Goodwill NY-NJ offers individuals with autism the opportunity to choose among a number of daily activities that help enhance their lives. This week, we visited the Project Possibilities group at The Bronx site to observe their yoga practice.
Since June 2013, Yoga instructor Jocelyn Ruth O’Shea has taught at Goodwill. Each yoga session may include four to twelve students, depending on attendance and location.
Jocelyn starts the session by drawing stick figures in dotted lines on a white board. Then, she asks the students to trace over the poses they will do on the mat. This exercise builds hand-eye coordination, and serves as a reference for the students throughout the class. It also helps students to identify with body awareness.
“At the beginning, students often drew the bodies not connected to the heads,” notes instructor Jocelyn. “I encourage them to draw in the neck, explaining that the neck is a physical connection between the mind and body. Over time, they have started connecting the mind and body on the white board drawings.” She adds, “Perhaps they are now making a mind body connection on the mat.”
Jocelyn has also adopted Bent On Learnings tag line: “Easy Breezy Steady Ready,” as a way to translate the Tristhana; (asana.) An easy pose, (pranyama) breezy breath, and (drishti) steady eyes. This rhyme enables students to practice yoga off the mat and hopefully find ways to cope with distractions. Rather than being told to “focus” students learn “how to focus.”
Regarding the challenges of teaching individuals with autism, Jocelyn says: “Deciphering what they want and need can be challenging since some of the students are non-verbal or have a limited range of verbal expressions. Everyone has good and bad days, yoga can be an excellent way to transform a bad day into a good one. Certain practices help with digestion, depression, anxiety or any ailment more than others. It can be tricky to know what additional poses or practices will best benefit the group on any given day.”
“When I first began teaching with Possibilities I thought I would do a lot of twisting poses to improve digestion. One aspect of autism is that it causes the brain to go into fight or flight mode more regularly, when this happens the body naturally sends more blood into the structural muscles and less into the secondary systems thus causing indigestion. While we do tend to end every class with a nice long supine two knee twist I have found that the goals of this class have shifted,” explains the instructor.
“The goals of this class are essentially the same as with any class I might teach at my studio, Makara Studio: To bring calm and peaceful energy into the mind, to build strength and flexibility in the body, and to create a positive experience for everyone,” remarks Jocelyn. “And of course, a major goal is to have fun.”
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