Life in Alignment: The Healing Power of Yoga

Life in Alignment: The Healing Power of Yoga

he boy in red slides sock-footed down the length of the Mound Street Yoga studio, yipping rhythmically in a high-pitched keen. At his feet a girl takes no notice, focused on the invisible orchestra she conducts with twirling wrists, third finger and thumb pressed tightly together. There are about a dozen students here spanning the autism spectrum, each engaging in his or her own “self-stim” behavior. One rocks, another spins in circles, yet another smacks his head against the floor repeatedly. Noisy chaos ricochets off the walls in stark contrast to your average yoga class, but it’s the unfailing norm for these families.

Leaning against a sky-blue wall, Scott Anderson waits, smiling. He is remarkable to look at—6 foot 6 in his bare feet and stretched like Silly Putty, as if the playful gods sat down one day to build the perfect yoga Barbie doll for the world’s enjoyment. Zen Ken.

“When does the class get started?” I ask him, glancing at the clock. It’s already ten past four p.m., and I’ve been told the Monday night Spectrum Yoga Therapy is only a forty-five-minute class.

“It already has,” he smiles back.

It happens subtly, gradually. Each of the students, paired with at least one volunteer, settles upon the mats. Foot massages begin, and both the volume and energy in the room start to diminish. At each mat, volunteers use their own bodies to press and twist those of their students, following at their own paces the five-part protocol developed by Anderson: foot massage, psoas wakeup, supine twist, shoulder reset and facilitated exhale. Anderson does not stand at the front issuing instructions; instead he watches attentively, floating silently where he is needed. He drops nimbly to the ground and cradles a woman from behind, pressing on her shoulders as her volunteers press upon her feet. Three mats down a man who has seemed resistant suddenly drops to his belly, raising his feet out behind him so his volunteer can better hold them. The volunteer praises and thanks him, and I notice she is whispering. That’s when it hits me this room has, miraculously, gone quiet.

Anderson floats back and slides down the wall to sit next to me. I cut him a look, afraid to make a sound.

“I know,” he whispers. “People in the field are generally pretty slack-jawed right about now. This shouldn’t be happening.”

It shouldn’t be happening, but it is—a roomful of people with autism, confined in a relatively small space with bright lights and cavernous acoustics, calmly engaging in touch, intentional breathing and meditative silence. But for Anderson, who created the groundbreaking, low-cost-to-the-public yoga therapy program in 2008, it makes perfect sense. Although Spectrum Yoga Therapy is just one piece of Anderson’s life—which includes successful yoga practices in Madison and Blue Mounds, a research project at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center in Madison and roles as teacher, husband, father, book author and business owner—Spectrum Yoga Therapy is the culmination of a body of knowledge and experience earned over his nearly forty-four years. It’s more than physical, it’s more than spiritual and it represents everything he has come to know—and everything he wants you to know, too.

***

Scott Anderson was a nationally ranked high jumper in high school. In fact he still holds the all-time record at his Muscatine, Iowa, alma mater, a 6-foot, 9 1/2-inch feat recorded in 1985, his senior year. He continued his athletic career at the University of Minnesota, studying physics and quantum mechanics as an undergrad and biomechanics in grad school. But by age eighteen he was already feeling the physical burnout of a man twice his age—that’s how he fell into yoga, which made perfect sense at first.

“I viewed the body very structurally,” says Anderson. “This muscle pulls on this, this puts force on that. It’s a very reductionist view of the body, and it worked really well for a while.”

Anderson, who’d also begun to meditate at the age of sixteen to supplement his athletics, dove headlong into yoga with the singular fire and focus of a professional athlete. His new passion led in 1994 to the creation (with three friends) of the St. Paul Yoga Center, the first dedicated yoga school in St. Paul.

But eventually he began to experience things that seemed to clash with his hard sciences background—the sensation of heat leaving his head while holding a certain pose, for instance—and it unnerved him. And ironically, the yoga practice he’d begun as an antidote to his injuries seemed to be making his overworked body worse, triggering an identity crisis.

“When I started to get hurt, I had that rug pulled out from under me,” says Anderson. “I had to ask myself, who am I?”

Anderson knew and trusted solid things—forces, torque, strains, levers, muscles, bone—but the enlightened yogis he admired seemed ethereal, composed of light and energy and intangible, unattainable things. He was attracted to both worlds, but he didn’t know how to fit them together. He only knew he was a kid in his twenties becoming increasingly uncomfortable that people looked to him as a teacher.
Within a year or two of opening the St. Paul school, Anderson discovered a small patch of paradise in Wisconsin called Blue Mounds, population 752. Its rolling hills and lush landscape felt almost holy to him, and the people at the “little hippie farm” he was visiting that Memorial Day weekend fascinated him—yoga practitioners, meditators, organic gardeners, athletes. He was even more impressed by what was missing: mosquitoes.

