Supporting Individuals with Special Needs
By Beth Peterson / Photos by Josh Manning / Jericho 7 Films
Navasana, or “boat,” seems to be a favorite pose among the students at Shine Yoga. Or perhaps it’s just a favorite on this particular late-summer day. After all, today’s yoga class is Disney-themed, and the amusement park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, is on everyone’s mind as each participant works to perfect boat pose. Theme music from the popular water ride plays softly in the background, and as he balances successfully into position, one enthusiastic student quips, “Dead men tell no tales!” His witty remark elicits a smile from Diana Taggart, founder and owner of Shine Yoga. Shine students are encouraged to communicate, and it’s a good sign when one of them feels comfortable enough to crack a joke.
While the cicadas and the rest of the world thrum frantically outside, inside the Shine Yoga studio all is calm and cool. The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming. Even if Taggart hadn’t so aptly named her studio, the goal of each Shine Yoga class is clear: Geared toward individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD), Taggart’s hope is that each student can be “comfortable being their true, authentic self, letting their inner light shine bright.” Along with the benefit of improving flexibility and physical fitness, her yoga classes are designed to empower individuals with I/DD.
“There’s not a lot for people with disabilities to do during the day,” says Jenny S., whose adult special-needs daughter receives a private lesson from Taggart each week. “Diana is really good at adapting things for people. She has about 12 different ways to do every single pose.” Jenny was convinced the yoga was doing good things for her daughter when she observed her daughter’s growing ability to calm her body during class, which is typically a struggle for her.
In addition to hosting sessions in her own studio, Taggart travels once a week to the Raleigh location of Gigi’s Playhouse, a Down Syndrome Achievement Center, where she teaches a teen yoga class. Parent Karen M., whose 16-year-old daughter attends, was “blown away” by how well Taggart connected with the class participants. “She does such a good job,” Karen says, adding, “It can be physically challenging, but Diana scales to everyone’s ability.” Her daughter loved the class at Gigi’s so much that Karen signed her up for a second class at Shine Yoga. Karen especially appreciates how Taggart encourages each student to find his or her “voice.” They take turns leading favorite poses, closing class, and choosing a theme for the next class.
In addition to the Disney-themed class, Taggart has designed whole classes around her students’ choices. Once, for example, she held a baseball-themed class in which she “pitched” poses to students, who then scored runs when they completed a yoga pose successfully. Taggart has even held a Jimmy Fallon–themed class, in which hilarity certainly ensued.
“It gives [students] a sense of empowerment,” Karen shares. For a population that has so much decided for them, “[having a choice] seems like such a little thing, but it can be pretty big sometimes.”
When asked to describe Taggart’s home-based Cary studio, warm and comforting are commonly used by the parents of Shine Yoga students. Taggart has been teaching from her home for two years, and she feels that for her clients—over half of which are on the autism spectrum—a “homey feel” is as important to the success of the class as any other element. “Individuals with disabilities need that so much,” Taggart states, noting that it’s more comfortable to come into someone’s home than attend a class held at a loud gym.
Another mother, Judy C., has a son with autism who attends class twice a week at Taggart’s home studio. “It does wonders for him,” Judy says. “Anyone on the spectrum suffers stress and anxiety; yoga helps him with calmness and a sense of peace.” Judy adds that her son will often go to his room to calm himself, practicing the breathing techniques he learned at Shine Yoga. She appreciates Taggart’s focus on social skills as well, since her son was non-verbal until age 6 and still sometimes struggles with communication. Once when Taggart asked for a volunteer to close class, she was delighted to see her son raise his hand and say, “I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” Judy knew then that he was comfortable and he felt accepted. “It has given him a lot of confidence.”
Taggart’s Shine Yoga studio really does. Shine, that is. And so do her students. And really, who wouldn’t, with daily affirmations such as the one Taggart uses to begin each and every class? “I am special, I am loved, I am unique,” they say in unison, both to themselves and to each other. “It’s so important for people to remember to think positively about themselves,” Taggart asserts.
Jenny’s daughter is non-verbal, but she obviously understands Taggart’s daily affirmations. “[My daughter] has a sense of who likes her, and she likes Diana because she knows Diana likes her,” says Jenny.
Diana Taggart has attained many certifications: She is an experienced registered yoga teacher, E-RYT 200; a Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP); and a You Call This Yoga teacher, and has racked up more than 1,000 teaching hours in the last three years. She’s also a graduate of Slippery Rock University, where she majored in Community Programs for Americans with Disabilities.
For more information on class offerings visit: Facebook.com/shine.yoga.llc.
(Editor’s note: Surnames are omitted to protect the privacy of individuals and their families.)