Inside the gymnasium of P.S.811x, in the East Morrisania section of the Bronx, Martha Gold weaved her way around 50 yoga mats, adjusting the poses of her students. “Hug your knee, give it a big kiss, and say ‘I’m perfect just the way I am,'” she chirped, eliciting a chorus of giggles.

For most New Yorkers, yoga, with its deep stretches and wicked bends, can be difficult. But at P.S.811x, which enrolls children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities, it’s uniquely challenging. With limited range of motion, many of the students here can’t eat or dress on their own. Several are confined to wheelchairs.

On this day, however, the room was astir with moving limbs as the students took to their mats. After a decade or two of working its way into New York’s mainstream, yoga is now flowing into the city’s District 75, an umbrella classification for the classes and schools that serves students with brain damage, autism and other developmental, behavioral or psychological disabilities. Physical therapists at these schools are beginning to discover the benefits of the practice, and some estimate that nearly half the schools offer a yoga class. Not long ago, that percentage was close to zero.

The advantages of yoga for healthy people are well-documented: increased strength, flexibility and relaxation. But for the child with developmental disabilities, the benefits are perhaps greater. Heightened sensory awareness, vocalization skills and breathing capacity are just a few.

“A lot of these children have a reduced respiratory system,” said Joe Cattelona, a physical therapist at P.S.138m, a District 75 program in East Harlem. “Yoga gives them better oxygenation to the blood, which circulates to their brain and allows them to breathe in ways they don’t normally do.”

By prompting the brain to release serotonin and dopamine, yoga also helps lower the heightened anxiety that’s characteristic of children with cerebral palsy, said Susan Flynn, an occupational therapist at P.S.10x in the Bronx.

Last month, Mayor Bloomberg frightened education advocates by announcing that budget cuts could lead to the elimination of 14,000 education jobs. Some feared that the city’s physical education programs — which include District 75 yoga classes — might also be impacted. But because of the newly approved stimulus package, which is expected to endow the city with more than $1 billion for education — including a large portion for special-needs education — many of those fears have been put to rest.

Even if education cuts were made, yoga programs and other physical education classes wouldn’t have taken much of a hit, said Director of Fitness and Health Education Lori Rose Benson. A reason for this, she said, is that her office is largely funded by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in a collaborative effort to fight childhood obesity.

Under the seven-year chancellorship of Joel Klein, “a significant” amount of money has been injected into the department’s physical education budget for the first time in decades, said Benson. The money has gone toward equipment, training programs and — in the case of District 75 — a newly appointed physical education director and new outreach efforts with Special Olympics officials.
The surge of yoga within District 75 — which comprises 56 schools — is primarily thanks to Gold, a physical therapist who arrived at P.S.811x, also known as the Academy for Career and Living Skills, several years ago. One day she introduced a number of poses to four students in class. A few weeks later, six others joined. Eventually, the sessions outgrew the classroom.

In 2004, Gold and three colleagues began offering weekly workshops for other special-education professionals in the city. The workshops eventually reached 200 therapists and teachers, many of whom immediately began implementing programs with their own students.

“After that, it spread like wildfire,” recalled Katherine Deats, who co-taught that workshop and is now a yoga instructor for two District 75 schools in Manhattan. “These kids have such a hard time succeeding in anything,” Deats said. “But they can go to yoga and succeed. If you can breathe and chant, you succeed.”

Gold, a Queens native in her later 30s, is a slight woman, shy, with jet-black hair, siren-red lipstick and a penchant for bright velvet jumpsuits. Popular among fellow teachers, she’s known for the enormous audio speaker she rolls to and from yoga class each day like a worn-out suitcase. She greets colleagues in the hallway by clasping her hands in prayer, bowing down and politely saying “Namaste,” a Sanskrit greeting of deep respect. The teachers return the gesture.

Luis Quintana, the school’s assistant principal, said he’s grateful for Gold’s vision. “I see a decrease in aggressive-violent behaviors among the children immediately after her class,” Quintana said.

“Martha is one hard-working woman who puts her heart and soul into helping children,” said Debra Krasinski, a Columbia University professor and physical therapist, who each year invites Gold to give a yoga workshop to her doctoral students.

Gold also runs her workshops for other physical and occupational therapists, special education teachers and nurses across the city. She offers training sessions to members of the District 75 PTA, as well as educating skeptics who worry yoga is too religious for their children. “It’s not religious, it’s spiritual,” says Gold, who one day wants to open a studio where able-bodied and disabled children can come together to practice yoga in order to learn the value of acceptance.

“If you take the physical body and all of its limitations out of the equation and get down to the level of the soul, we are all equal and ideal,” she said.

– John H. Tucker