This interview took place in February before the circuit breaker.

In a small, well-ventilated room, a yoga instructor cheerfully greets her clients as she begins her class. Although the clients do not greet her back verbally, one of them waves back. The rest sit quietly on their mats, patiently waiting for the activity to begin.

The setting may seem familiar to many but this is not a normal yoga session. The clients are not yuppies in colourful tops and tights but adult clients with intellectual disability from the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS).

Leandra Chee, 32, is a volunteer at MINDS. Every Monday, she teaches yoga to a group of five or six clients at MINDS Ang Mo Kio Training & Development Centre.

Using simple instructions and demonstration, Leandra engages the clients in breathing exercises. The clients follow her movements, with the assistance of two other staff.

The clients in the yoga class have some language abilities and require a mixture of verbal and gestural prompts to understand and follow the exercises. Many of the other clients in the centre are non-verbal and require full physical assistance for most activities.

Persons with intellectual disability often require support to overcome difficulties that most typical-developing persons would not bat an eyelid at: short attention spans, difficulty weighing and retaining information, limited receptive and expressive language, and poor social skills, though these difficulties lie on a spectrum and not everyone exhibits the same traits.

Despite the lack of response, Leandra perseveres.

“Just talk to them, they can understand. And even if you don’t think they understand, keep talking to them… they enjoy the interaction,” she says.

Yoga at MINDS
Image source: Serene Leong / Leandra conducting a weekly yoga session with MINDS clients and staff

Leandra does not talk down to the clients, but treats them normally, like friends. She encourages them to join her in a circle and demonstrates different poses such as the “tree pose” and “chair pose”. These exercises help train their balance and coordination.

It is evident the clients have built a comfortable rapport with Leandra over the past one and a half years.

They are relaxed throughout the class and remain well-regulated emotionally and behaviorally. Elvin, a client with a cheeky grin, follows instructions when staff adopt a playful approach in nudging him. Just like most people, they enjoy human connection and interaction.

“Yoga is universal in terms of language barriers. Whether it is demonstrating using the body or different cues, it can help people connect,” Leandra, a full-time yoga instructor, says.

“The yoga that I teach commercially is focused on physical well-being. That means getting fitter, physically stronger, achieving milestones like doing a headstand or handstand. Whereas the clients at MINDS need some time to move and be active and have interaction with different people,” Leandra says. “Yoga helps return the mind-body connection back to them”

Yoga at MINDS
Image source: Serene Leong / Leandra leading clients in yoga stretches and poses

Interacting with her clients has taught Leandra to celebrate diversity and individual differences.

Leandra shares that Kenneth, a client with Down syndrome, has a unique ability of being extremely flexible and can stretch without much effort because of certain musculoskeletal effects commonly associated with his condition.

“You shouldn’t judge your worth by how well you can get into an aesthetic pose,” Leandra says. “Different people have different abilities. It does not measure your worth.”

Lin Jiayong, 36, ​former Head of MINDS Ang Mo Kio Training and Development Centre and registered clinical psychologist says that they have come a long way in changing public perception of intellectual disability over the years.

“When the centre was set up in 1992, the residents in this block petitioned against the setting up of a day activity centre for persons with intellectual disability here.” Jiayong says. “At that time, due to limited knowledge and exposure to persons with intellectual disability, the public may have negative misconceptions that led to fear and anxiety being in the same community space.”

Now, there is greater acceptance.

“Fast-forward to 2020, within the Kebun Baru community, the residents know us very well. When they see us at the park they wave and say hello. Sometimes, when we go to the market, a generous uncle will shove $50 into our hands to buy our clients breakfast,” Jiayong says.

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But the challenges in running the centre are many – the Ang Mo Kio branch currently serves 51 clients with only 9 direct care staff (Training Officers). Considering one-to-one support and full physical assistance are often needed for clients to meaningfully engage in activities, the limited manpower remains a major barrier to emotional well-being and quality of life of clients served.

Changes brought by Covid-19

When Covid-19 restrictions kicked in, the centre had to suspend volunteering, including yoga sessions, with some activities such as mindfulness and caregiver workshops moving online. However, since the reopening of the economy during Phase 2, volunteer sessions have slowly resumed.

Apart from wearing masks, working with a smaller group, and doing away with props to avoid sharing, Leandra says the interaction and exercises are more or less the same as before.

There is still a need for regular volunteers like Leandra, either to run specialised programmes or assist with regular events.

Volunteers and staff at MINDS
Image source: Leandra Chee / MINDS staff at a team bonding yoga session with Leandra

“Many of our clients often need a one-to-one buddy in order to participate in simple activities of daily living and community living.” Jiayong says. “Most of the time we get first-time one-off volunteers who are apprehensive about how to approach the session, yet whatever experience gained ends after each session, with little continuity in the volunteer-client relationship.”

At the end of the hour-long yoga session, one of the clients claps vigorously and gives Leandra a thumbs up, which is reciprocated by her. This tiny gesture of appreciation is heartening.

There is so much more that needs to be done for persons with intellectual disability in Singapore that many people don’t know where to start.

For Leandra, it is a matter of choice and commitment to turn up week after week, volunteering her time and presence to empower her clients through yoga, and celebrating small victories too.

“I believe in yoga’s healing abilities. I have been healed by it – still being healed – that’s why I practise it and eventually became a teacher,” Leandra says.

“Yoga is a way to help them regain that power that they feel they have lost. We invite them to explore, to try, to have a choice of what they want to do.”

To find out more about how you can help at MINDS, visit https://www.minds.org.sg/volunteer/

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Top Image: Serene Leong