Yoga can help bridge the gap between calm and chaotic; it can help give Aspies a spiritual foundation we can take with us out into the social world.
By Kate Atkinson
1. Mindfulness & Self Awareness
Growing up, I didn’t receive support for being autistic, just as many other autistic women have gone undetected for being on the spectrum most of their lives. I developed a strong inclination to zoning out and dissociating much of my time in school and social situations to avoid the crushing social anxiety I felt within. Unfortunately, this frequent dissociating led me to live an unfocused existence where I struggled to concentrate on simple tasks. This made it extremely difficult to understand class lectures, work instructions and keeping an organized daily schedule. By the time I had reached college, I had burned out from trying to be something I wasn’t, neurotypical.
It was around my 20th year that I was introduced to Buddhism philosophy and mindfulness; around the same time, I tried a hot yoga class. This experience at the yoga studio was life altering. As I lied down in savasana (corpse pose) at the end of the class I had a stunning vision of my mom and I on a beautiful beach with blustering winds and trees; we were so happy, raising our arms in joy. I’d never had a vision, let alone one with such clarity that elicited an emotional response like this. After this experience I knew yoga was a practice I should dive into, and I did.
The deeper I got into my yoga practice, the more I felt like I was meeting myself for the first time. It was a scary experience because I was now living in my body instead of strictly my head. Yoga was opening me up to becoming less rigid and more flexible in how I was approaching life and my relationships. As many on the autism spectrum know, we can often live in our heads too much. That’s why a practice like yoga can be beneficial to individuals with autism, because it allows all the trapped energy within the mind to flow to the other areas of the body. With a more balance flow of energy, we are more able to feel the stillness within our core. When we touch this stillness, we feel at peace; every autistic person deserves to feel peace.
It’s been about 6 years of dedicating myself to a yoga practice, and I can say that my ability to be mindful has drastically improved. Due to the increase in mindfulness I also feel much more confident now in social situations. Moreover, this is because I am able to engage more thoroughly with others, without getting swept away in my own thoughts as much. What I have learned is that the focus you gain on the yoga mat and can be transcended to the focus you gain in your everyday life; suddenly washing the dishes seems a bit more interesting.
2. Gender Dysphoria
There are numerous studies to date that explain the correlation between autism and gender dysphoria. During my life as an autistic woman, I struggled heavily with gender dysphoria. This was evident in the awkwardness I felt about my body (especially when puberty hit), the desire to wear men’s clothing and the need to repress, and finally express my more masculine essence. I even prayed I wouldn’t develop breasts. For many years I bullied myself for how I felt more masculine than feminine and completely over feminized my appearance to over compensate. However, I realized I wasn’t alone.
When I finally stumbled across a video about autistic woman, sexuality and gender I felt extreme relief. Finally, someone was explaining how I felt all these years! When I heard how woman on the spectrum were often seen as tom boys and were more likely to have a fluid expression of gender and sexuality something in my heart said I had discovered a truth about myself.
Furthermore, I would hunch my back and I developed terrible posture during my adolescence. This was due to self consciousness about my breasts and an overall lack of self esteem. Yoga has helped me realign my spine so it has developed stronger, straighter and healthier. With better posture, I feel more confident. Yoga has completely changed my view of my body, a level of acceptance has emerged, I feel better naked than in clothes.
Overall, Yoga has helped me embrace my masculine and feminine side. By being present in my body more, I can see with more clarity the importance of expressing both our male and female qualities. Through this practice I have gradually let go of the attachment I had to gender roles, and the shame I felt for not fitting into them. Yoga has helped me appreciate and be grateful for my body. Before I started yoga, I was more judgmental about my body, but yoga has shown me the importance of embracing each part with love. Yoga reminds me to be grateful that each body part helps me go deeper in my practice, deeper into inner freedom.
