FitAbilities

By: Natasha Baebler

When I was first asked to organize and teach a trauma informed yoga program for students with visual impairments, I knew that the program would need to be unlike any other yoga class I’d taught to date. I had taught trauma informed yoga to adults. I had taught yoga to kids, even taught yoga to kids who are blind. Yet combining the two, the experience of trauma and blindness/visual impairment, was something that to my knowledge hadn’t been done before. 

The number one assumption people have made about the FitAbilities program has been that the students have experienced trauma or chronic stress due to their being blind or visually impaired. The reality is that the trauma and visual impairment are two unrelated entities that coexist in each child’s life experience, and thus need to be taken into account separately when designing a yoga program for this population. I as the instructor needed to teach to the blind or visually impaired child keeping his primary presenting disability at the forefront of my instructional techniques. So, If a child was struggling more with his trauma in class one day than the fact that he can’t see the yoga poses, I needed to address the trauma response first when teaching him, leaving instruction specific to his visual impairment on the back burner. 

The average yoga instructor might walk into a FitAbilities class and see a form of organized chaos. Not all of the students will be participating in the activity I as the instructor am leading. Yet to the level that she is able, each student will be engaged in the class. To give an example, one student would come sit on his mat at the beginning of class for the opening song and then spend the remainder of class kicking a soccer ball against the gym wall or shooting baskets. As the instructor, I brought all the students over to take turns shooting baskets and then if they missed (which they usually did since none of them could see the basket) they had to pick a yoga pose for everyone to do. After three weeks of looking like he wasn’t engaged in what I was teaching, this student drew a picture on his iPad of himself and his classmates on their yoga mats doing different yoga poses. He was able to tell his teacher who each figure represented and what yoga pose they were doing in the picture. Yet this student never did a single yoga pose in class. Clearly he was doing yoga. His yoga just looked different than the other students’ yoga. 

How the pose, or asana, looks is so much less important than how the asana feels for students with blindness and visual impairment in particular. Since this of us who practice yoga and are also blind experience the world through touch and sound, these senses also need to take precedence in how teachers teach students who are blind. Even a student with significant residual sight who is only given visual instruction or told to focus on how a pose looks to an outsider will not have a full experience of the pose because the experience is disconnected from how she experiences things in the rest of her life. Instructions need to be given through multiple modalities, need to be specific, descriptive, and related to familiar movements or tasks. It is not enough to substitute a visual demonstration of a pose with a tactile graphics or even a 3-D model. Students who are blind need more than just descriptive words as well. Believe it or not, there are blind people who are visual learners. For these students words are important, but don’t create the full picture. 

As with any student, be sure yo ask before touching a blind student. She may not mind being touched or having you move her body to a particular posture, but she is also most likely capable of moving her own body and certainly deserves the respect of her personal space. If you use what seems like descriptive language such as “reach your arms straight out off your shoulders” and the student with a visual impairment just stands there, he doest have a full picture of what his arms are supposed to be doing. Even more specific verbiage such as “let your arms hang down at your sides, now start to lift them away from your body out to the side until your hands feel as high as your shoulders” seems like a lot more words, but provides your student with a much clearer understanding of what he is to do with his arms in warrior two. Once his arms are out to the side in the correct position, you can become more specific about palms facing down, and move on to what other parts of the body are doing. 

Even some commonplace analogies may not have relevance for a student who has never seen them. When I teach airplane pose (warrior III), I pass around a small toy airplane to provide the students with a tangible reference of arm position like airplane wings. 

Perhaps the most important skill that is developed through yoga for students who are blind and visually impaired is their sense of proprioception - their awareness of where they are in space. This is a skill they use to navigate the world without sight. Learning to transition from simple poses like cat to cow and back or downward facing dog to upward facing dog can help strengthen a students proprioception. The key here is to start small with a single focus and work up to larger transitions. Unlike with sighted students whose first journey into yoga flows may be with a sun salutation, students who are blind will need to develop some basic proprioceptive skills before they are able to conceptualize what a transition from a forward fold to plank pose should feel like and how to move to get their body from chattering to downward facing dog. Simply telling them to lift their hips into the air from lying on their belly isn’t enough. 

If you as a teacher understand the anatomy and function of the poses you are teaching (i.e. downward facing dog is about length in the spine rather than in the hamstrings) you are one step closer to being able to provide meaningful instruction to a student who is blind or visually impaired. The more you hone your vocabulary, particularly movement-related adjectives, the more clearly you will be able to give instructions to all of your students without the need to physically demonstrate. The more familiar you are with words that describe how children move, the easier it will be for you to find a variety of ways to help a blind or visually impaired student find their version of any yoga pose you choose to teach them. 

Even more important than the language I use, or the manipulative I bring to class are the questions I ask. Asking a student how a pose feels is of extreme importance in developing a blind or visually impaired student’s sense of success and consistency in yoga. I can talk about a pose and how it should feel, but once a student feels that pose in his own body, he will remember where his body needs to go the next time you call for that pose. Perhaps more than with fully sighted students, blind yogis will repeat even uncomfortable poses in the name of doing them right if not given the opportunity to find a more “correct for your body” version and develop that into muscle memory. Once that lightbulb goes on and the student’s body clicks in to what the pose feels like, it will stick allowing them to return there again and again. This is why I’ve found this to be very important to tackle within the first time I teach a pose as muscle memory builds fast for people who are used to getting a majority of their environmental information through touch! 

So I challenge you, take a class with your eyes closed. Listen to the words the teacher uses. If you did’t already know what the pose being cued looked like, would you know from his or her words? Are you aware of how poses feel in your body. Close your eyes next time your in downward facing dog. Occasionally allow your sense of touch to guide your practice. It’s certainly taught me to be a stronger, more inclusive teacher.

*This article was first published in the Journal of Accessible Yoga Fall 2016.