PAWTUCKET — Alfred Smith feels confident now that whenever he has to lie down on a floor, he has the ability to raise himself back up. This was a personal milestone for the 70-year-old man with developmental challenges, and he took his first step through an Adaptive Yoga project offered by Shri Studio.
The Shri Studio Adaptive Project provides yoga classes at its downtown Pawtucket facility for men and women with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Alison Bologna, Shri Studio's owner and director (as well as a familiar face to TV viewers as a channel 10 news anchor), leads the free classes as part of her business's new non-profit arm.
Smith takes classes with other members of Flying Shuttles, an arts program for adults with disabilities that is operated by the ARC of Blackstone Valley. Every other Wednesday since last September, about 15 adults from Flying Shuttles take the short walk down Main Street to practice yoga with Bologna. The results have been amazing and inspiring, both for the practitioners and their energetic teacher.
Bologna, a certified yoga instructor and longtime practitioner, said this class was designed and inspired by her sister, Jackie. A 31-year-old woman living with Tubererous Sclerosis, a neurological disorder, Jackie is non-verbal, autistic, learning disabled and suffers from epilepsy. She lives with Bologna's parents in New Jersey and spends summers with her sister and the family on Nantucket.
“I was six when she was diagnosed,” said Bologna. “So I was always around her and involved with her life. I used to practice yoga with her and taught her some of the basics.” She has also done volunteer work with organizations helping those with physical and mental challenges and used what she learned and observed to develop her own curriculum for the Adaptive Yoga program.
In addition to Flying Shuttles, Bologna also teaches Adaptive Yoga classes to students from the Pawtucket School Department's Transition Program (also funded by Shri Service Corps.) and L.I.F.E. Inc., another program for adults with disabilities.
“We work with four core values: support, honor, respect, inspire,” Bologna said, noting that the first letters from each of these words spell Shri. “And we use those values in language during our classes.” She said that as far as she knows, there is no program like this in Rhode Island for adults and children living with intellectual and physical disabilities, and few anywhere in the U.S.
“The goal of these classes for students is to help them improve balance, focus and flexibility, in addition to providing a space in which they can have fun,” said Bologna. Through the use of positive language and activities that encourage compassion to one another, she said she tries to build “an inclusive community” within the classes.
That sense of community and fun was apparent in a recent session of the Adaptive Yoga class held for the Flying Shuttles students. A group of about 15 adult men and women, with varying degrees of disability, began by sitting in chairs in a circle around Bologna. Most seemed happy to be in the class, but a few sat slumped or appeared lost in their own thoughts. That is, until Bologna brought out the tingshaw bells.
Bologna asked each student to state their name and what they “supported” that day. They also got to ring two bells together as they did it. “I'm Alfred and I support painting flowers,” said Smith. “I'm Damon and I support yoga,” offered Damon Mahan. “I'm Brenda and I support family and friends,” Brenda Wilkinson said shyly, while Robert Douglas, after thinking a minute, said he supported “karaoke.” As the bells were passed around and Bologna chatted about the various responses, faces visibly brightened and interest increased.
Next, came a lively exercise with a “yoga rap” penned by Bologna: “Reach up high, bend down low, lift your head right past your toes, bring your nose to your knees, lift back up and follow me.” Bologna led off the rap and then called on the other students to take turns repeating it as everyone bended, stretched and touched their toes in a fast-paced cycle. She had everyone's attention now.
Then, the pace was slowed down and deep breathing was introduced. The students were led in “sun salutations” and “warrior” sequences, and practiced balancing postures using chairs. As part of “community building,” Bologna instructed the class to do a group “tree” pose in which the students held each other up in a circle and tested their balance. “Can the branches grow up towards the sky? And our fingertips reach all the way to the sun?” asked Bologna, stretching up high.
The teacher watched her students' movements and offered tips and praise. “That's the first time you held the tree pose!” Bologna said to Smith. She clapped her hands after Nancy McParlin held her pose for a 30-second count and happily exclaimed, “I did it!”
Midway through the class, Bologna asked the students if they remembered the things they had supported earlier. Most did and were proud to shout them out again. “What else do we support?” asked Bologna. “Health, courage, flexibility. What about happiness? Or a color? Is there a color we love?” “Blue,” someone answered. “What is blue?” Bologna continued. “The ocean? The sky? Can you look up at the sky in warrior two?” she asked, demonstrating the pose. Her students did, all achieving the desired yoga position.
In another group activity, Bologna introduced a pink rubber ball to the students seated in a circle. She instructed the group to take a deep breath in and then a deep breath out, and on the exhale, toss the ball gently to another student in the ring. “What do we have to do? Focus,” she stated. “What happens if it falls? Pick it up. No big deal.”
Bologna then had the class on its feet and doing yoga poses against a wall. She had them form a human tunnel which she ran through, evoking much laughter. “Oh, I like that!” exclaimed Damon Mahan. “Why do you like that?” Bologna asked. “It's something different,” he responded.
After that frenetic activity, Bologna began to wind down the pace. As the class neared its end, there were deep breathing exercises to promote relaxation, followed by a segment where the students laid down on yoga mats on the floor with their eyes closed, listening to soothing music. At the conclusion, Bologna reminded them that this was “not the end...it's just the beginning of your next experience.”
Nancy Tumidajski, a member of Flying Shuttles' support staff, said the Adaptive Yoga class has been so beneficial to the students that the staff's physical therapist has begun to incorporate yoga into twice weekly exercise sessions. “They love it so much,” she stated. “And for some of the students, when they start to feel anxious, doing yoga really helps to calm them down.”
Toni Carroll, the program director of Flying Shuttles, praised Bologna's class, noting that when the students return to the arts program after a session, they are “calmer, more peaceful, have a better outlook. And there is a lot more laughter.”
Even more importantly, she said the class has helped increase the students' confidence in their physical capabilities. She pointed to Smith, who was initially fearful about lowering himself onto a yoga mat and who now moves up and down with ease. “And this is good, because if he should ever fall, he knows he can get himself up,” she noted. She said that several other Flying Shuttles students wouldn't touch their toes when they first started. “But then they realized after a couple of classes that they could do this. They felt good that they had developed a new skill and it built their confidence,” she said.
Several of the students spoke of how much they enjoyed the yoga class. Robert Douglas said it made him feel “relaxed” while Brenda Wilkinson stated, “it really helps my arthritis.” Damon Mahan summed up his feelings by saying, “I love it.”
Bologna said she tries to incorporate as many of the yoga basics as possible into her adaptive curriculum. There are things that obviously have to be done differently, such as using the chairs and other props for support. She strives, however, to encourage the students with challenges so they can be as independent as possible. “I have them all roll out their yoga mats like every other student,” she noted.
Bologna, a Pawtucket resident, said she hopes to expand the Adaptive Yoga class and would also like to see basic yoga incorporated into the physical education programs at more local schools. A firm believer in the power of yoga to increase inner strength and calm, she said she is always looking to spread the news to others. On Saturday, April 20, she will be doing just that at Shri Studio's second annual “Yogathon.” For more information on Adaptive Yoga or to register for any of the other classes, visit the website www.shri-studio.com