3. Loneliness vs. Solitude
It is an unfortunate truth that many on the autism spectrum are more prone to loneliness and social alienation. I personally experience this, and can say first hand that it wears a person down, especially in this time of lockdowns and isolations during this tragic pandemic. However, another outstanding benefit of yoga is its ability to bring us closer to our soul and away from our ego. Yoga takes us deeper into our body, mind and spirit. When we take this journey inward, we realize that we are really never alone. Once we start connecting with our breath and bringing awareness to the body, we can more clearly see that what makes us lonely is that incessant chatter in our head. Yoga show us that we can step away from that mental noise, and just be. This is much harder than it sounds, but gradually with time it can bring you more intimacy with the deepest parts of yourself, it can change your life.
For those on the autism spectrum who do feel disconnected from others or society, yoga can be a positive outlet. By putting our energy and effort into a self care activity like yoga we may be able to direct less focus to looking outside ourselves for validation or acceptance. We can shape our loneliness into a time of growth, peace and self reflection; a time of solitude.
4. Digestion & Insomnia
Being autistic comes with I higher susceptibility to certain physical health issues. Personally, there are two major health issues I have experienced that are correlated with autism; insomnia and gastrointestinal issues. Insomnia is debilitating on many levels as many on the autism spectrum can testify. Lack of sleep makes it more tough to stay regulated in our moods and get excited about life. However, I have noticed a reduction in insomnia as I have incorporated yoga into my life. Through the cultivation of different poses, the body is being regenerated and calmed. Stress is less likely to get stored in the body when it is irrigated regularly with the practice of yoga; this results in a reduction in overall anxiety and a better night’s rest. I have tried sleep medication, but yoga has proven to be a better support than just an easy cover up for a health issue that can be worked through naturally.
Having a sensitive digestive system that is easily irritated comes with challenges. Inflammation, swelling, irritable bowl syndrome and constipation have been evident throughout my life. Autistic people are more likely to struggle with gastrointestinal issues. I didn’t realize the ability to heal my digestive system until I started yoga. Once I started focusing on the abdominal area of the body during practice, I was seeing a decrease in symptoms. I was experiencing way less swelling, gas and cramping by working with this area of unease. The tightness and tension that usually gripped my mid section was releasing and a feeling of spaciousness was happening inside. I am now able to eat a wider variety of foods without negative consequences. I still experience mild discomfort but the improvement has been drastic since I started my yoga journey.
5. System of philosophy
What is something autistic people love doing? Creating and understanding systems and rules, in other words, systemizing. There’s a strong drive within me to understand systems of thought and structure, moreover; an example is my special interest with the system of astrology. Another philosophical system I am attracted to is yoga, and it’s not just my autistic inclination for repetitive physical movement that draws me to the practice! Yoga is identified by many as a system or school of philosophy. It is often misrepresented in the western world as strictly a physical practice, but yoga provides much more knowledge and education than just breathing techniques and physical stretching; it can also stretch our mind. Yoga was originally known for the many pathways available. These different pathways all lead to liberation of the soul, just taking different routes. The different pathways in yoga can all be explored and consist of Karma (action yoga), Raja (royal yoga), Gyana (wisdom yoga) and Bhakti (devotional yoga). All pathways provide structure and guidelines for the spiritual aspirant to follow. So, you may be able to gather from this brief description an understanding of why an autistic person may be drawn to a philosophy that involves understanding the complexity of a system and following its “rules”.
By embracing yoga as a lifestyle, I have found doors open for me socially. When I attend a yoga class, I feel a sense of community with people who I can relate too. This is a special feeling, when so often we feel like outsiders for being autistic.
To conclude, I would highly recommend exploring yoga to anyone on the autism spectrum. Moreover, I would suggest yoga to anyone who is interested in gaining more self awareness, confidence, mental clarity and inner peace. Finding equanimity for an Aspie in this often-overwhelming world is challenging. However, yoga can help bridge the gap between calm and chaotic; it can help give Aspies a spiritual foundation we can take with us out into the social world.
Namaste, my name is Kate and I am from Ontario, Canada. I have been diagnosed with autism and have been on a journey to self discovery since. Spirituality has become a major focus in my life and it has helped me accept being autistic. I hope to help others by spreading the spiritual knowledge that I am learning and sharing my personal experience.