Angela Moorad is not your typical yoga instructor. She can’t speak Sanskrit, and she’s not particularly flexible. In fact, she barely practices yoga herself.
That’s because Angela’s passion lies not in the practice of yoga itself, but in the therapeutic benefits of yoga—particularly, the yoga benefits for children with special needs. At the J.D. McCarty Center (JDMC) in Norman, Okla., she leads weekly therapeutic yoga classes for the hospital inpatients, all of whom are children with developmental disabilities such as autism, ADHD and central processing disorders.
“It’s amazing what a difference yoga can make in a child’s life, especially a child with special needs,” Angela, 47, says.
Angela stumbled upon yoga somewhat by chance. A speech language pathologist specializing in the treatment of children with developmental disorders, she was looking for a way to calm and relax her distressed patients.
“I saw so many children who were always anxious and stressed out. I thought, ‘Surely there’s something I can do to help these kids become more grounded, centered and calm,’” Angela says.
A few years ago, Angela found her answer. After encountering research on yoga benefits for children, particularly children on the autism spectrum, Angela’s interest was immediately piqued. “I wasn’t very knowledgeable about yoga, but figured I’d give it a try,” she says.
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After receiving her children’s yoga certification through the Radiant Child Yoga Program, Angela founded OMazing Kids Yoga in 2011, a program that offers wellness and learning activities for children of all abilities. Initially available only to inpatients at the JDMC, the program has since expanded to include children from the community. Angela’s yoga classes often incorporate storybook readings and other learning techniques, in addition to traditional yoga poses and breathing exercises.
According to Angela, “Yoga is the ideal activity for children of all ages and abilities.” Its non-competitive nature fosters a peaceful, comfortable environment, she says. And for children with developmental disorders, simply learning the calming power of the breath is paramount: “The breathing techniques help many of the patients—especially those with a lot of anxiety—calm down and become less stressed.”
Angela has also witnessed improved motor control, spatial awareness and increasing social skills among her yoga students. But most importantly, the kids have fun while doing it. “It’s so rewarding to see kids who usually appear to be unhappy finally enjoying themselves—to truly see joy on their faces,” Angela says.
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And it’s a contagious joy: When a child conquers a difficult sequence or masters a balancing pose for the first time, the enthusiasm in the room is palpable. “The first time a kid gets into tree pose and holds it for a few seconds, they will be beaming from ear to ear, like, ‘I did it!’ It’s really cool,” Angela says.
Yoga’s underlying message of self-acceptance and self-love is especially important for a child with special needs, who is always cognizant of being somewhat different, Angela says. “A lot of the kids we serve at the hospital really don’t feel all that good about themselves. They’re always going into therapy and getting the message that they have to be ‘fixed.’ Yoga is very affirming and liberating. It teaches you to accept and like who you are.”
Angela recalls one particularly poignant moment involving teenage boy with severe ADHD. “He was the type of kid who is usually out of control,” she says. “I’m sure he was used to receiving a lot of negative attention for being so hyperactive.”
But the boy was very calm throughout the class, quietly following all of Angela’s instructions. At the end of the class, the children each selected an “affirmation card” to read aloud. The young man with ADHD was the first to go.
“On the front of his card, it said, ‘I am active,’ and on the back it said, ‘When I move, I am alive and free,’” Angela recalls. “And he beamed from ear to ear. I think it was the first time he had ever felt positive about being an active person.” After a pause, she adds: “That’s what I love about what I do.”