and following directions: as we just learned, following directions is something that everyone is expected to do every day. Children with language disorders often have difficulty following directions because they don’t understand the vocabulary or concepts. Moving our bodies in various directions and in different places on the mat teach location/spatial concepts (e.g., front, back, side, under, over, up, down, together, apart, etc.) and descriptive concepts (e.g., fast, slow, wide, tight, hard, soft, quiet, loud, etc.) in a very concrete way. It’s far better for a child to experience putting their arms up, than just to see a picture of an arrow pointing up. And way more fun! We also build on the difficulty from simple single-step directions, to multi-step directions, to even more complex sequences of movements. We learn vocabulary such as body part names and names of the animals or objects that the poses are named after. Children remember these vocabulary words better because they have learned them not only with their ears or eyes, but with their bodies.
- Body language and nonverbal communication: most people would agree that over 50% of communication is non-verbal and some say up to 90% is nonverbal (when tone of voice and other finer details are taken into account.) Regardless of the actual number, we can all agree that attending to body language is very important in communication. Yoga teaches students to be aware of the body, both one’s own body (important if you want to send the right message with your own body language) and the body of the teacher and/or other students in the class (important for understanding the body language of communication partners.) Yoga teaches imitation of body movements (and of sounds, words, and phrases) which key for learning. We learn speech and develop language by imitating what we hear. We learn movement and increasingly complex social skills by imitating what we see.
- Speech sounds and social communication: clearly articulating speech helps us communicate our message to listeners. During yoga classes we chant and repeat affirmations (e.g., “I am peace, I am joy…”) containing all the speech sounds of the English language. As a speech therapist, my ear is attuned to listening for articulation errors and I can quickly and efficiently help children articulate these sounds and words so they can be better understood by others. Furthermore, children are encouraged to attend to and talk about their feelings and sensations as we move through different poses and activities. In group classes, we take turns greeting, giving feedback to and complimenting our yoga classmates. With the guidance of the teacher, we have discussions and conversations, and work together to solve problems. We share our experiences and support our classmates as we gently expand our abilities as yogis and as communicators.
Well, I hope that gives you a good idea of how yoga and speech are connected. Thank you for interest! If you have questions, comments or would like to discuss this further, feel free to send me a message. I would love to hear from you!