06/11/18 — Special needs adults find calm with yoga therapy

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Special needs adults find calm with yoga therapy

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 11, 2018 5:50 AM

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Charity Allen gets a deep stretch by walking her hands away from the mat during the the new yoga for special populations class at the Goldsboro Family YMCA.

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Kathy Wood helps her daughter Alyssa with a pose during the new special populations yoga class at the Goldsboro Family YMCA. Alyssa, Kathy's inspiration for starting the class, attends each class and has a special place beside her mother at the front of each class.

The lights are dimmed in the exercise studio at the YMCA, soothing instrumental music playing in the background.

Instructor Kathy Wood guides her students through a variety of basic yoga stretches, occasionally walking between the mats to offer encouragement or assist in orchestrating the various poses.

Charity Allen was among the first to arrive, taking her place on a mat in front.

When it comes time for the "forward fold" -- a seated yoga pose where legs stretch in opposing directions and the student leans downward -- Allen has no problem bending to the floor.

"She loves it and she'll tell you every day, this is what we're doing," says Jennifer Macha, a direct care educator at Skill Creations who has worked with Allen for four years.

Their schedule includes such activities at the Y as line dancing, Silver Sneakers yoga and Fit and Fabulous. But the new yoga class is the clear frontrunner, Macha said.

"This is the highlight -- it's the No. 1 thing that she likes to do," she said.

The recently added exercise class meets more than a physical need -- it aligns with the club's mission to be inclusive.

It started out as another yoga class, but with a twist.

The target demographic is for those with physical and/or cognitive disabilities, otherwise known as special needs, said Alice Huneycutt, health and wellness director.

She credited Vanessa Spiron, senior director of development, with introducing the idea.

"I don't know that I specifically suggested special populations but that worked out well with the instructor that Alice brought on," Spiron said.

"We have had a lot of people who come to our Y who have special needs and whether they come in with family or by themselves or with caretakers, they do kind of the same old things that most people do, but we wanted to give them an opportunity to experience something new, and yoga is just very beneficial for all types of people.

"We wanted to give people in special populations a chance to do an exercise class as well."

The class meets once a week, with the only requirement being that each student be accompanied by an adult, be it a parent or caregiver, who is also encouraged to participate in the session if they choose.

Wood was brought on to lead the special populations yoga each week.

She was already a popular instructor for other pilates and stretch and core classes at the Y, but is the right fit in the added role for personal reasons.

"She has a daughter with pretty significant special needs so she obviously knows this population very well," Huneycutt said. "Kathy gives a lot of one-on-one attention to these folks. I don't know how she does it.

"She does it in her regular yoga classes, too. She's just really gifted at that."

As with any teacher instructing her students to modify exercises to suit their situation, Wood has created a comfortable and inviting atmosphere in her class.

"Everybody's impairments are so unique -- physical or cognitive," Huneycutt said. "And she makes it work for everyone."

The special needs option has grown since being introduced. It can have anywhere from two to 14 students on any given week.

YMCA members who attend range from interested individuals to groups from Wayne Opportunity Center and Skill Creations.

Wood welcomes them all, learning their names and taking a personal interest in each.

She has always had a heart for those with developmental challenges, she says, understanding that they come with added issues, be they behavioral or emotional.

"I have a daughter, Alyssa, who is 26 and has special needs. But even way before that, it's a population I have always been interested in working with," she said.

She had previous experience working in special education, both in the classroom as well as the exercise arena.

So when the idea presented itself to be part of such an effort locally, she jumped at the chance to lead it.

"The activities for that particular population, the Y is wonderful because they open their arms to everybody," she said. "I thought, how nice would that be to have something for that population, because as much as we want inclusion, it's just not possible."

Her approach is to work on body awareness and proprioception, relating to posture, movement and balance, or "where they end and you begin," Wood said.

"Basically, we work on learning to stretch the body, learning to breathe, laughing and having a good time," she said. "They tease each other. They have a good time with each other."

Macha, on a mat near Allen, says the option has been beneficial for her as well as special needs students like Allen.

"It's great. It keeps me energized because I also have three kids at home," Macha said. "And it shows her the proper way to squat or use weights. Also, she gets to meet new people or mingle with friends."

Friends like Charlie Nail, 34.

As Wood calls out an instruction to "point your your toes up to the ceiling," likening it to their appendage being like a paintbrush, Allen giggles.

"Go, Charlie!" she said.

Nail is another enthusiast of the class, the forward fold being his favorite pose, said Tanisha Lofton, his caregiver from Skill Creations.

"I like yoga but he enjoys yoga," she said.

Shalome Wall, 49, is among those from Wayne Opportunity Center who attend.

"I like it," she said. "I like the exercise and fitness and stuff."

Perhaps the biggest reward comes to their instructor, taking it all in and getting a bird's eye view of the changes that go beyond an ability to stretch or strike a pose.

"I see them learning about their bodies," Wood said. "I see a 57-year-old woman with cognitive disabilities understanding which is the left foot when I say, 'Put your left foot back,'" she said.

Another measure is how the class is growing in other ways.

"I've seen the comfort level grow," Huneycutt said. "I mean they really look forward to getting together every week.

"It's a social thing, but it's also a time for caregivers to interact and a very, very positive experience."