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"Taking Yoga off the Mat" -Yoga for Children with Cerebral Palsy and other Movement Disorders

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

By Brenda Bakke

In recent years, the number of people practicing Yoga has grown significantly. A study completed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2017 reported 14% of the US population had practiced yoga in the past year up from 9.5 % in 2012. However, yoga is not always accessible to everyone, especially students with unique health needs that may benefit the most from yoga. As a physical therapist and yoga therapist, I provide therapeutic yoga to a variety of populations with health challenges and special needs.

One group of students that I have found to benefit immensely from practicing yoga are those with Cerebral Palsy or other movement disorders.

Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a group of non-progressive disorders that affect a person’s movement, muscle tone, balance, and posture ranging from mild changes in mobility and development to significant motor and cognitive impairment. CP is caused by abnormal development of the motor control centers of the brain that occurs before, during, or after birth.

According to the CDC, CP is the most common motor disability in childhood with 1 in every 323 children diagnosed.

Although CP is a non-progressive condition, people with CP experience a range of “related” conditions including chronic pain, anxiety, fatigue, orthopedic impairments, neurological symptoms, and overall changes in motor function and independence.

YOGA CAN HELP manage and support all of these related symptoms.

As a PT, I was initially curious about using yoga to help my students improve in their physical development including: flexibility, balance, strength, coordination, mobility, and overall independence. Yoga certainly has an impact on all of these areas. However, an additional area that I have seen great benefit in applying the teachings of yoga is emotional regulation specifically helping to reduce anxiety in those with movement disorders. Many of the students I work with have significant fear and unease with movement tasks (fear of falling, increased pain) that intensifies in unfamiliar settings, crowds, and general sensory stimulating environments. Yoga and especially breathing or pranayama practice helps student develop a sense of stability, grounding, and a general sense of calm.

When working with children that have CP, I initially focus on awareness of the breath to help create a link between mind and body.

Focusing on breath control has immediate and significant effects on the nervous system, which may influence both motor and psychosocial development.

With CP and movement disorders, the breath pattern may be irregular and shallow with holding of the breath very common. When practicing yoga, the breath pattern becomes more even, deeper, and slower stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest functions). The connection to breath can help to release muscular tension, decrease pain, anxiety, and generally promotes a sense of increased comfort and grounding. Gradually as breath control develops, posture and movement patterns may become more fluid with decreased stiffness and more voluntary control. Improved breath control also effects speech production. As the muscles of respiration strengthen, lung capacity improves, providing breath support for a stronger voice as observed with increased volume and length of sentences.

The breath is an extraordinary tool that is always available and accessible.

Simply bringing attention to your breath throughout the day helps to connect mind and body and has a positive impact on daily activities. Helping the person with CP or movement disorder connect to their breath can be life changing both physically and emotionally.

Increasing Breath Awareness in Movement Disorders helps to:

  • · Release muscle tension- posture improves & movement becomes more fluid

  • · Decrease pain – become more comfortable in the body

  • · Decrease anxiety-become more relaxed & develop a sense of calm

  • · Increase respiration – improved speech

  • · Increase energy – improve focus & stamina

  • · Promote a sense of grounding – living in the present

  • · Connect mind and body

With asana practice and CP, it is essential to choose and sequence postures based on the individual needs of a student as ability varies significantly. With the use of props (chair, wall, bolsters, blocks, straps, dowels), yoga poses can be adapted for all abilities.

A modification does not lessen the benefits of the pose but makes the pose accessible by meeting the student where they are.

We frequently hear “living your yoga”. My students truly take yoga off the mat and make their yoga practice meaningful and functional, improving their quality of life.

Yoga supports independence and life skills and easily fits into their day. The following are a few examples of how yoga integrates into the day.

  • Mountain –Tadasana (standing or seated), grounding through the feet increases awareness, promote balance, strength, & improved posture

  • Chair – Utkatasana, assisting with chair/bed to stand transitions

  • Warrior 1 - Virabhadrasana I, walking, stepping onto curbs, over objects

  • Tree – Vrksasana, one leg balance stepping in & out of shower/bath tub

  • Seated Twist - Parivrtta Sukhasana , taking jacket on and off

  • Butterfly - Badhakonasana, hip flexibility for taking shoes & socks off

  • Knee to Chest – Pavanamuktasana, promoting digestion & elimination

  • Bridge - Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, assisting with dressing

  • Yoga Breathing -Pranayama, emotional regulation, calming or energizing

  • Mindfulness & Meditation – increasing focus, attention, stillness throughout the day

Sharing the gift of yoga is truly one of the best parts of my job. To see people that might not otherwise have the opportunity to practice yoga experience the benefits, the connections, and the joy that yoga brings is truly amazing.

Everyone that is interested in yoga deserves the opportunity to practice. Yoga is for EveryBody!

Brenda Bakke is a PT, certified yoga therapist, and Accessible Yoga trainer who is passionate about making yoga accessible to all. If you’re interested in learning more about Yoga for people with CP and movement disorders consider registering for the Yoga Therapy for Youth Training, January 6h-April 22nd, 2023.

“This content is offered for information only and does not create a practitioner/patient relationship, always consult with your own care provider for advice specific to your needs.”



She is also faculty for the 100-hour Yoga Therapy for Youth Training -Yoga for Children with CP module. See her faculty page.

BRENDA is an experienced pediatric physical therapist who has successfully integrated yoga methods  into her treatment sessions since 1999.  She has trained with Sonia Sumar, founder of Yoga for the Special Child (YSC), and has completed the Basic Certification, Advanced Level 1,2,3 in YSC. Brenda is a Certified Yoga Therapist through the IAYT and a Certified Accessible Yoga Teacher.  She is contributing author of the book “Healing Practices to Help Kids Grow up Easier”.  Brenda has her Master’s degree in education, is NDT certified, & has extensive training  in Sensory Integration. She enjoys teaching Yoga/PT workshops around the country and especially helping to bring yoga into educational and healthcare settings. Brenda currently works in a school district and private practice, Bakke Physical and Yoga Therapy. 

Learn more about Brenda at

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