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Cantalician Center using yoga to help children with developmental disabilities

The center was recently awarded a $20,000 grant to expand yoga services and obtain research on the effects of the program.

CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. — There's focused breathing, different poses and the meditation and silence that you might expect with a regular yoga class, but there's also colorful equipment, running around, and noise that's not so typical.

The yoga program at the Cantalician Center is different, and it's working to calm and center children of all ages with developmental disabilities.

"Once they're up and moving and doing all of that, then you start integrating the breathing, and you see the energy level come down,"said Vito Gigante, head of occupational therapy at the Cantalician Center. "That's how we teach the kids to bring the energy up and bring the energy down," 

Simple movements and breathing can help shift negative energy. 

The center serves nearly 350 students from all across Western New York. They range in age from 2 1/2 to 21 and have various abilities and challenges in their lives.

Gigante recalls one student who had a particularly difficult time calming down. He battled anger issues and would try to harm himself. Nothing seemed to work well, but then Gigante tried yoga with him, and he was amazed at the results.

"That's when I felt the difference. I could feel it [the negative energy] coming off of him. I could feel his body relax. I could see him start to utilize his breath to help prevent him from having behavioral overreactions," Gigante said. "Then those emotions and feelings that are swirling around inside of him that would explode before, now he's gaining some more control over them. And that's really a tool that he could use for the rest of his life."

The Children's Guild Foundation recently awarded the center with a $20,000 grant to expand its yoga services. 

Some of the money will be used to buy more equipment, like yoga mats and Hoberman's spheres and meditation balls which help kids focus on their breathing.

The grant will also be used to pay for training for staff and parents/caregivers so they can learn simple techniques that can help the students with sensory integration and self-regulation.

"The yoga really gives them a tool, just through breathing and some simple movements, just through the ability to relax, lets them learn how to meditate and be in the moment where they can really calm and center," Gigante said.

More than 40 teachers, therapists, and teacher assistants have been trained so far.

"You don't have to do a full yoga class to provide mindfulness or movement opportunities or breathing opportunities," Gigante said. "You can weave it into your school day,"  

There's a designated space at the center where kids can practice yoga. They sometimes take a full class. Others times, it's just for a few minutes during their day.

A portion of the grant money will also be used for a study with the University at Buffalo to research the impact that movement and mindfulness have on students with developmental disabilities.

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