Yoga instructor Nicole Calvano photographed at her home in East Brunswick. (Mary Iuvone / For The Times)
By For The Times | NJ.com
PLAINSBORO – Nicole Calvano, smiling serenely and exuding limitless patience, sat the small gathering of children and parents in a circle.
Calvano, 28, of East Brunswick, yoga instructor and passionate advocate for children suffering autism in its seemingly infinite manifestations, waved her hand around the circle and invited everyone to imagine a garden.
The children, each afflicted with some behavioral challenge, and their parents closed their eyes. The class was midway through a six-week program Calvano is teaching at the Center for Relaxation and Healing of Plainsboro.
The center is described on its website as a place “people meet, talk, explore themselves, find healing and learn about the world around them.” The center offers at least 32 programs and services such as yoga, meditation and nutritional counseling that explore the mind-body-spiritual connection.
“Smell the flowers,” Calvano said, drawing in a slow, deep breath. She led the group in drawing eight breaths, exclaiming “ahhhhh” on the exhale. Daniel, 5, who had been antsy and distracted, followed Calvano’s lead and sat quietly, focused on his breathing and enjoying the prolonged “ahhh.” His sister, Caroline, 14, sat beside him and breathed peacefully.
“He’s a boy in typical ways, but other things are not typical,” said Daniel’s mother, Katerina Bubnovsky of Princeton Township, alluding to her son’s abrupt outbursts of anger. “The breathing is very calming to him. We are able to use that every day.”
Calvano began teaching yoga three years ago and soon formed her own company, The Infinite U, to offer yoga classes she has developed for children afflicted with autism and similar behavioral problems.
While severe cases of autism have clear symptoms, such as aggression, lack of affection and empathy, inability to communicate, indifference to obvious dangers and similar isolating behaviors, the range of disorders on the “autism spectrum” is broad.
Calvano’s yoga classes are designed for the entire family to create the bonds between parents and children — and siblings — that autistic children find otherwise challenging.
“The autism spectrum is so broad that it doesn’t really matter what the diagnosis is because I am here to connect with the child, not the diagnosis,” Calvano said.
Calvano led her class in moving their arms from hanging at their sides to straight overhead on the inhale, lowering the arms back to their sides in time with the exhale.
“What bird flies high?” she asked.
“Eagle!” exclaimed Justin, 5, of Pennington, who attended class with his mother, Jenine Molinaro.
His answer prompted Calvano to lead the children and parents, arms moving now like wings, in a circle around the garden they had just imagined.
Encouraged by Calvano to think of animals, Justin next suggested pretending to be skunks, which was all Calvano needed to get the group to raise their tails into the down dog posture.
“Now let’s really make the skunk smell,” she said, laughing, lifting and stretching first the right leg and then the left.
Following their play as skunks, the children and parents sank back on their heels, their arms on the floor as pillows, to rest in child’s pose. After a few breaths, Calvano led them to rise like cats arching their backs.
As their backs rounded, she asked Daniel “What animal says “moo’”? When he answered “cow,” Calvano led everyone into lowering their arched backs while lifting their shoulders and hips, a common yoga movement known as cat-cow.
“Justin, are you ready for a dog?” Calvano asked. At the mention of “dog,” the children moved into down dog posture — standing on hands and toes with their hips lifted.
Molinaro said her son suffers the sensory-processing disorder dyspraxia.
“We wanted something calming for him because he can be somewhat overwhelmed by stimulus,” she said.
“He finds this calming. He follows directions and controls his body well. This is a good environment for Justin.”
The class is disorderly, but Calvano is patient. When Daniel had too much trouble staying focused and his mother had disciplined him repeatedly, she took him from the room.
In the middle of the class a third family, Ramana Mani of West Windsor and his twin daughters, Shruti and Swara, 7, entered the room.
Shruti was plainly unhappy. She refused to do what her father told her and only grudgingly did what the class was doing, while Swara smiled happily and frequently hugged and encouraged her sister.
Mani later explained that Shruti was angry because a boy she had befriended in the class no longer attended.
“She doesn’t really obey but she has not been diagnosed (with autism),” Mani said.
“The diagnoses are so broad and vague they don’t really matter. I’ve been trying different things with Shruti. She likes the keyboard. My other daughter really likes yoga, so we come here more for her now. I like that this is something we can do as a family.”
Calvano developed her class at first to offer it through a grant-funded program in Middlesex County, then she sought opportunities to offer it more broadly.
“There has always been something about the mind-body-spirit connection that fascinated me and I’ve been drawn to healing,” Calvano said.
“When I began my yoga practice I was, of course, getting stronger and more flexible but what I noticed most was the impact on my overall life. As my body became more flexible, I became more flexible as a person.”
The children and parents continued following Calvano’s lead through various yoga postures based on the animals the children called out at her urging, moving from horse to dolphin and other representatives of the animal kingdom.
On hands and knees, Calvano encouraged everyone to wiggle from shoulders to hips. Shruti refused, Justin tried, Daniel abruptly stood up and walked off while his mother stayed in the pose.
“Let’s wiggle our worries away,” Calvano said.