Many years ago, when I first started reading Temple Grandin’s books, I was fascinated by her “squeeze machine,” which she modelled on a cattle chute she first saw as a teenager at her aunt’s ranch. Like many people on the autism spectrum, Temple longed for human touch but couldn’t bear it. Instead, as a child she used to lie under the sofa cushions and ask people to sit on them, which provided the “deep pressure” that calms so many people with autism. And as a teenager, after observing how cattle calmed down in the squeeze chute, she built her own “home version” of this contraption, which she used (and still uses) to calm herself down.
In the BBC documentary about her life, called The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, Temple demonstrates how the machine works. It really is extraordinary; she climbs into it, operates the levers so that the sides press in and squeeze her firmly, and in a matter of several minutes you can see her relaxing and hear her voice slow down and become deeper.
(If you’re interested, the documentary is available on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46ycu3JFRrA.)
She explains this feeling in her book Animals in Translation: “My squeeze machine… gave me feelings of kindness and gentleness towards other people – social feelings. It also made my dreams nicer. … I think the squeeze machine probably also helped me have more empathy….”
People have often asked me whether I would like something like this; my answer is “absolutely not” because I don’t like the feeling of being confined.
But last week, I accidentally stumbled upon my own version of the “squeeze machine”: yoga.
For almost a year now I have been taking spin classes and I decided I also needed to work on stretching and using some different muscles. I was very nervous to try yoga, as I’m quite self-conscious, and I also had a bad experience once in a yoga studio where the teacher kept touching and “adjusting” me without warning me or asking my permission.
So I talked to one of the instructors beforehand and asked whether I’d be comfortable in this class, which was geared more towards athletes and cyclists. They had asked me months ago whether I wanted to try yoga and the answer has always been a flat “no” so I think they were very surprised! Anyway, the instructor, Lea, was very helpful with my (nervous!) questions, and I agreed to give it a try.
We did a 40-minute spin class first to warm up our muscles and then moved into the yoga studio, where we began some gentle stretching exercises. I was very nervous at first but after a few minutes I calmed down and (to my surprise) began to enjoy the experience. The lights were kept low (a bonus for me since I hate overhead lighting) and Lea happens to be very good at explaining each move (also a bonus for me, since I am rather uncoordinated sometimes and have trouble figuring out where my body is in space!).
And suddenly, about ten minutes into it, I felt something “shift” in me, like a gear changing. My exact thought at the time was “wow, all the aggression has just drained out of me.” One of the hallmarks of Asperger Syndrome is anxiety, which often manifests itself as anger, irritability or aggression. And suddenly that disappeared, which for a normal person would probably feel like someone suddenly shutting off a really loud television show.
The calm feeling continued through the rest of the class. Afterward I went and thanked Lea for keeping an eye on me, and was surprised that my voice seemed slower and calmer, and I had less trouble making eye contact than I usually do. And on the drive home I was astonished to discover a strange feeling of being “connected” to the people in the cars and on the sidewalks around me.
When I woke up the next morning, the feeling was still there – I was amazed. I have taken Ativan (an anti-anxiety drug) from time to time, to help me sleep, and it felt like I had taken a dose of that; absolutely nothing bothered me. Even on my drive in to work, through the “rush hour hell” of Toronto, I was calm and happy. I almost laughed at myself.
It has long been known that deep pressure and firm touch are preferable to people on the spectrum — light touch activates the undesirable “flight response”. Now researchers are also looking more closely the use of yoga to help people with autism and Asperger’s. They suspect that it activates the opiate and dopamine receptors in the brain, which are thought to play a part not only in pleasurable sensations but in empathy and social behaviour.
There’s also evidence that yoga helps people on the spectrum to focus their attention and become more aware of where their bodies are in space, and thus more coordinated. Personally, I’m a rather clumsy person and not often aware of where my arms and legs are at any given moment (they’re usually knocking things over, dropping things or tripping over themselves), and yoga helped me “feel” where the outlying parts of my body were, and focus on balance and stillness. For a while I felt almost graceful, which is not my usual state of mind!
For comparison’s sake, I went to a class last night with a teacher I don’t like as much (the music in her “spin” portion of the class is way too loud, and she always looks unhappy or angry to me — although I confess that facial expressions are not my forte!). Anyway, I didn’t like this class as much as last week’s; there was too much “yoga jargon” for my liking (I don’t know the names of the poses or how to do complicated things like a Sun Salutation) and I got very frustrated. But I know that it’s rude to leave in the middle of the class so I reluctantly stayed, and as soon as we switched to some poses that were familiar to me from last week, I felt the relaxation start again a little bit. However, there was not that “aggression release” that I felt last week, and I think that was because I didn’t trust the teacher & was not able to relax fully and pay attention to what I was doing.
So my two lessons are this:
1) yoga is VERY good for some people (like me) with Asperger’s because it helps with coordination, balance, calmness and feelings of kindness & empathy; and
2) much depends on the teacher. Pick one that you like and trust, and this should help you relax and concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing.
I will be going back to another class tomorrow night, and hopefully more after that. I will keep you posted on my findings.