NEW PORT RICHEY
It's a morning metamorphosis — one that starts with a gaggle of energetic students racing to the wrestling room at River Ridge High School, eager to get on with it.
"Come on in, find a mat and go right into mouse position," greets adaptive PE teacher Lauren Embury as her charges offer up smiles and hugs before claiming their spot.
One by one they fall into position. A couple remain in their wheelchairs, sifting through yoga flash cards. Others move to their yoga mats and sit on their knees. Arms stretch back toward their feet, palms facing upward. Foreheads reach toward the floor.
"Okay, today we're going to Hawaii," Embury says, as she pushes the play button and the sound of rolling waves and a lilting ukulele rushes through the room.
This is the time to relax and focus and pay attention to your body, Embury says as she weaves her way through the class offering instruction. "Take a deep breath in, then let it out."
Before long mouse pose moves into peacock.
"Remember, this is where we imagine ourselves as birds with great big feathers," Embury says.
After that comes cat, cow, downward dog and butterfly.
"Feel that stretch in your shoulder blades."
Embury's students are well into their second year of taking yoga class and doing pretty well, showing steady progress in manipulating most all of the poses she has taught them, despite their varied disabilities.
They range in age from 11 to 21 and function at a variety of levels. Some have cerebral palsy or Down syndrome. Others are developmentally delayed. All show their own kind of enthusiasm as they try to meet their individual challenges.
Twelve-year-old Billy Fox needs to work on straightening his legs — a concept that might seem easy, says Embury, but can be difficult for him to understand. Jessica Morrow, 14, is working on balance. Dana Sarfino, 17, uses a wheelchair and likes to chatter. Her goal is to relax and focus better. And memorization is the goal for the very flexible Carol Ann Ward, 21, who can work her way into a split like no other and will be moving on after this year.
"I want her to remember the poses and to practice them at home," said Embury. "So she can continue after she leaves us."
Embury is now in her fourth year of teaching physical education at River Ridge — her second working with special-needs students.
She started out with a typical kind of curriculum, offering instruction in tennis, tricycle riding, kite flying and team sports such as volleyball and soccer.
During the past school year she decided to add yoga instruction with the help of a $300 teaching grant she received from the Pasco Education Foundation Inc. The grant helped pay for materials and equipment needed to help her students build strength and improve their flexibly, balance and coordination.
"Flexibility is often poor with these kids," she said.
Then there's the added benefit of relaxation.
"These kids have a lot of energy," Embury says. "It's one way to calm them down and get them to stop."
They exude serenity as they wind down, moving from a crouching bug pose and back down onto the mat into what Embury calls "rag doll" pose.
After that comes the reward of a few minutes of free dancing, always to the Black Eyed Peas' I Gotta Feeling.
They bounce and jump and laugh a lot. Then it's time to pull on socks and shoes and head off to their next class.
"Did you have fun?" Embury asks Miriana Montanez, 21, as she follows her classmates out the door.