As far as Emily Davidson, MD, MPH, RYT, is concerned, claiming to not like yoga is like saying you don’t like food. “There’s a really big range of what kinds of yoga practices you can do,” she explains.
Davidson, who is the director of Boston Children’s Down syndrome Program, speaks from personal experience. She started practicing yoga in 1998 after she was diagnosed with coronary artery disease and discovered that, along with improving her flexibility and strength, yoga helped manage the stress of her diagnosis and treatment.
In fact, she liked it so much that she went on to complete a 200-hour yoga teaching program and set out to offer her patients with Down syndrome the same benefits she got from practicing it by launching a yoga class at Boston Children’s Primary Care at Martha Eliot.
Like most of the children in Davidson’s weekly class, 10-year-old Delilah Sheehan was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth. Delilah has a cognitive disability but it doesn’t get in her way. “It’s been great with her,” her mother Julie says. “The struggles we have with Delilah are not much different from the struggles that we’ve had with her younger sisters and I can count on her to be responsible.”
Part of that may be because Delilah studies in an inclusion setting—meaning that typically developing children and children with disabilities are in classes together full-time. Among other things, inclusion settings can help children like Delilah model appropriate behavior, form close friendships with typically developing children and access education in their communities instead of traveling long distances or being home-schooled.
And while that’s a setting Julie is happy to see Delilah in, it doesn’t cover all of Delilah’s needs, including physical therapy to improve her muscle tone and balance. “Those are things that she certainly needs—that we all need really—but that are especially important for kids with Down syndrome and that she wasn’t getting at the school,” Julie explains. “And of course we didn’t want to pull her out of those classes.”
When they found out about Davidson’s class, they knew they had found a solution. Since she’s started practicing, Delilah’s strength, agility and flexibility have all improved and, in her mother’s eyes, it’s also given her a sense of success and community. “The other kids in the program, they’re like a family that she interacts with who understand her in their own way,” Julie says.
Yoga can do more than increase flexibility and strength, and improve posture. Yoga and meditation can decrease the physiological and cognitive effects of stress; it reduces cortisol levels and improves memory. Because most yoga programs designed for the physically fit, Davidson’s class at Martha Eliot focuses on poses and routines that are accessible to anyone with a basic level of fitness.
“Dr. Davidson is wonderful and nurturing and very calm with the kids in a way I don’t know I could be,” Julie says. “She’s very patient.”
To keep things light, Davidson incorporates something she likes to call Yoga Freeze Dance; she will play music her class requests—music from Disney’s Frozen is especially popular—and then call out poses when the music stops. “It’s helpful to do things they just find fun,” she says. “One of the biggest benefits of yoga for everyone is that it helps you recognize how you’re feeling and deal with the stress of your treatment.”
That’s something 13-year-old Joey Giuffre needed. Joey has Down syndrome and is non-verbal: he signs and uses an adaptive device for communication. Despite problems with motor control and muscle strength, he has played baseball and soccer for a Special Olympics team, takes tap and jazz classes, and Adaptive Dance lessons at Boston Ballet.
Even with his success, his mother Nancy explains, he gets stressed when he’s not sure if he’s doing something right. “He doesn’t say anything, but it can affect his self-esteem when he knows he’s not doing exactly what people around him are doing,” she says.
At first, it was the same for the yoga class. But, between the visual cues from other people in the class, Davidson’s relaxed demeanor and the one-on-one attention from class assistants, it wasn’t long before Joey started practicing yoga on his own at home using instruction cards that student volunteers in Davidson’s class had prepared for him.
“He’s a lot more relaxed not because he knows that his downward-facing dog doesn’t look exactly like the girl next to him,” Nancy says. “He can’t do all the poses so it’s not perfect. But it’s Joey perfect.”
Dr. Davidson leads weekly inclusive yoga classes on Monday and Friday evenings from 4:45-5:45pm at the Martha Eliot Health Center.