My introduction to yoga and meditation was at age 31 in a cardiac rehabilitation. I was the sole young woman with coronary artery disease in a group of mainly middle-aged men. We practiced body scan meditations, talked about nutrition, and walked on treadmills. One day, a yoga instructor came in to teach us. After years of my exercise being limited to walking due to aortic stenosis (a narrowing of the main artery leaving the heart), practicing yoga felt amazing. When my cardiac rehabilitation class ended, I went to an adult education class, then found an incredible Iyengar yoga teacher who taught at the Harvard School of Public Health. Soon yoga had become a regular part of my routine. I tried many different styles of yoga and came to appreciate the variety and the benefits of these different styles—some more physically rigorous, some more restorative, some more mentally challenging, but all beneficial.
Yoga, breathwork, meditation and visualization have helped me through medical challenges since then including open heart surgery, two pregnancies and deliveries, and a variety of other medical procedures.
On the yoga mat, I particularly admire teachers who can present a challenging class but also bring playfulness and a sunny sense of humor into the practice. After taking classes with David Vendetti, who is also a Boston Children’s Hospital patient, I signed up for teacher training with him and Todd Skoglund at South Boston Yoga in the fall of 2011. When I started, I really did not know whether I would ever teach, but I did know that my health had benefited from yoga and I thought it could help kids with chronic medical issues and their families as well.
I started teaching an inclusive yoga class at Boston Children’s Martha Eliot Health Center (MEHC) in the fall of 2013 and the class has been the joy of every week since I started it. The environment of acceptance and caring that the kids in the class have created for one another is tremendous. In 2014, I received funding from the Weiner Award at Boston Children’s Hospital to expand yoga at the hospital. The grant allowed Dianne Cella and me (along with Lori Lazdowski) to train in Urban Zen Integrative Therapy. This added Reiki, aromatherapy, guided body awareness meditation, and contemplative care, and their use in combination to help address difficult symptoms like pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia and constipation. Through funding from Yoga Reaches Out, I am part of the team providing Reiki and yoga to stressed parents in the hospital.
I love the role yoga plays in my life and now in my work. I joined an amazing yoga studio near my house,JP Centre Yoga, which is actually co-owned by a physician. I regularly take classes there on Tuesday and Saturday mornings—those are my non-negotiable times—and try to catch additional classes when I can. I teach at Martha Eliot twice a week and it has been incredibly rewarding to watch my students grow and develop their yoga practice over time. Two of my teenage students with Down syndrome came with me to the National Down Syndrome Congress conference last year and we co-taught three yoga classes to teens and young adults with Down syndrome. We were invited to present again this year and the three of us are gearing up to add meditation to the class this summer.
When I teach in the Hale Family Center for Families (HFCFF), it is exciting to share yoga with such a diverse group of people. I have taught a mom who was a yoga instructor herself but needed a chance to be led in practice so she could unwind from the stress of her child’s hospitalization. I have taught a whole family (grandma, mom, siblings, cousins) while their loved one was in surgery. I have had a class of kids from three different countries who all had independently watched the same yoga YouTube video. Some parents and family members come to yoga multiple times a week. For many, it is their first exposure to yoga. Each class is customized to the family members who show up and may be very gentle or more vigorous based on their needs. Parents often don’t realize how much tension they are holding in their necks and shoulders until we start to move. It is great to see people leave after class looking and feeling more relaxed and ready to go back to their children’s bedsides feeling a little calmer and more comfortable.
Providing Reiki sessions for parents and kids in the hospital is also incredibly rewarding. The wellness room in the HFCFF provides a quiet, safe place for a parent to lie down, breathe and take a break from the stress of the hospital routine. For children in the hospital, a Reiki session can be a time when touch is not related to medical procedures and can be purely soothing. I often glance up at the heart rate monitor during a session and see that the child’s heart rate has slowed down as the child relaxes during Reiki.
I also run a program, Adventure Challenge, to recruit and train volunteers to provide yoga classes for families and staff, as well as one-on-one support for children with disabilities to do exercise in the community. This year, I am so proud that an Adventure Challenge volunteer, who has been assisting in my MEHC yoga class, just completed her yoga teacher training at South Boston Yoga and has begun to offer classes at the Hale Family Center for Families too.
I have been at Boston Children’s Hospital for nearly 25 years, arriving here as an intern and completing residency and fellowship in Developmental Behavioral pediatrics. I specialize in the care of children with complex medical and developmental needs in the Boston Children’s Hospital Down Syndrome Program and in the Complex Care Service within the Cerebral Palsy and Spasticity Center. My yoga and Reiki practices are both informed by my work as a doctor and also support it. Spending time with families of children with complex needs helps to tune an appreciation of each new ability and the preciousness of each moment of wellbeing. The physical flexibility, strength, being in the present and finding mental stillness that are developed in yoga support the ability to be with a family in trying times, to think creatively when faced with roadblocks, and to listen with attention.
I have deep gratitude and admiration for the families who have invited me to help care for their children and am also incredibly grateful to Yoga Reaches Out for supporting the Boston Children’s Hospital Family Wellness Program and giving me the opportunity to share yoga and Reiki with our patients and families.” – Emily Jean Davidson, MD, MPH, RYT
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