Jan/Feb 2010

Yoga and Gong Meditation at Elgin Mental Health Center

By Sharon Steffensen
Photos of Boontiva Truong-Quang by Lenny Komeczski

After two years, yoga teacher Boontiva Truong-Quang achieved her goal to bring yoga to patients at the Elgin Mental Health Center, a medium-security facility for the mentally ill. First, she attended a conference on healing at the center, where Mary Jensen, an associate at the Mental Health Center and a student of Boontiva's, invited her as a guest speaker. The next year, Boontiva lectured about the science of yoga as a therapeutic, holistic approach to life at a national conference of mental health workers. Later that same year she was invited to lead eight introductory sessions of yoga for patients and staff as well as some members from the national conference at the Elgin Mental Health Center. The staff and doctors were impressed, and finally Boontiva obtained a one-year contract with the State of Illinois to teach yoga three days a week to the patients.

After a year of working at Elgin Mental Health Center, Boontiva invited Kenny Kolter, a gong meditation leader, to a health and wellness fair she was hosting at the facility. The wellness fair was well received and well attended. Three days later Kenny got a call from the comptroller of the facility who asked if he would be interested in a one-year contract to play the gong one day a week at the center. This time the contract was awarded by the State of Illinois within a couple of months. Cathy Johnson,

Activities Program Director, told Kenny that in her 25 years of working atthe facility, she had never seen a contract go through so quickly. Now Kenny is in his second year of playing the gong, and Boontiva is in her third year of teaching yoga at the mental health center. Boontiva teaches seven to eight yoga sessions on several units during her three days a week at the facility.

Her friendliness, sunny disposition, and down-to-earth manner quickly earned her the respect and trust of the patients. Most of them have only a modest understanding of what yoga is, and some don't know anything at all, so Boontiva takes a variety of approaches. To break the ice, she may start by asking the patients what they think yoga is. She may bring them into a circle and invite them to move into their favorite animal postures, which are often names of yoga poses. Or she may start with Laughing yoga, telling them to look toward the ceiling, raise their arms, and laugh as loud as they can; then pair up with someone they don't know, look into their eyes, and laugh not so loudly; and, finally, look at one another and laugh silently. After this exercise they become more relaxed and comfortable.

The yoga classes are very simple and direct, with patients participating in full asana practice on the floor with yoga mats. There is a core of six to eight people who attend each session (with sometimes as many as 18) every week, practicing the poses at various levels of difficulty, and some of them are fairly advanced. Other groups do chair yoga. Because of their mental illness and medication, many don't have the physical dexterity to do a full floor asana program.

Boontiva keeps it interesting by constantly mixing it up--introducing new poses or talking about meditation techniques, proper breathing, or food choices. Patients often ask her to recommend a book or a meditation or yoga DVD. All of the patients participate on a voluntary basis, choosing from a variety of activities.

Kenny participates in four or five sessions every Tuesday. For half of the sessions, he works in tandem with Boontiva, playing the gong (sometimes with a drum) softly in the background during the yoga class. The rest of the time Kenny leads gong meditations while the patients lie on mats or sit in chairs. Both the yoga sessions and the gong meditations are approximately a half hour long.

Kenny describes gong meditation: I try to provide a sonic backdrop for people to go within to pray, meditate, or relax. A typical session I do is in the gymnasium, where we pull out tumbling mats. Patients lie down and try to get comfortable. I play the gong and the drum in a trance-like fashion. I've been playing drums since I was nine years old, so I bring a rhythmic and musical element to playing the gong. It's not overly intense. Before the session, I say, We are going to take this next half hour, and we will use this time to drift and dream and be quiet within ourselves.' There is no guided imagery, just listening to the gong.

Gong meditation is one of the most popular activities for the patients, sometimes with half the unit attending--approximately ten to twelve people. Kenny receives positive feedback. One young woman said she loves Tuesdays because she knows she will sleep well that night.

The reason the gong is so effective, says Kenny, is that within the sonic spectrum of the instrument is the eternal Om sound, providing a mantra for the participants. The gong is very soothing. It is penetrating and fills the space and has a relaxing and powerful meditative effect. The gong I play is tuned to 172 hertz, which is the frequency [at which] the earth rotates in our solar system. The gong has a wonderful grounding and reaffirming energy to it.

There are both short-term and long-term patients at the facility. They may stay at the center for seven days, three months, or 25 years. Some are confined to their unit. Kenny explains, The work we do primarily is at the forensics treatment program. All of the patients are incarcerated because they have some form of criminal activity associated with their mental illness. They may be unfit to stand trial, and they are there to become mentally integrated to stand trial. The other populations are people categorized as not guilty for reason of insanity. They're long-term. Many of these patients are not really able to be at a regular county facility or state prison. So they are there because of the complexity of their mental illness and the amount of medication they need to stabilize themselves.