“I’m thinking, ‘This is what I’m looking for,'” says Anderson. “I’m pushing the rock up the hill trying to create it, and here it exists.”
Anderson moved to Blue Mounds to live at the Cress Spring Farm, commuting back to teach class in St. Paul three days a week and then settling there full-time, first at the commune and later in his own place. He spent those years (about a five- to six-year period) practicing four to six hours a day at yoga and mediation, teaching as little as possible, and fixing cars on the side to pay the bills.

“I’m into mechanical things, cars and motorcycles,” says Anderson. “That oftentimes catches people off guard.”

It was yet another dichotomy that Anderson learned to embrace during those years of intensive practice. Gradually he began to understand the concept he calls “duality,” the opposite of what he seeks in yoga. That the divine is not something out there, but rather within. That an effective practice is not one-size-fits-all, but customized and deeply, deeply personal. He worked to accept without judgment every facet of himself, from yogi to gear-head.

“I’ve beaten myself up over the car thing for years,” he explains. “It’s kind of messy, dirty, it costs money and, you know, a yoga practitioner shouldn’t like fast motorcycles. But part of this is to accept yourself and all the layers. Yeah, I can meditate every day and do yoga and go on retreats and have a lot of interesting austerity and simplicity, but at the same time a really fast motorcycle is something that really lights a fire underneath me.”

By 2001 Anderson felt ready to teach full-time again, and this time he felt he had something to share beyond physical skills. He began teaching in Madison, and by 2004 he bought a vintage hardware store-turned-apartment complex in downtown Blue Mounds. He gave the old building a complete overhaul, installing a spacious studio downstairs and his own living quarters upstairs. Four years later he bought Mound Street Yoga, a Madison stronghold since 1984. Between his personal practice, retreats and public and private classes at the two locations, Anderson spends an estimated fourteen hours every week in yoga and meditation.

But it’s not all sitting on clouds strumming harps.

“A lot of times people will think that being in a yogic state means you don’t have goals,” says Anderson. “But people without goals are generally rudderless, and they generally accomplish very little. I want to accomplish a lot in this life.”

Every morning upon waking Anderson sits in meditation for forty-five minutes, a feat he says is far simpler than people think.
“Some days my mind is really quiet. Maybe I start to fool myself and think I’m enlightened now,” he says. “Other days, you know, I have the same worries everybody else does. Mindfulness isn’t saying your mind is empty, it’s saying that you’re present with watching it. The cool thing is they’ve studied this, and you get the benefits—healthier immune system, sleeping better, less anxiety—even if you’re sitting there frustrated.”

He then practices a different series of yoga poses for forty-five minutes, which vary each day and are determined by what he feels he needs in the moment. (This customized, more personal method of yoga is at the heart of Anderson’s new book, Alignment Yoga: An Intelligent Approach to Ancient Wisdom.)

After this ninety-minute personal practice, it’s “pedal to the metal,” he says, until the last fifteen minutes of his day, which he again spends in meditation before falling into bed around 9:30 p.m. Anderson teaches, writes, leads retreats and travels extensively—including several trips to India to study under his own teachers. He hopes to spread the Spectrum Yoga Therapy program into more cities and towns, and develop his local teaching practice to assist in creating community.

“My goal is to see how big a circular web we can cast of people being able to meet their dreams and live their goals, and help to reduce suffering and help people become happier,” says Anderson. “And then along the way it would be nice to have some fun. To just enjoy the bounty in the moment.”

Part of Anderson’s personal bounty now includes his partner of six years, Collette Stewart, and his two daughters—not with Collette, but as part of a surrogate arrangement with a female Madison couple who asked him to father their children with the understanding that he would remain involved in the kids’ lives. Anderson spends every Friday with his daughters, ages eight and ten, but they don’t spend that time doing yoga.

“The last thing I want is to see my kids in scripted activities,” says Anderson, adding that many adults experience the same injuries he did after pushing too hard with repetitious activity as child athletes. “If they’ve got forty minutes on Monday afternoon, I want them outside. Throw a ball. Ride a bike. Go for a swim. They’ve got a lifetime to do yoga. If there’s one thing I could teach them now, it’s mindfulness. The ability to see that their thoughts are not solid or real is a skill that will serve them forever.”

Anderson says his practice has been as much informed by his kids and wife as it has from years of formal study.

“I feel like these practices give Collette and me a ballast,” says Anderson. “We’re more likely to see our own role in a conflict. When I lived alone there would be a lot of mornings after I’d meditate and do yoga that I’d start thinking I was pretty darn close to enlightenment. I’d go live my life, and not necessarily be shown the ways I was selfish, mean, jealous, angry, just all those parts of yourself you don’t like to see. Through partnership, just as through meditation and yoga practice, we have a mirror.”

