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A new kind of body awareness
A new kind of body awarenessAmidst 200-year-old trees and just steps from the ocean in Newport, Rhode Island, you’ll find participants and practitioners of Shake-A-Leg engaging in part self-rediscovery, part embodied journey, part group adventure.

Founded in 1982, Shake-A-Leg is a nonprofit organization that serves people with disabilities, with an emphasis placed on spinal-cord and related nervous-system dysfunction. The program provides traditional and complementary therapies that help participants learn to live independently. Shake-a-Leg clients have experienced either a spinal cord injury or head trauma.

The Shake-A Leg rehabilitation center, on the Salve Regina University campus, provides four major programs: body awareness therapy; body awareness therapy for teen-agers; adaptive sailing; and "confidence-is-cool" programs for children with disabilities. All the programs challenge and encourage participants to move beyond what they think is possible, generating the confidence needed to build a more fulfilling life.

The staff of bodyworkers are practitioners of massage, reiki, RolfingÂ, craniosacral therapy, Feldenkrais and physical and occupational therapy. In addition, volunteers take participants on outings such as kite flying, kayaking, cycling, sailing, water-skiing and scuba diving. Most participants get two Rolfing sessions a week for five weeks, along with two massage sessions and two strength-and-conditioning and occupational-therapy sessions. Nearly 40 practitioners are involved each summer and see 15-18 clients per week.

"Honestly, I learn as much as the participants do about human will, humor, courage and hope," said Rolfer Greg Knight, who has worked in the program for three summers. "Anyone who has been through the program has an unforgettable and transforming experience," he said. "No one is ‘miraculously’ healed to the level of walking, but you learn that doesn’t matter. The human spirit and body are amazingly malleable and strong. I really got first-hand experience in the program that the human spirit is not tied to the body in a way we think."

The most obvious benefits Knight’s clients received were decreased pain from the original accident, surgeries, overuse and poor body mechanics, he said. Knight concluded that a major theme is to help them learn to respect their bodies, take care of themselves and be mindful of how things are moving and feeling. He estimates he has worked on 60 different people throughout the last three summers he has been on staff.

"It’s like a boot camp," Knight said. "The changes are varied, but I know that everybody has a profound experience. They get their soul back. They realize they are a human being again."

For example, there’s Ed, a 20-something male who broke his back in a motorcycle injury and is a quadriplegic in the program. "Ed finally learned to sit up from lying down, and to get into and out of his chair on his own," Knight said.

Another is Richard, about 19 years old, also a quadriplegic, who had many surgeries and made terrific progress, Knight says. "He increased his range of motion in his neck and upper shoulder girdle, learned to fly a kite with his mouth, and came out of his emotional and mental shell."

Scott McCarter, 26, of Houston, Texas, participated in Shake-A-Leg for two consecutive summers to help in his recovery from a 1999 spinal-cord injury.

Since completing the program, he continues to work with a personal trainer and receives bodywork once a week. "The pain hasn’t gone away, but receiving Rolfing and massage helped it diminish and it keeps getting better. I got a lot out of it," he said.

Harry Horgan, one of the program’s founders, suffered a spinal-cord injury and was dissatisfied with the available rehabilitation services. An avid sailor before his injury, Horgan went on his own initiative to New Mexico, where he received treatments from a Rolfer and Feldenkrais practitioner. Horgan had such a positive experience that he and Jack Childs, the current chair of the masters program of Holistic Counseling at Salve Regina founded Shake-A-Leg, to complement and add to the therapy that most people with spinal- cord injuries receive.

"We are always working to try to create a more holistic approach at Shake-A-Leg," said Childs. "Instead of mind over matter, the mind is matter – and we help to bring out the ability or potential for inner healing. There are fantastic possibilities to stay open to, with the evolving mind-body consciousness. That is the dream."
 – Erin M. Kelly

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