I get asked all the time what it’s like teaching yoga to people that are blind or have vision loss. Many are fascinated and most are curious. More often than not, their first comment is along the lines of, “…well that must be very difficult…” Typically, this is then followed by a common preconceived notion of vision loss, such as, “they must have great body awareness.” While in a few cases this might indeed be true, the reality is often much different.
On the teaching side specifically, yes it can indeed be difficult. I like to think of it as a challenge and also an opportunity to not only learn how someone navigates this world without their visual sense, but also to understand their limitations and how I can help. My ultimate goal is to engage and enable individuals to move with increased confidence and to apply what they learn in class into their daily lives.
Prior to a class beginning, there is much to do. I will often guide students into the practice room, orient them to the new surroundings and help as needed with setting up of their mat and any items they may require such as a chair for support. Though this can be a busy and occasionally chaotic time, especially with guide dogs in the mix, I never rush this part of the process and always ensure that I allow each individual to function with the independence they desire.
To enable someone with vision loss to follow along in class, I use descriptive language with clear step by step instructions. This works well and is much appreciated by the group. Occasionally, I realize I’ve left out a step or two, or mixed up sides when I see the class pause and ponder what I’m asking them to do…like take your left hand to left elbow! We will have a chuckle and the injected humour works wonders for tension release. However, the use of imagery can be challenging in itself as someone who has been blind from birth may not relate to the same imagery as someone whose vision loss occurred later in life. As a result, I try to incorporate a variety of imagery and descriptors and when in doubt, I ask the students who have grasped the exercise how they would describe it. Their responses can be very unique and creative and have often helped me to provide a better framework for a specific exercise or routine.
Becoming more familiar with each student and understanding their often unique challenges has ultimately helped my teaching be successful. For instance, balance is always one of their primary concerns, as is learning how to relax, so it is very important to adapt to the specific needs of the students. As my classes have evolved, I have observed a need to incorporate more strengthening work and subsequently seeing this pay off in terms of tangible benefits to my students has been immensely rewarding.
As but one example, I currently have a gentleman who has been attending the weekly class fairly regularly for about two years. Until a few months ago, he had always practiced the floor work in a chair. He has since progressed immensely and is now able to get down to the floor with the support of a chair. Initially, he took a long time to get down or up, but now if you blink you’ve missed him do this. This type of example, where you come to an understanding of where a particular student’s abilities are at and then subsequently encourage and empower them to slowly broaden their comfort zone while witnessing their personal growth, is a very rewarding experience. It can also be incredibly humbling. Just as the students reap benefits, as do I as a teacher and I wouldn’t miss this for the world.Body awareness is always an interesting subject, but particularly so when discussing a student with vision loss. I am totally amazed and always curious as to how low vision individuals navigate their surroundings. A cane can help them detect obstacles in their path and their hearing senses are typically heightened. They use their tactile abilities to feel different denominations of currency and to read Braille.
All this said, actually feeling how their body moves in space and the connection of their body to their surroundings, can often be very challenging. Interestingly, I have observed that many students with complete vision loss do not have a sense of where they are positioned on their mat, often unintentionally lying completely crooked or even with their head off the mat entirely. To help develop the body’s sense of where it is in space, known as proprioception, I find it helpful to use the floor, props and also closed chain movements.
When appropriate, I also try to encourage fluidity, with an emphasis on free flowing practice, or intentional shaking movements and empower individuals to both choreograph and make it their own. I feel this is very important, as I have observed they often tend to carry a lot of tension in their body as understandably, they are never quite sure if their next step in navigating this world will be met with an undesirable outcome. Furthermore, the more basic and relevant to their daily living I can make an exercise, the more memorable and naturally repeatable it becomes, thereby allowing each person to incorporate much of what they learn in class into their daily routines.
Come back next week to read how the use of The Roll Model® Therapy Balls have helped develop this special populations body awareness and enabled them to reduce tension. It has been a game changer!