And then there’s this, perhaps his most valuable gift thus far:

“I don’t think I would have started Spectrum Yoga Therapy if I hadn’t had kids,” says Anderson, whose children are not autistic. “Through having kids I’ve been shown the immutability of the force of love. And some of these young people have never spoken. They can’t tell their parents they love them, and yet their parents love them so much. It’s such a clear and present demonstration that love is the primary force. And Spectrum is about coming in contact with that.”

***

Today, one in 110 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The average family spends thousands of dollars a year just managing the diagnosis, and some quote the divorce rate among families living with autism as high as eighty to ninety percent. It’s a complex, multifaceted conversation, but one thing is very clear: the impact of autism on a family is enormous—and expensive.

When Scott Anderson started using yoga therapy to work one-on-one with individuals on the autism spectrum, word quickly got out—but while the average person has a hard time affording $90-an-hour private yoga, it’s a near impossibility for families financially stressed by autism.

“Our yearly budget for Franke’s autism is $30,000 a year,” says Susan Wallitsch of Mount Horeb, a cognitive behavioral therapist. “Basically every year that Franke has had autism, we have paid private college tuition just to manage his disability.” Wallitsch’s son, who is nonverbal, was diagnosed at the age of seventeen months. He’s now nineteen.

One of the hallmarks of Franke’s particular anxiety-based diagnosis has been angry, crippling panic attacks as well as epilepsy. Six-foot-four-inch Franke would start to jump and scream, bite himself until he bled, and lash out at anyone who got too close. The attacks lasted twenty minutes on average, and the Wallitsch family had tried all manner of therapy, including restraint, and numerous medications—all of which made Franke’s attacks worse. But when Franke started working with Anderson, things started to get a little better.

“One day he was building up to one of these panic attacks at school, and then suddenly he started to do his yoga breathing,” says Wallitsch. “He calmed himself right down, and the attack was avoided. That he could bring himself down from one of these was a very, very big deal.”

With Wallitsch’s help, Anderson developed the Spectrum Yoga Therapy protocol in a group setting and made it financially accessible to all families. Students pay what they need to pay—some as little as $1 per month—and the protocol training is free to caregivers. More than one hundred Madison-area residents have been trained to volunteer their time working with Spectrum Yoga students weekly, and the program, recently incorporated as a nonprofit, has extended to Eau Claire, a fledgling program in Dubuque, and a planned program in the Milwaukee suburbs. The Madison program will expand this fall, offering classes at Mound Street Yoga Center on Monday afternoons and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds on Thursday mornings.

Anderson’s ultimate goal is to have volunteers spread Spectrum Yoga Therapy to every community in the country. It’s certainly made a difference in one family’s life beyond managing the attacks.

“This has given us a happiness in our relationship that we didn’t have before,” says Wallitsch. “It’s not that we didn’t love Franke before, because of course we love him very, very much. But this gives us a way to express the depth of our feeling for him. It gives us a way to communicate with one another not using words, but using this very calm, very sweet, very engaged way of being together.”

Spectrum Yoga Therapy also caught the eye of world-renowned UW neuroscientist Richie Davidson, a personal friend and yoga student of Anderson’s. At first the two men bonded over the melding of science and spirituality, then quickly over their shared belief in service and compassion. Davidson has also conducted autism research for years and was eager to see Spectrum Yoga Therapy in action.

“It got quiet in the class and five minutes went by, then ten, then fifteen,” Anderson recalls. “I looked over at Richie and he was just grinning ear to ear.”

This summer Davidson and Anderson began empirically evaluating the effects of the Spectrum Yoga Therapy protocol on the autonomic nervous system, a research project conducted at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

“Scott is by far the very best yoga teacher I’ve ever had,” says Davidson. “I think he is a wonderful person who is really grounded, and he is someone who is trying to integrate his extraordinary wisdom of the body with his interest in the mind to help people achieve a kind of inner peace and increased balance in life.

“I just think Scott is a real gem in our community,” he adds. “What he offers is just tremendously valuable, and the people of Madison are so fortunate to have him in our midst.”

***

Roy Bedward is a 32-year old Madisonian on the autism spectrum, and one of Scott Anderson’s Spectrum Yoga Therapy students. He wanted to speak out about SYT, but he is non-verbal so he asked to be interviewed through e-mail.

MM: When did you first start SYT?
RB: I have been involved with yoga for the last couple of years. Yoga helps my body and its movement. I need it to gain control of my body.

MM: How does SYT fit into the way you manage your diagnosis?
RB: I have and need other therapies. It relaxes my muscles and calms my mind. I enjoy yoga.

MM: How often do you use SYT?
RB:
I practice weekly for I need the support of instructors.

MM: Do you live alone?
RB:
I live with a roommate and have residential supports.

MM: Do they help you practice SYT?
RB:
Not all the time.

MM: Can you imagine your life today without SYT?
RB:
No, don’t take away my yoga.

– MGS

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.

Read our October 2010 health feature on resources for special-needs kids