Namaste for everyone


Yoga offers special benefits for special-needs children

Photo courtesy of Susan Pasternak Sara Karp and Joey Santoro-Cotton

Joey Santoro-Cotton, a 5-year-old with bushy brown hair and a knack for making others laugh, giggles with delight as his yoga instructor helps him into the cobra pose. His arms stretch wide across the mat and he slowly lifts his head upward. A big smile spreads across his face and that of his teacher.

"It really makes him feel good," his mother, Gina Santoro-Cotton says. "He's doing therapy and he doesn't even know it. He's more aware of his body, and he tries to do more on his own."

For Joey, who has cerebral palsy, yoga is more than just a class. It brings him concrete benefits, such as vast improvements to his strength and coordination. His weekly one-on-one sessions at Child's Pose in Chicago are invaluable, his mother says.

Physical therapist Sara Karp and occupational therapist Debra Schmit founded Child's Pose almost a year ago. The yoga program for children with special needs is operated out of Yogaview studio in Chicago. Karp and Schmidt, both avid yoga followers, believed yoga would complement the more traditional therapy children with special needs generally receive. They completed a certification program in Yoga for the Special Child, an Evanston-based training program and studio run by yoga therapist Sonia Sumar, creator of the technique. Sumar also does one-on-one and group instruction at her studio, 1521 Chicago Ave. in Evanston.

During the sessions, which last between 30 minutes and one hour, students work on breathing and a variety of yoga poses. After a session, the children breathe better, are more coordinated, better able to concentrate and have more energy, the instructors say. For Joey, yoga also bolsters self-esteem, his mother says. Karp and Schmit work mostly with children who have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"I see the benefits it can have both physically and mentally," Karp says. At Child's Pose, "we focus on the whole child, not just meeting gross motor development goals," as in many traditional therapies.

Joey finds that starting each yoga session with chanting and breathing exercises helps him breathe through his nose. That has enabled him to eat more solid foods through his mouth, instead of being fed solely through a feeding tube. He also is more relaxed, focused and determined, "especially when it comes to playing with his toys," his mother says.

Child's Pose is at 2232 N. Clybourn Ave. in Chicago. For information, call (773) 395-2215 or e-mail [email protected] Sumar can be reached at (847) 869-8315 or online at

Susan Pasternak


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