All photos: Kendra Keetch
When my daughter was born she cried all the time. I really mean she cried all the time. Constantly. It didn’t just seem that way to me because I was a new and single mother. Ask anyone. She cried all the time.
I couldn’t figure it out because she was fed, changed, clean. I played with her, snuggled her. There was no reason for her to be so cranky all the time. After she was born I didn’t sleep for close to 5 years because her sleep patterns were erratic and she was unable to self soothe.
It wasn’t until June 2013 that I finally learned the reason why she cried so much all the time: Autism. Dr. Smith confirmed this for us and I cried when he told us. I suppose I always knew there had to be something, I mean, I wasn’t the worst parent in the world, far from it I hoped, so why was she so upset all the time. There was something internal triggering her anxiety. And there it was: Autism. Saying it over again doesn’t make it better. Or worse. It is what it is.
Now we knew. Now we could take steps to manage her symptoms and support her in whatever ways she needed. I understood now. Her needs were going to be different from other children’s or my own and they were going to vary week to week, day to day, hour to hour.
I immediately began to read everything I could get my hands on that related to autism and especially autism in girls. I learned that girls with autism often slip through the cracks in school systems because they are naturally compliant and want to fit in. They don’t exhibit many of the outwardly disruptive behaviours that autistic boys do.
There had to be something that would help with the crying and her anxiety. I had read something somewhere about yoga and autism and I had the feeling that this might be the key. I read that in children with autism yoga can help develop motor skills, improve confidence and social skills, provide sensory integration and coping techniques, facilitate self-awareness and is orderly and consistent (ie class scheduled at the same time, same room, same teacher etc.) (www.mindbodygreen.com). All these were the exact things that Harper needed support with. All these were things that would improve with her yoga practice. I decided I didn’t have a choice: I had to make Yoga happen in Rama.
I researched and experimented with Yoga at home to ease the anxiety in my daughter and myself and I knew that yoga had been proven to help autistic children, but I soon found that I wasn’t skilled, knowledgeable nor disciplined enough to foster real results, so I began looking for a way to bring a professional into the mix. I knew that if I could get my daughter into a consistent long term yoga practice she would begin to feel better and learn how to calm and relax herself when she felt the anxiety bubbling over. I also knew that yoga could benefit anyone. Anyone dealing with addiction or trauma or health problems like diabetes could come to yoga and begin to feel better. I had a feeling yoga could become a big thing in Rama. I started with my home reserve and all the departments within. The Recreation Department didn’t have the budget or the staff to devote to a yoga program and told me that when they tried yoga before “no one came”. I thought “That’s crazy. Who wouldn’t want to come to yoga especially if it was free?!” I tried Health and Social Services next, but their reply was similar: no staff and no money. I realized quickly that if this was going to happen I would have to make it happen on my own. Rama wasn’t able get on board yet. I began by researching yoga teachers and studios in the area and there were a few. I asked around to some of my yogi friends, professional contacts who had experience running community yoga programs and got an excellent recommendation for Rebecca Bolden. Rebecca was immediately on board with my idea to help our autistic families as well as their families and friends. She was open to what I was trying to do and was very flexible with her scheduling and rates so this program could happen. I mentioned to our community’s autism family support worker from Austin Ontario what I was trying to find and he suggested I contact Autism Ontario about a grant for a community yoga program. I was compelled: Why not bring yoga to the masses? I asked myself. Why not share all yoga has to offer? So I got in touch the Autism Ontario Simcoe Chapter. Originally they granted me $800 to bring an instructor to Rama for six one hour Parent and child yoga classes. They wanted me to charge each participant $25 to attend the program, but I told them that simply was not going to happen. I wanted Yoga to be available to everyone and if there was a $25 fee then it wouldn’t be available to everyone, it would only be available to those with money. I also wanted to open the program up to families and friends of Autism Ontario members for free. I ended up with $600 from Autism Ontario to run the first ever (I think. I at least had never heard of one or been to one in Rama before) Parent and Child Yoga Program in Rama. Since this was an experiment we opened the classes up to all skill levels and all age groups. Registration took off! Within days I had filled each spot (we limited it to 10 spots) and had started a waiting list. I was so excited and felt so grateful that Rebecca came on board to help us and that people signed up and showed up!
What ended up happening was a class of total beginners and a class of just mothers and daughters. That’s just the way it worked out and it was amazing. I was nervous when the first class started because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do all the moves. I am, after all, what you would call a plus sized girl and I’m not at all bendy, but I was here for my daughter so I decided to just totally go for it. What I found, and I think what everyone in the class found was that yoga is accessible to everyone, whatever your skill level and at whatever point you are at on your journey to health and wellness. These realizations were instant and met simultaneously with the realization that I could, in fact, do this. After the first class with Rebecca, after acting like jungle animals and breathing and posing and singing and Namaste-ing I was completely hooked. I needed yoga in my life. We all do.
I was super stoked because I could do yoga, physically, my body would allow it if my mind willed it. Also, my daughter was learning about her breath and how breathing deeply and steadily helped her feel better. Other Mothers and Daughters in the class were learning to bond and attach to eachother if they hadn’t already and they were learning about how to engage themselves and their children in healthy activities. They were also learning about breathing and balance and strength. Healthy activities. For families. For free.
The first night we all left the class on a new plane, on a higher level and with deeper respect, understanding and appreciation for ourselves, our bodies and eachother. We’d all gotten some exercise, got our blood pumping but above all, we had fun and all of us could not wait until next week.
What started out as a therapy tool for my autistic daughter turned into something even better, something more than I could have imagined: a successful, long term, oversubscribed yoga PROGRAM in Rama. I’m super proud of and super grateful to everyone who got involved and stayed involved. We continue to fundraise for continued programming and work towards the ultimate dream of a Yoga Centre in Rama: YogaRama™. Keeping the dream alive…