Circus the yoga way: Adapted for children on the autism spectrum

By Kat Robinson

You may be surprised to learn that the internally focused practice of yoga and the externally oriented art of circus have a lot in common: Both include body awareness and proprioception, involve breathing techniques to quiet the mind and create centering, and require focus and concentration. Aerial yoga, using equipment suspended from the ceiling to change our relationship to gravity, is a unique approach where yoga and circus can come together and offer unique therapeutic experiences. My 7-year-old grandson, who has autism, opened my eyes to the kind of change and positive experience available through this approach.

Inspired by his interest, I created classes for kids that focused on the aerial experience. Then I started to add other tools: hula hoops, slacklines, juggling scarves. There were bumps along the way which I approached by seeking out the expertise of others on both both autism and circus movement. 

The works of Dr. Reg Bolton, a circus clown, educator, and writer who led the charge of working in this way with children, made a significant impact on me, my teachings, and philosophy. I studied his doctoral thesis, Why circus works: How the values and structures of circus make it a significant developmental experience for young people. In this work, Dr. Bolton explains five keys that make circus potentially successful in ALL children, and that I’ve found helpful in my yoga therapy classes for those with autism. Circus techniques

  1. give kids a chance to work hard on skills. Some children with autism may need a “quiet room” for focus and concentration or to help self-regulate if they become overstimulated. 
  2. allow them to take safe risks. Children are encouraged to do what they believe they are capable of—with the proper safety supports. My grandson loves to climb, and this is a way to offer him that outlet in a safe environment.
  3. encourage individuality. In the circus, differences are celebrated and encouraged.
  4. allow kids to work as a team. The human pyramid will collapse if we don’t work together.
  5. offer fun! This is the most important key—all children deserve to have fun.

Research has shown that yoga therapy interventions can lead to positive changes in communication, social, cognitive, and adaptive skills in children with autism spectrum disorder. However, what we don’t know about autism is most likely more than what we do know. Therapies that support connection, exploration, and joy—like yoga and circus—are encouraging and worth more attention both clinically and from researchers.

Kat Robinson, ND, E-RYT, C-IAYT, is the owner of Active Kat Yoga. She is a certified aerialist and children’s yoga teacher and a member of the American Circus Educators and the American Youth Circus Organization.