Erin Feeney capped off her 19th birthday celebration with a huge accomplishment that still makes her smile.
For the first time in her life, she was able to blow out her birthday candle.
On Nov. 11 last year, when she turned 20, she did it again.
"Not two or three, but one, and one is way better than none," said Erin's mom, Louise Feeney of Naperville.
Erin has cerebral palsy, which alters all of her muscles, including her speech, but not her intelligence. Louise Feeney credits her daughter's accomplishment with the birthday candle and other improvements in the quality of her life to yoga. A student at the College of DuPage, Erin spends an hour each week with Karen Fakroddin, a Yoga for the Special Child practitioner at Universal Spirit Yoga in Naperville.
Parents, educators and medical professionals are recognizing the benefits of yoga for young people with special needs, like Erin.
Three years of yoga have had a dramatic, positive impact on her daughter, Louise Feeney said. She believes that yoga has helped Erin with digestion, and given her more trunk control, less pain in her limbs, and more stamina, and helped with her breathing.
"The beauty of yoga is that it helps you wherever you are at," said Fakroddin.
In Erin's private yoga session, Louise Feeney helps move her daughter to the mat where Fakroddin cradles Erin in her arms, gently manipulating her constricted arms and legs to stretch out and to relax. She supports Erin, calmly encouraging her to use her neck muscles to lift her head for seconds. What to most are simple movements like putting her feet flat to the floor are slow and short-lived for Erin, but she is thrilled to accomplish them.
Yoga for the Special Child (www.specialyoga.com) is an international program designed by former Evanston resident Sonia Sumar in 1970 to help babies and children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities. There are now six certified practitioners in the Chicago area, and many in 26 other states and 12 other countries.
"The knowledge of yoga for special needs is up, and there is more coming," said Fakroddin, who points out that practitioners never work without a doctor's clearance and a thorough intake assessment. "It helps the special needs children to slow down, to focus. They are able to accept their limitations and work through them. It's a tough world. To be able to empower them, to give them the tools to help themselves, is wonderful."
Jessica Wheeler, 16, and Ellie Martin, 13, are enrolled in Fakroddin's group class, and their mothers have witnessed improved strength, balance and posture in their daughters, as well as the joy of being in a social but noncompetitive class.
"It's good for Ellie to be able to do something that everybody else can do," said Suzanne Martin, of Naperville, whose daughter has a neuro-muscular disorder. "This is kind of an even playing field. Ellie can just join in. She loves swimming, but this is her favorite."
Diane Wheeler, of Winfield, said Jessica, who has cognitive anxiety issues, uses her yoga breath at home and in class at Wheaton North High School to calm herself down.
"She's more coordinated and can follow directions better," Wheeler said.
In the class of five students that includes Ellie and Jessica, Fakroddin leads her students through breathing exercises, music therapy for eye and hand coordination, and traditional poses such as the cobra pose, child pose and downward dog pose, each adapted to meet each child's needs and capabilities.
"We meet them where they are, not focusing on their disabilities but their abilities," said Fakroddin, who helps each individual with the poses, but also takes time for a quick giggle break when one's giggles turn out to be catching.
Special-needs adults may also benefit from yoga. Fakroddin has partnered with the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, which conducts a Rec and Roll program for 36 special-needs adults, age 22 and up. Instructor Kipp Soncek has seen improved balance in his participants, but the primary difference, he said, is that they recognize they can control themselves when suffering anxiety, frustration or fatigue, and some can prompt themselves to put yoga methods into practice.
A key benefit of yoga is that as old as it is, it presents something new to his special-needs patients, said Gadi Revivo, a pediatric rehabilitation physician at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
"And it allows them to do the things their able-bodied peers get to do," he said.
"Many of these kids have been doing physical therapy, speech, occupational therapy most of their lives," Revivo said. "They get bored. Yoga is a way to integrate stretching, body awareness, breathing and posture in a way they haven't experienced it before. It's different. Like horseback riding, we work on balance, strength, stamina in a different way."
He cautioned that instructors need to be informed and thoughtful about moves and positions, recognizing in particular that Down syndrome can present spinal cord issues.
"But yoga is going to benefit these kids more than it's going to be a detriment," he said.
The common thread among parents of special-needs children is that they want their child to learn how to relax and focus, said Erin Haddock, a Yoga for the Special Child practitioner at The Discovery Clinic in Glenview.
"You have to take it very, very slow. Any improvement is a success," Haddock said. "We work with autistic children, and it's a huge thing just for them to be OK with something new. One of the intangible benefits for them is self-confidence, being aware of themselves and knowing that they can control their own body.
"It's great if you can start young, with early intervention," Haddock said. "But with every case, we start very slowly. Toe and foot exercises. Eye movements. Working on the core strengths such as breathing and speaking. We have a girl in her teens who is just learning to walk. When she started, her feet were tight and curled up. It's not what you would picture as your typical yoga session. At first it was a matter of rotating the toes gently, rotating the ankle, working on some standing poses."
Nick Statkiewicz, 15, of Glenview, was one of Sumar's first students and now works with Haddock. Nick came to his adoptive mother, Chris Statkiewicz, as a foster child of 3 with multiple diagnoses including autism and cognitive issues.
"Sometimes Nick's body and his emotions go in all different directions," Chris Statkiewicz said. "They said he'd never ride a bike, but he rides a bike. He shoots hoops. Yoga has helped him control his movements and limber up. There are times when he's all over the place, and I will see him use his yoga to pull it all together. I am still surprised, but I see him do it all by himself."
Statkiewicz believes every child should start the school day with yoga. "Think of how their days start. Get up. Get dressed. Eat. Get to school," she said. "The children are hurried from one thing to another, emotions flying, and then a teacher says to sit down and start learning."
In Kimberlee Goldsmith's class at Bogan High School in Chicago, her 13 special-needs students, including 10 with autism, begin each school day with 25 minutes of yoga.
Goldsmith added it to her class time three years ago after observing how schools in India use yoga. She also incorporates academics such as counting by fives into their yoga time, maybe holding a pose for 25 seconds.
"They are much more focused during their yoga, so whatever lesson we incorporate, they learn and remember better throughout the day," she said. "I have had many people inquire about what I do. There is not much written about it."
At Brown Elementary in Chicago, 30 students, including 10 with special needs, stay for an elective Wednesday after school hip-hop yoga program offered through Carla Tantillo's company, Mindful Practices, in Oak Park. A former teacher, Tantillo and her staff work with 20 schools, offering after school yoga programs. They also train teachers and staff to use yoga methods to calm their classes.
"The most powerful way to make a difference for special needs in a school setting is to train the auxiliary staff as well as the classroom teachers in calming methods, so everyone works as a team," she said. "Every teacher is telling kids to calm down, be quiet, not be hyper, in a different way. Special-needs learners require continuity. They are often not given the tools besides medication to control their behavior. A calming program that is the same from class to class can give them those tools."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun