Stories and Testimonials

Special kids love yoga

Library program a surprising success


Yoga has become very popular in recent years, but does it work for youngsters with special needs, including attention deficit disorder? 

"Believe me, the idea does raise some questions," said Elsie Jimenez-Echevarria, a North Bergen resident who is a yoga instructor with the Center for Holistic Intervention. "People say, 'No way.' They think it's too much and that the kids are over-stimulated." 

However, if those skeptics witnessed the eight-week program for special needs children that was recently completed at the North Bergen Free Public Library, they would have been blown away.

DOING THE BOAT – Nine-year-old Andrew Cruz displays the boat position as part of the yoga class.

NB - CHI Yoga - Andrew Cruz

Because not only were the 12 youngsters in tune with instructor Jimenez-Echevarria; they were attentive, well-behaved, and thoroughly happy.

Their parents were into it as well. They especially had to participate in the final 15 minutes of the 90-minute class, where the children are calmed through a soothing foot massage. 

"The parents have to be complete participants," said Jimenez-Echevarria, who works full-time for the Jersey City Board of Education and has been integrating yoga into the Jersey City school curriculum over the last two years. "If not, then the child cannot be involved." 

Some of the parents don't mind, because seeing their children with attention deficit disorder actually become calmed and controlled meant the world to them.

'A gift from God'

"It is wonderful, a gift from God," said Carmen Cruz, whose 9-year-old son Andrew participated in the class. "He's been wonderful." 

"It was so much fun," Andrew Cruz said. "It's always fun to exercise. I'm now more flexible and more athletic. Sometimes, it's good to be peaceful. This is the first time I tried yoga and I made myself more flexible. When I first started, I didn't know what I was doing. But now, I like it a lot and I'm going to do more of it in the future." Jimenez-Echevarria said that Andrew didn't say much at all when the class started. Now, he was conducting interviews with newspaper reporters. 

The program is specifically geared toward the child with special needs. This particular class of children featured needs of all varieties, from a 6-year-old who was born with spina bifida to an autistic child to a handful with an attention deficit. 

"We have all types of special needs kids in the same class," Jimenez-Echevarria said. "It is a challenge, but we're able to study the yoga, the methodology, and still have a good time. In Jersey City, we don't call it yoga, because it brings about a religious tone. We call it the Alternate Behavior Program. But it's the same as yoga. Whatever we do with the adults, we do with the children."

Interesting positions

During the class, the children were taught a series of different stretches and limber positions, like the "boat," which Andrew Cruz did to perfection. He locked his hands to grip his ankles while lying on his stomach and stretched every muscle with ease. 

Throughout the bending and stretching, incense was burning and the lights were dimmed to cause a less stressful atmosphere. Soft music played to enhance the relaxation. 

Seeing kids who were at one point running around and acting extremely hyper to actually calm down and remain on their respective mats was a sight to behold. 

Laila Abbasi of Guttenberg was attending the class with her 9-year-old son Zain, who is autistic. Doctors told Laila when Zain was just 2 years old that he would never have any language skills. 

"But he's now one of the group here," Abbasi said. "He's 100 percent responsive. He's learning. This has been beyond a treat." 

Abbasi has had so much success with her son that she's went out and purchased yoga DVDs to practice at home. "I never thought this was possible," Abbasi said. "It's hard for him that the class is coming to an end. He doesn't want to go anywhere else. He knows the North Bergen Library so well and feels comfortable here." 

Laila said that Zain has improved so much that he is now an honor student at Anna L. Klein School. 

"He loves doing yoga," Laila Abbasi said. "He waits for the classes and has to be here every class." 

Karla Giron is a teacher at North Bergen's Horace Mann School. She took her 7-year-old daughter, Karlissa, to the weekly classes. 

"It's a great experience for the kids," Giron said. "Seeing these kids come together is amazing. I didn't know if it would work for every child, but I had faith. This opened Karlissa up in many different aspects, emotionally, physically. It motivated her to try to do new things. She has so much energy and we needed to do something to calm her down. This really works." 

Bernice Aguilar has a son, Gabriel, who was born with spina bifida and has had to endure several operations. The affable Gabriel is wheelchair bound and has no movement below his waist, but that didn't stop him from participating. 

"I wanted to put him in the classes to see if he could develop extra movement," Aguilar said. "He's enjoying the classes. When he first started, he was a little timid, but now, he's into it." 

Gabriel Aguilar attends regular school at the Lincoln School Annex. 

"I liked being here," young Gabriel said with a broad smile. "It was a lot of fun." 

"I was curious to see what he would be able to do," Bernice Aguilar said. "Since he is not able to use his legs, I was interested as to what it was going to do to help him. But it was really great. He felt really relaxed and I got him to focus on my eyes, which he never did before. He was seriously looking into my eyes. It was very peaceful and calm and very controlled." 

As the class wound down, Jimenez-Echevarria asked the class if they were ready for "final relaxation," which constituted the final 15 minutes of the class. 

"Who wants a foot massage?" the instructor asked. 

"Me," the entire class exclaimed, as if for candy or ice cream.

Relaxing moment

The lights were now turned out entirely and the parents made their way to the respective mats, putting oils on their hands to massage the feet of their children. The kids were asked to close their eyes. 

"Try to imagine you're in a very special place," Jimenez-Echevarria told the children. "Just allow yourself to be peaceful." 

Zain Abbasi wore a blindfold, like the ones worn in old movies when people went to sleep. 

"He has trouble closing his eyes," his mother explained. 

For 15 minutes, one could hear a pin drop in the room as the children had their feet and legs massaged by their mothers or fathers. The relaxation was intense. There's no way in the world you would have figured these kids to have special needs of any kind. They were as peaceful as sleeping infants. 

"It really is amazing," said Sai Rao, the executive director of the North Bergen Free Public Library, who watched the entire final class. "It really does make a big difference in the children's behavior. I never thought children would sit through a yoga class. I certainly never thought special needs children. But Elsie came to me and wanted to give it a try. I was very excited about it. All special needs children have problems. I think we were blessed to be able to present this opportunity. It was truthfully better than I could have ever expected." 

Rao called the program "the most unique and most satisfying program we've had." 

"It takes the library to a new dimension," Rao said.

Coming back

Rao said that the library will offer the program again in September. That was music to the ears of the parents involved. 

"I hope they do it again and again and again," Abbasi said. "I can't even begin to express my gratitude." 

"I think the best thing about it is that we can take it home and use it at home," Giron said. "I might even try it in the classroom in the fall." 

Jimenez-Echevarria was amazed with the results of the eight-week experiment. 

"It was so fulfilling," Jimenez-Echevarria said. "It was so much fun watching the kids. It really was amazing and very encouraging. I think they were excited that they could take it home with them."

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either

©The Hudson Reporter 2007