Inner Child Yoga, which opened in Newtown in late May, is more than its name implies. In addition to being a yoga studio solely for children, it also offers occupational therapy (OT) services for children up to age 15, combining the training and interests of Sandy Hook resident Barbie Burton.
Originally studying to be an architect at Syracuse University, Burton was eventually drawn to psychology and then to the OT and physical therapy (PT) space, all while teaching children gymnastics in her spare time.
“I volunteered in the PT department at a local hospital,” she said, “but pretty quickly found out that OT was more creative. And working with kids was always something I wanted to do.”
Graduating from Columbia University with a master of science degree in 1996 and specializing in sensory processing disorders and brain-based therapy, Burton began working with children at an OT center in New Jersey, where she first got the idea of combining it with her interest and experience in yoga.
“The client’s siblings were always waiting outside the therapy space and wanting to come back where all the fun was,” she said, noting that children’s OT studios often employ props to bounce, swing and roll on. “It seemed like a natural fit to come up with something to keep them busy too, which they could enjoy and their parents could appreciate.”
After relocating to Connecticut, Burton continued operating her own OT practice at 87 S. Main St. in Newtown — coincidentally not far from Inner Child at 97 S. Main St. — and began volunteering to bring yoga classes to her son’s preschool in Brookfield. When her son transitioned to first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, she began discussing providing yoga classes there as well.
Following the events that Dec. 14, when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults before killing himself, Burton was asked by her son — who was there that day — and school authorities to follow through with her yoga class plans. Initially expecting it to be a one-off, Burton was heartened by feedback from the schoolchildren, their parents and teachers, which ultimately led to classes every Monday.
“Monday’s usually the hardest day for everybody, but especially for those kids,” she said. “With everything that was happening in Sandy Hook, helping them find peace in mind and body was so important for everyone, including my own son.”
Even with Inner Child up and running, Burton said she hoped to continue bringing yoga to both Sandy Hook Elementary — which will open in a new building this fall and which her two younger children will attend — and Reed Intermediate School, where her oldest child will go.
Experiences like these helped spread the word about Burton’s yoga talents at a time when she had no fixed business address. She rented space for a while at fitness center CrossFit Hook’d in Sandy Hook, “but it was difficult. I had to work around my kids’ hockey schedules and had to lug all the equipment in and out.” That equipment encompassed everything from the usual yoga mats to blankets, pillows and weights; even though her students’ parents usually helped out, something clearly had to give.
Burton said she first hoped to open Inner Child Yoga in the center of Sandy Hook, but when no suitable space could be found she began looking around Newtown before more or less stumbling across the space at 97 S. Main, which until January had housed Great Finds & Designs Consignment Shop.
Though initially uncertain she could fill the 2,000-square-foot space, Burton has turned it into a facility that encompasses a spacious yoga studio and another large OT space, a waiting room, a birthday party room, a sensory motor gym and private therapy rooms designed for one-on-one sessions and hands-on service to support children with special needs. Among the services offered are OT evaluation, home programming, sensory diet consultation, Integrated Listening System sessions, private yoga classes and Masgutova Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration sessions.
Yoga classes, which typically run for 10 to 12 weeks and last 45 to 60 minutes, will be limited to 10 participants. “Everybody’s doing summer things now,” Burton said, “but once we get into a rhythm this fall, if we find that we need to add classes to accommodate other small groups, we’ll do so.”
Helping Burton is her associate, Jessica Lippi-Tuz, who has been working in the field of sensory processing disorders for six years while completing degrees in psychology and in applied behavior analysis. Lippi-Tuz specializes in implementing sensory motor programming and pediatric yoga and has completed her 200-hour yoga certification for children with special needs.
Initially connecting with Burton as her babysitter, Lippi-Tuz changed her plans for a career in OT when placement proved difficult. She is, however, still in a position to teach children self-regulation skills through sensory diet, applying behavioral techniques and following through with sensory motor programs.
Burton, who also is on the faculty of Stretch What Matters, a yoga-based therapeutic program for children and teens with special needs, said she is relying primarily on word-of-mouth to draw clients.
“Yoga and OT aren’t something that most people just drive around trying to find,” she laughed. “But I think we’re in a good position, combining both of those, to attract kids — with or without special needs — and their parents.”