Kenny enjoys working with Boontiva. He says, She has a very simple, loving, and friendly approach with the patients, and always has a smile. She's very approachable. She's like a cheerleader, always sharing her excitement and passion about yoga and spiritual growth. Her enthusiasm is infectious and is delivered in a very genuine way. Patients' respond to her so well because she is so comfortable in her element. This is her dharma--sharing her yoga with a population of people who are really in need of some guidance, in need of some technique on how to center themselves and how to feel harmony inside.

They complement one another in their work. Boontiva chooses postures that help the patients have better flexibility, circulation, and mental clarity. Kenny provides specific sounds that have highly beneficial applications in medical and clinical settings. Some patients are more tactile and energetic; others are more sedentary and sedate. While Boontiva is teaching, some people just come and listen to the gong and pick up on the good energy that is generated.

Boontiva, who was born in Thailand, emigrated to the U.S., and became certified in India to teach yoga, says sound vibration is universal and that gongs (which come from China and Tibet) are used in Eastern cultures to announce marriages, births, and deaths, as well as for healing purposes. She says, The sound vibration, combined with breath and the grounding of yoga, is the road to recovery.

Kenny and Boontiva see dramatic results from their work. A woman who previously had a gruff personality now appears happy, smiling, and more outgoing. She dresses in brighter colors and participated in Bollywood dancing during a recent activity day. Another patient, who was new to yoga, has begun writing a book on yoga and meditation. He gave Boontiva and Kenny 35 pages to read. Others comment that they feel stronger.

The activities staff, who work with the patients every day, appreciate the work Kenny and Boontiva are doing, although in the beginning there was a fair amount of skepticism about the gong, says Kenny. But over time, they have seen that the patients are interested and are benefiting. Neither of them have had a formal review with the staff, but the fact that their contracts have been renewed during a time of heavy cutbacks at the state level indicates that the staff sees value in what they do.

Boontiva and Kenny believe that the future for mind/body wellness is going to be in a collaborative environment, and they would like to provide their services in other clinical settings, such as hospitals, juvenile centers, cancer care centers, and other mental health facilities. Kenny says, There is something about being in service to a population that is in need, who would never be exposed to yoga or gong meditation because of their economic or cultural background. It is very rewarding to be in this environment where people are hurt, separated from their families and loved ones. We feel the work we are doing is groundbreaking because this is the state's largest mental health facility. Traditional clinical facilities are very conservative; they don't stray from traditional therapies. We are very fortunate that there were some people here that were progressive and willing to embrace change. Elgin Mental Health Center is a progressive place.

Elgin Mental Health Center describes its services as follows; Recovery is a personal journey of hope, healing, growth, choice, and change. Elgin Mental Health Center provides treatment for relief and restoration of the people we serve. It is a place of hope for the healing of mind, body and spirit where many find health and happiness again.

About Boontiva :

Boontiva Truong-Quang was born in Thailand. Her parents were members of the Vietnamese Royal Family, and the family was forced to flee Thailand to escape theCommunist Regime. Educated in Bangkok, where she learned English, she later emigrated to the US with her parents and completed her studies at Northern Illinois University, earning a Master of Science degree in Marketing and Management and a Master of Arts degree in Fashion and Design. She is several course credits away from a PhD in Philosophy at DePaul University. She worked in corporate America for 14 years as a marketing director for the Marriott Corporation. In 1995, after an impromptu trip to India, Boontiva discovered yoga and stayed at The Yoga Institute in Mumbai to become a certified yoga instructor. She is also trained in reflexology and Thai traditional massage. Her mission is to be in service to improve my own life, the lives of individuals, communities, and the planet.

With more than 600 hours of formal training, Boontiva founded Optimum Health School of Yoga in Elgin. In addition to teaching yoga, Pilates, reflexology, and yoga teacher trainings at her center, Boontiva teaches at locations in the northwest and western suburbs. Boontiva also received a grant from Activate Elgin to promote awareness about obesity and healthy lifestyles for children. She also works part time nights at a group home in Schaumburg for troubled teenage girls. When she's not working all night, Boontiva rises at 4 a.m., as she requires only four hours of sleep. Each year she goes on a six-week, volunteer pilgrimage to orphanages in Thailand, Nepal, and India. For more information about Boontiva, visit www. classicalindianyoga.com.

About Kenny :

Kenny Kolter started playing drums and percussion at the age of nine and has been practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM) since he was twelve. He graduated from Maharishi International University with a B.A. in Comparative Literature, where he was steeped in ayurvedic (health)and Gandharva Veda (music) learning. He has traveled and performed internationally as a professional musician and has released three gong meditation CDs in the past three years: Vibrational Journey , Vibrational Visions, and Vibrational Portal. He recently completed a fourth CD with Dr. Julie Milne titled Channel of Light--A Guided Imagery Meditation for Gong.

Kenny leads gong meditation workshops throughout the Chicago area. His goal as facilitator is to be a sound bridge between the energy and spirit that lie within the gong and sonically draw out or tune into the energy and spirit that resides in us all.

Interview with Kenny Kolter

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reprinted from Yoga Chicago