This past summer, I volunteered as a yoga teacher at the Kupu Kupu Foundation (http://www.yamp.com/kupukupu/), a center for mentally and physically disabled students located in Ubud, Bali. Kupu Kupu means butterfly, symbolizing the beautiful people they serve, who can start out in a cocoon and develop into beautiful butterflies. Kupu Kupu’s accomplishments, with Begonia Lopez at the helm, is impressive. Thus far, they have served over 250 people with disabilities through out Bali, they run stores which sell items created by Kupu Kupu students to generate more funding, and an on-site facility which provides educational care, often led by teaching volunteers in the arts as well as language teachers, has been a daily service for many.
Pulling up in the entryway to KupuKupu, one is greeted by tall trees and green vegetation along with the sound of birds and the occasional barking of a neighborhood dog. The main area where activities take place is an open-air room connecting nature with students at all times. Most activities are for everyone, regardless of ability, as Begonia believes that each child will benefit, regardless of their level or ability to participate in a given activity. Some students have very highly functioning mental capabilities but are paralyzed from the waist down and these physical attributes make it difficult to work in the “real world” as an adult. Others are strong and physically capable yet may be diagnosed as autistic.
While working with many students of varying disorders at once may appear difficult, the main obstacle I had as a yoga teacher was being able to communicate in their language so that the class exercises could be understood. The usual songs, games and stories I rely on in an American classroom had to be drastically tailored or other methods had to be discovered. Yoga poses which incorporated work with a ball, moving poses which worked with making breath sounds and chanting in Sanskrit (which many of them already knew) worked effectively and were easy enough to follow for everyone. I have to say that the students and the staff at Kupu Kupu were amongst the most open-minded, friendly and happy group I have worked with to date. Laughter was a most common sound during class!
I have worked with students with “special needs”, primarily autism, in a variety of settings in New York City and after my experience in Bali, I can’t help but think that a calm, relaxing, encouraging and natural environment is a recipe for progress when working with students with mental or physical disabilities. At Kupu Kupu, everyone is expected to perform to the best of her/his abilities at the present moment and whatever result is attained for the day is applauded. Happiness is a key goal here and I was seeing noticeable differences in the students after only class two. One eight year old student, a keen observer on day one with difficulty walking, began demonstrating log rolls and keeping his feet and back in a better alignment from one day to the next. Students who had trouble coordinating sound with finger movements were expert at class three. The combination of good teachers, a calm and relaxed environment and present-day acceptance were keys to success.
I have often found that the achievement-oriented mindset in New York (and other parts of the U.S.) seeps into attitudes when bringing students to class in the city. Are they getting better? How fast can the problem be fixed? are questions that often hover in the air. Though it is important to monitor progress and assess if treatments are headed in a positive and constructive direction, I can’t help but feel the pressure myself as a teacher to show that students have made great leaps and bounds in class one and if not, perhaps that student should do something else. On the other side, we have students with special needs overbooked into one activity after another designed to speed up progress. Classrooms are sometimes overcrowded and with simultaneous activities happening nearby, an activity center with a multitude of noises and distractions is created. Very recently, major construction with jack hammers was being made on the building during classtime so that teachers and students had to speak loudly for even the simplest of matters. How is someone with an attention deficit disorder supposed to improve rapidly in these types of conditions?
At Kupu Kupu, the atmosphere was relaxed, lingering on an activity such as puzzle work or playing a musical instrument for longer stretches of time with the quiet help of several assistants. If one student was disinterested, he/she had a few other related activities to choose from. Though a set schedule was in hand, the day was slow and allowed for rest at times as well. This time to process is vital in order for both the brain and the nervous system to digest new patterns.
I do feel that parents in New York have the absolute best intentions for his/her child’s well being. I write this in the hopes that we can look at how we are working with students with special needs and make simple changes that would be beneficial to both the student and teacher. I am sure some of these spaces already exist here.
When you can’t escape a noisy or other distracting environment, try out a simple yoga technique to help calm from within:
-Take 10 hissing breaths. Inhale through your nose, exhale and make an SSSSS sound. This will elicit an automatic relaxation response.
-If you are familiar with singing “aums”, try out 3-4 long ones. This will automatically elongate breathing to create a calm state of mind.
-Play calming sound or music in the background (to drown out other sounds) that is audible enough to hear but quiet enough so the teacher does not have to raise her/his voice.
Coincidentally, I was just given the book, “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Dr. Norman Doidge where some of these matters are covered—if you so choose to want to read more.