Just Breathe – Yoga For Autism

Just Breathe – Yoga For Autism

The words “just breathe”, sounds simple but can be a challenge for children who experience heightened levels of anxiety, anger or frustration. The tendency for many children is to use chest breathing or to breathe rapidly when anxious or upset. This can lead to hyperventilation, panic attacks and increased agitation and anxiety. Along with emotional triggers, many children with autism and other special needs may struggle with self-regulation, sensory integration difficulties, communication deficits and a variety of other challenges that contribute to higher levels of anxiety and difficulty coping with stress. Teaching children with special needs breathing strategies supports them with self-regulation, calming the nervous system and coping with stress. Reduced stress and tension leads to better sleep, improved behavior, increased focus and concentration and a greater sense of well-being.


In the book, Asanas for Autism and Special Needs – Yoga to Help Children with Their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body Awareness, there are many suggestions for breathing strategies to help children with special needs soothe their nervous systems in order to reduce anxiety and tension. One suggested breathing strategy is 3-part breathing.

3-part breathing can be a helpful breathing strategy for reducing anxiety and soothing the nervous system. Benefits of 3-part breathing include:

Increased body awareness
Reduces anger and frustration
Awareness of breath
Improved concentration
Supports diaphramic breathing which focuses on deepening and elongating the breath
Builds greater lung capacity
Soothes the nervous system
Slows the heart rate

Pre-pose preparation: Identify parts on body. Put hands on belly say “belly”. Have child model hands to belly and repeat “belly”. Put hands on ribs and say “ribs”. Have child model hands to ribs and repeat, “ribs”. Put hands on chest and say “chest”. Have child model hands to chest and repeat “chest”.

1.  Sit up tall in cross-legged position on mat or in chair.
2.  Close lips.
3.  Hands to belly, breathe in to belly through nose like a balloon. Breathe out through nose.
4. Hands to ribs, breathe in to ribs through nose, feel ribs puff out. Breathe out through nose.
5.  Hands to chest, breathe in to chest through nose, feel lungs fill up. Breathe out through nose.
6.  This time we will breathe in to belly, ribs and chest with one long breath.
7.  Breathe in through nose, fill up belly, then ribs, then chest until lungs are full. (Guide can move hands to each body part while giving breath cues).
8.  Exhale – breathe out through nose, empty breath from lungs, empty breath from ribs, empty breath from belly.
9.  Repeat 2-3 times.

Modifications: Allow the child to breathe out through the mouth if breathing out through the nose is too difficult. Always encourage the child to breathe in through the nose. Even if the breath is not done exactly the way it is instructed, simply having the child focus on breathing will support him/her in feeling more relaxed and less anxious or agitated

Additional resources:


Shawnee Thornton

Shawnee is a 500 RYT, E-RYT, RCYT (Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher), Yoga Therapist and M.Ed. Shawnee has worked with children with autism and special needs for 16 years. She has specialized in working with children who have significant cognitive and language delays, sensory processing deficits, as well as severe behavior problems. Through her study and experience teaching yoga to her students in her classroom, she quickly realized the benefits of yoga on her student’s attention and focus, reduced anxiety, body awareness and development of calming strategies.Her goal is to bring the experience of yoga to all individuals no matter their differences or challenges. Shawnee has presented workshops on Yoga to Reduce Stress and Increase Relaxation for teachers and other professionals who work in education and youth programs, Yoga for Children with Autism and Special Needs and Yoga for Teens facing the challenges of mental illness. She wrote a published a book, Asanas for Autism and Special Needs – Yoga to Help Children with Their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body Awareness and started a Yoga School through Yoga Alliance in order to train others in yoga approaches to support children with autism and special needs. www.asanasforautismandspecialneeds.com