Life of the Mind

"Yoga Isn't Boring"

PT professors and students examine benefits of yoga-based movement for people with developmental disabilities

by Chris Farnum

Nearly a dozen young adults with developmental disabilities lie on their backs in a circle on purple yoga mats. A small stuffed animal rests on each person’s belly.

Physical therapy (PT) graduate students, supervised by professors, designed and lead the yoga-based wellness class, instructing the participants to focus on lifting their “breathing buddy” animal as their belly rises with each inhale.

Having cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, or an intellectual disability can limit people’s mobility, body awareness, and social interactions. But research by the PT professors and graduate students at Nazareth College, published in the Spring 2014 issue of Pediatric Physical Therapy journal, finds that physical therapist-led wellness activities based on yoga can help this population move better and feel better. Participants said the gentle stretches, poses, and focused breathing helped them relax and feel less stressed.

The research, which continues with follow-up studies, advances evidence-based knowledge in the field and may prompt others to use yoga-based movements with such clients. The work at Nazareth also provides opportunities for faculty to mentor students, for PT students to get experience with people who are differently abled, and for the College to serve the community.

“This is an opportunity for faculty to role-model with students the researcher role within a profession, to collaborate with students, and really explore an issue on a deeper level,” says lead author Jennifer Collins, PT, MPA, Ed.D., professor and then-chairperson of the PT department.

The project is an example of how Nazareth is leading the way in working with people who are differently abled, says Collins, as recognized by the Golisano Foundation’s $100,000 donation in May toward Nazareth College’s project to build a new Wellness and Rehabilitation Institute. The on-campus facility, opening in 2015, will enhance education of the next generation of health care professionals trained to work in inter-professional teams to meet the needs of people of all ability levels.

The study participants are part of LifePrep@Naz, an on-campus transition program for college-age individuals with disabilities. Nazareth College, Victor Central School District, and The Arc of Monroe County started the program in 2011.

The first LifePrep@Naz PT study followed seven ambulatory participants through an eight-week program of 45-minute classes twice per week. By the end, the participants were able to get up from lying on the floor more quickly and their mobility improved, measured by a walk-and-turn test.

Posture improved dramatically for one young man. Five of the other six participants improved head or hip alignment, but not to a statistically significant degree. Sitting and standing taller exudes confidence and makes people more approachable, providing social as well as physical benefits, says study co-author Michelle Donahue ’02, ‘03G, PT, DPT, PCS, clinical assistant professor and director of clinical education in PT at Nazareth College.

Collins points out that individuals with developmental differences tend to be sedentary. Their disability may make it hard to understand verbal directions or to feel at ease in a traditional fitness class. Or they may be uncomfortable sweating and therefore avoid exercise. PTs have expertise in helping people restore or improve motion, particularly those with multiple developmental challenges.

Making a difference

Research by physical therapists is important because PTs are members of inter-professional teams who help people with mental and/or physical disabilities, but specific intervention protocols to improve mobility and emotional wellbeing haven’t been well established, according to Nazareth PT students’ review of the current published research.

About 4.5 million people in the United States have a developmental disability. If they don’t exercise regularly as young adults, they increase their risk of early muscle weakness, hip dislocation and arthritis, obesity, and other problems.

At least five PT students and faculty were in the room during each class, allowing one-on-one encouragement of participants, side-by-side demonstrating, and hands-on positioning help.

Joining Collins and Donahue as co-authors on the study were four graduate students: Kelsey Evans ’11, ’13G; Jill Wolf Michaloski ’13G, Allison Kras ’11, ’13G; and Birgit Eckstrom ’11, ’13G. Evans presented the findings at a poster session at the American Physical Therapy Association’s Combined Sections Meeting attended by more than 11,000 in Las Vegas in February.

“[The study] was the most rewarding thing I’ve done,” says Evans, who now works as a land and aquatic physical therapist at Maryland SportsCare & Rehab. She loved seeing the LifePrep@Naz participants eagerly learn and feel better. She gained time management and team skills from working with fellow PT students and enjoyed working closely with the faculty as colleagues. “It really helped prepare me for life.”

As part of the B.S./D.P.T. program at Nazareth, all students complete a two-year research project with a faculty member, and more than 70 percent of these are accepted for presentation at state and national professional conferences.

In the yoga-based projects, Collins and Donahue challenged the PT students to come up with the most appropriate study design and progress measurements and guided students in how to adapt to the participants’ needs. Collins and Donahue provided resources such as yoga cards that equated poses to animals or easy-to-visualize images such as a waterfall for a body bend. The professors also helped the PT students see how to use each other’s strengths to benefit the research project.

As the PT students and professors continue to hold weekly yoga classes for LifePrep students, Donahue says, “This is one of the things I look forward to the most in my week.”

The participants like it, too. Kayla Hansen, who relies on a power wheelchair most of the time, appreciates having faculty and students with the knowledge to safely get her onto a mat and support her through yoga movements.

“Especially being in a wheelchair 24/7, it helps me to move around,” she says, adding that the class is relaxing. “Yoga isn’t boring.”

Kiera Sullivan, another participant, says, “It’s really fun, being out with new people and getting to talk to them.” The stretches and poses make her feel calm, she adds. Her favorite is child’s pose, a resting position that starts with kneeling on the floor, then bending forward. “It makes your back feel better.”

The next step is investigating whether the results were particular to these movements, says Donahue: “Was it the yoga, or would any type of structured exercise have a similar impact?”

This summer, PT students are leading and studying one group from LifePrep@Naz in yoga-based classes weekly and another group in fitness classes that include weight lifting, aerobic activity, and stretching.

Chris Farnum is the content writer and editor in Nazareth’s marketing department.

Jennifer Collins yoga class

Jennifer Collins (top right), professor of physical therapy, oversees research projects on yoga-based activities for the differently abled. 

Watch WXXI's video about yoga with LifePrep@Naz students (the segment starts about 22 minutes in). 

For more information on the physical therapy program, visit