Whole-Body Joint Looseners and Variations for Special Needs – Interview with the founder Maria Gunstone

PhysioTools have worked with Maria Gunstone to create a module called Whole-Body Joint Looseners and Variations for Special Needs. This module is suitable for teachers and therapists and has been specifically designed to meet the needs of clients with special needs, including persons with learning difficulties, physical disabilities, sensory impairments and severe/multiple disabilities, right across the age range. The aim of Whole-Body Joint Looseners is to stimulate the body’s main joints and increase coordination and awareness.

The module is based on the YOU & ME Yoga system which Maria has developed for people with different special needs. The ethos of this yoga system is use of colour, which helps people with learning disabilities distinguish the different parts of their body. The YOU & ME Yoga system comprises suitably selected and arranged techniques, which do not require much balance or physical effort for the individual.

Maria has been teaching yoga for disabled people since 1978 and the YOU & ME Yoga system was established in 1988. The following tells us her story behind YOU & ME Yoga…..

When did you get interested in yoga?

In my teens I went to art college and studied graphics and fashion. In 1972, I suffered multiple injuries in a car accident, which left me feeling that I had lost everything. Nine months later I took up yoga and saw a way I could improve both my physical strength and my concentration. After three years of intensive practice I decided I wanted to make a career in yoga and became qualified to teach. Since 1975, using creative integration group work, I have combined my art training with my knowledge of yoga for disabled people to devise the YOU & ME Yoga system.

How did the association with ‘special needs’ arise?

I was fortunate to literally walk into a newly created job teaching yoga at the SELTEC College for Adults, in Lewisham (during 1978-79). I agreed to do a trial period with a college contract, to see if yoga would be suitable for a small group of students in the special needs department. Most people with learning difficulties do not take readily to change, so you can imagine the challenge with this group, who were all in their thirties and for the first time in their lives being asked to activate their atrophied bodies into new bodily positions of yoga.

It took a while to win their confidence and persuade them to move their bodies. The introduction of yoga techniques involving gentle movements, easy breathing, relaxation and chanting gradually started to develop the group’s interest. Over time, the members progressed physically and mentally. During the six years I spent working with the group, they blossomed beyond expectation. Not only did they develop more control of their bodies, they became more sensory-aware of different parts of the body and also cultivated their imagination and self-image by visualising being well and happy.

I found it was best to keep instructions simple, and use straightforward language appropriate to the individual’s level of understanding. From the yoga exercises, students gained noticeable strength and stamina with improved dexterity and coordination. They were interested in learning about body language and its movement, about breathing in and breathing out through either the nose or the mouth – the latter is necessary because some people are not physically able to breathe through their nose. The students were also interested to learn about the connection of the diaphragm with the breath and through breathing practice they gained an awareness of the wonderful energy and life-force within the body.

How did this lead to YOU & ME Yoga?

I won a Churchill Fellowship to go to India in 1984 to investigate yoga for disabled people. I discovered yoga was just being introduced into the Indian Special Educational Needs Curriculum by Director of Special Needs in Tamil Nadu, Professor P. Jeyachandran. His special educators were teaching the same techniques to children as I was teaching teenagers and adults. These marvelous experiences spurred me on to spread the word. By collating my findings and visual evidences the YOU & ME Yoga system was established in 1988.

I started teaching yoga to staff in special schools, day centres, homes and hospitals and various residential training centers. In different parts of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, YOU & ME has been taught, by teachers whom I have trained, to thousands of students with special educational needs ranging from profound and multiple disabled students to students with mild learning disabilities, right across the age range. These include students with Down’s Syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, spasticity, paralysis, visual, aural and speech impairment, and psychiatric and/or behavioural problems.

How has the system developed?

Working with different people and groups, I have learned from their questions what next to work on and include in the system, i.e. what postures to use, when to do the practices, and how to practice. The YOU & ME system has been developed through listening, discussing, corresponding, analyzing, sharing ideas, and offering learning opportunities to one and all.

From research and experience I found that no one posture has a specific therapeutic effect for it is necessary to tone up all the bodily functions by using a series of movements for each of the main body areas. I devised the YOU & ME Whole-Body-Movement system comprising of carefully selected and arranged techniques which do not require much balance or physical effort, so as to be within the capacity of students with learning disabilities. Whole-Body-Movement is designed to exercise and strengthen the different parts of the body by means of carefully chosen and arranged sequences of movement.

The sequencing of Postures in the system is based on the principle of Vinyasa from Desikachar’s organised structured approach, implemented in the Indian Special Needs curriculum in January 1985 by Professor Jeyachandran. In fact, Vinyasa is now being used by lots of yoga teacher training schools here in the West. Whole-Body-Movement involves a sequence of seven Postures from warming-up for a specific main posture and then winding down. Based on the effective Indian system, we use sound to help the students breathe correctly and in unison. Relaxation is also an integral part of the system.

What is the significance of colour?

The ethos of YOU & ME Yoga is use of colour which can help motivate learning, by separating one meaning/thing from another. The body is coloured in one of the spectrum colours to help students understand that yoga is a meaningful experience for the whole of their being. The use of colour helps people with learning disabilities distinguish the different parts of their body, even though they may not be able to communicate through language, they can usually recognise/sense and identify the different coloured bodily areas. Shifting attention from one coloured part of the body to another makes it easier for them to become more receptive and alert, and to adapt to change within both the body and the mind.

There are 22 Joint Looseners and 20 Postures which are appropriately coloured in one of the spectrum colours. Bearing in mind which part of the body is mainly involved and affected, and has to be used when performing a particular technique. In the Whole-Body-Movement training materials there are more than 2,000 variations of the 42 basic techniques, as performed by various students themselves!

YOU & ME Yoga training and consultation with Maria is recognised CPD for yoga teachers and for therapists working in special needs. Contact: [email protected]

Read more about the PhysioTools module Whole-Body Joint Looseners and Variations for Special Needs