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Adaptive Yoga

On Fifth Avenue at 100 street, carefree children play in the sun, watched by their parents in Central Park. Directly across the way is The Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital, where babies, children and young adults are living, often for months at a time, battling diseases. Sitting by their sides, tirelessly advocating, worrying and stressing,

It’s exactly these people that yoga teacher and Mount Sinai Auxiliary Board member, Joanna Sirulnick, and Mindfulness Meditation Instructor, Archimedes Bibiano, wanted to help with their unique Adaptive Yoga Program.

Now in its second year, this is part of the Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department. The program is designed to help patients and their caregivers explore the overriding theme of the mind/body connection and how it can help counteract the effects of everyday stress. For instance, how yoga poses like a simple seated twist or legs up the wall can help balance their nervous system and simple breathing techniques allow for calming conscious breathing.

Sirulnick, an Ashtanga trained teacher, says she “loves seeing how all types of yoga can be adapted and taught in its simplest form to benefit people no matter what their situation.” Benefits like finding more physical space to breathe can be found through teaching better postural alignment when sitting in a chair (her simplest version of modified chair pose).

Perhaps the coolest thing about the program is that instead of being a traditional yoga or meditation class, it’s a half hour show, broadcast live once a month from the hospital’s on-site television studio directly into the patient’s rooms through the hospital’s broadcasting network, Kidzone TV.

Sirulnick and Bibiano came up with the idea to use the broadcasting network because many of the patients in these 90 rooms are confined to their beds or rooms. The network allows them to reach as many as possible without asking parents to leave their children.

In order to promote their program, Bibiano takes time to stop into each room, pass out flyers, and let the families know the show will be airing shortly. After taping, he goes back to see if anyone has questions and often finds parents asking where they can go to do yoga. “Our role is really to plant the seed for these parents. To give them a little taste of the tools they have and hopefully will take with them to grow into something bigger,” Bibiano says.,

While Sirulnick and Bibiano both agree the ability to broadcast via KidZone TV is invaluable, they admit that because there is no way for them to know exactly who tunes in, it makes it hard to really know what kind of impact they’re having. Because of that, they were thrilled when they had the chance to invite a patient and her family to watch a live taping. Sirulnick says, “It was great to get that instant feedback seeing the relaxation in their bodies and on their faces. It was like, wow, we’re really making an impact!”

When creating a module, themes, like “Understanding the Breath” and “Small Postural Adjustments Go A Long Way,” Sirulnick and Bibiano wanted to make the sequences simple and easy to show parents that yoga isn’t something you have to step out of your life to do, but can be incorporated into whatever situation you’re in. Because of that the short 10-15 minute sequences are often shown standing or sitting in a chair and can even be done with shoes on.

They also understood it was vital to take into account the reality of the environment - a lot of continuously beeping machines, frequent interruptions by hospital staff and sleeping on uncomfortable chairs that turn into pull out beds. The latter was the inspiration for “Falling Asleep Effortlessly” and “Wake-up, Sunshine.”

In “Falling Asleep Effortlessly”, Sirulnick and Bibiano start with a discussion of how yoga breathing, especiallyfocusing on the exhalations, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you sleep. They follow with a restorative sequence done entirely on the bed to help show how easily the poses can be incorporated no matter where you’re sleeping. It begins in sukhasana to allow participants a chance to focus on the breath and connect to the relaxation response in their own bodies. They then move into a gentle seated twist to wring out the spine. Afterwards they take several minutes in each reclined bound angle, legs up the wall and childs pose before savasana.

Each sequence is followed by a short discussion. Afther the yoga portion of “How Does Stress Affect Your Body?” Sirulnick and Bibiano discuss the “fight or flight” response of stress on the nervous system and how the calming effect of grounding and getting in touch with the breath can counteract those effects.

As the program moves forward, they are excited about including high school students in a community service program that begins this fall. Sirulnick says, “We will be filming them doing various yoga poses that will be inserted into the segments. It will be a great opportunity for us to educate the students about health and wellness. It will also be a way for the patients to view the show and be able to identify with other teenagers who are participating.”

In the end, creating this sense of connection and community between those who might often feel isolated, stressed and scared might be just as important as teaching them about their breath.

-- Allison Richard

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