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Yoga for Happiness: Teaching Yoga to Adults with Disabilities

Julie Blomquist | May 27, 2014

My name is Julie Blomquist, and I have taught group fitness classes for more than fourteen years. I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in exercise science and fitness, and went on to teach high-energy cardio and strength-training classes, as well as personally training clients.

Two years ago, I enrolled in Moksha Yoga Center’s teacher training program to challenge myself, and look deeper into wellness through a different perspective. While I will always respect the energy of group fitness, yoga has changed my life and taught me the real meaning of health and happiness through fitness.

As I have transitioned out of traditional fitness and am pursuing yoga full-time, I am happier and more challenged than ever before. My awareness of my own body, as well as my students, is stronger than at any time before in my fitness career.

Yoga has taught me to slow down as an instructor, and take the time to notice students’ individual needs. My intention while teaching any class has always been to create a safe and fun space, and as a yoga teacher, I am better able to connect with individual students and use my creativity.

Teaching and practicing yoga I feel physically and mentally better than ever. My body feels strong without the aches and pains I was often battling in the past from teaching high-impact classes. Mentally, I feel more clear and focused, but the most significant shift has been my mood; I feel calm and happy, and yoga has become a love and way of life. Sharing this love with others is truly a gift.

In the beginning of teacher training, I recall Moksha founder Daren Friesen saying, “Teaching yoga is a honor. As a new teacher, you should not be concerned about getting paid.” He encouraged us teacher trainees to find an organization we felt a connection with and experience volunteer teaching.

Soon after this discussion, I attended an event at The Arts of Life. The Arts of Life is an organization comprised of people with and without disabilities, that are creating an artist environment and culture to help these special people realize their full potential.

The artists each have a personal workspace and volunteers work closely with the artists on setting goals and challenging their latest projects. The studio is a large industrial building located in the West Loop full of art, love, and wonderful people. The Arts of Life was the first program in Chicago to provide employment in the arts for adults with developmental disabilities. The studio serves as both an alternative day program and creative home for its artists.

Upon the first time stepping into the facility, I knew it was a special space of extra special people and I wanted to get involved. I approached the director with my idea, and within a week, I became the resident yoga instructor, volunteering to teach two classes a week to the artists.

Teaching yoga to this demographic was extremely challenging in the beginning. Class size was as many as 15 students and I was on my own as the teacher. Five minutes felt like an hour. Getting their attention and keeping it was so difficult. The first months I questioned if I could continue. I was faced with issues like outbursts, temper tantrums, bathroom accidents, and fighting. But with all these challenges, there was so much love and gratitude, I refused to give up.

Fast forward to the present; I now look forward to my classes at the Arts of Life. As time went on, I developed individual relationships with my students and trust and respect was built. When I now enter the studio, I hear my students throughout the room happily cheering, “Yoga time!” They grab their mats and we gather together in our practice space. They always greet me with hugs and affection. We start in silent meditation for a few minutes before moving into a series of gentle stretches. They are always anxious to get to their favorite part of practice, sun salutations!

After teaching here for a while, I began to notice what keeps their attention best. They connect with a consistent practice and love memorizing the patterns of sun salutations. They like that they know what is next. When I say “sun salutation B” and the group enthusiastically responds “chair pose,” I am still delightfully amazed. A few of my regular students sometimes take turns leading sun salutations and they do an incredible job. They proudly share with me how they practice and teach yoga to their family and friends outside of the studio.

We always end our practice in savasana and one of my star students, David Krueger, often requests to lead this portion of class. When he does so, I lay back and relax with the rest of the class, enjoying Dave’s peaceful words. His themes are always authentic, asking students to close their eyes and meditate on everything from loved ones to the solar system. He never forgets to instruct, “thumb to the third eye” as we as a group chant “Namaste.”

Volunteering at the Arts of Life as a teacher started off as a place to practice teaching with a special needs group. Two years later, it is a part of my life that I can’t imagine living without. My Arts of Life students embody everything that is yoga. They are full of love, happiness, and gratitude. I truly am their yoga teacher, and they are mine

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