Since starting my Yoga journey, I’ve always been drawn to its reputation for being inclusive, open and suitable for everyone. The word Yoga can be literally be translated as ‘to unite’. However, it largely remains a practice focused on visual and verbal instruction. For many with dual sight and hearing impairments Yoga is inaccessible.
Having been involved in Yoga since a teenager, when I began studying Deafblind studies, I became more aware of the need to ensure that yoga could be truly accessible to all. I started to question whether Yoga could be taught through touch and if so, how could this be achieved? This was what propelled by journey into teaching yoga to people with Multi Sensory Impairment (MSI), and in 2006 I completed my teacher training with British Wheel of Yoga; the same year I wrote my dissertation on Yoga and Deafblindness.
Yoga has numerous physical and health such as muscle flexibility, strength, breathing exercises and general relaxation. However, the benefits of Yoga go beyond health and wellbeing for many deafblind participants, who have the opportunity to connect with their own bodies and the bodies of others in a meaningful way.
I first started teaching MSI Yoga at national charity Sense’s TouchBase South East centre, which offers support to those with sight and hearing impairments. Within the first few sessions, the benefits of spending time together in this way became increasingly evident. Although the group spent time working on physical postures, the true connections came through just breathing together. When we take away sight and sound, we often find ourselves challenged to fill the void; however something as fundamental as human breath is a great start for a human connection that builds the foundations of trust and reciprocity.
Traditional yoga is focused on what a posture looks like and verbal guidance can be precise and detail orientated; however yoga for children and adults with MSI has to be much more experiential and tactile. The sessions have to be focused on how a posture should feel, they have to be accessible and they have to be truly inclusive. The groups we support at Sense have reported that being able to access Yoga sessions have helped them to reduce their stress levels, learn to relax, increase their flexibility and lower their heart rates. We’ve even had accounts of some of the deafblind people we support using pranayama breathing exercises outside of class in their day-today lives to help them self-regulate. But physical benefits aside, the most poignant feedback we received time after time was how enjoyable it was to be able to do an activity as part of a group that feels inclusive. Family members and carers, staff and service users are all able to take part as an equal group, enabling bonds and connections to be made through shared activity.
We often hear the myth that ‘I can’t do Yoga because I’m not flexible enough’ and we’re quick to dispel it, knowing that Yoga is not all about asana (physical postures) but is a whole way of life and thinking. When taught mindfully it can be incredibly powerful and liberating and this is why I’m so passionate about ensuring the practise becomes more inclusive.
Many Yoga schools and centres across the country are inaccessible due to their focus of visual and verbal commands, which means that the 250,000 deafblind people in the UK are inadvertently prevented from taking part. When we take into account that we have an ever increasing, ageing population (Sense estimates that by 2030 there will be over half a million people with dual sensory loss), it’s critical that we start tackling the issue of inclusivity in Yoga and readdressing the balance.
A few years ago, I met up with the founder of Special Yoga Foundation, Jo Manuel, and the synergy between our two organisations was instantly obvious. Special Yoga is an organisation that offers therapeutic Yoga sessions to children with disabilities and complex needs and also runs a number of programs enabling yoga teachers, parents and paediatric professionals to deliver Yoga to the special needs community.
This relationship led to the development of a course aimed at empowering existing yoga teachers to offer Yoga to those with sensory impairments, by equipping them with practical skills and tools. Delivered for the second time on Saturday 21st May 2016, the course was kindly supported by Sport England and Yoga Alliance Professionals.
The course saw 12 participants from diverse backgrounds join together to expand their knowledge and help make Yoga more inclusive. Whilst some had experience of teaching people with MSI, others were fresh to the experience and feedback was unanimously positive all round.
Comments from the last course:
I would recommend it to care workers, teachers, TA’s, parents, carers and yoga teachers. It gives practical information, tools and experiential skills in relation to working with people with MSI. The teaching is delivered in a professional, passionate and heart-felt way; Graham’s humour, skill and insight is excellent.
There were so many useful ideas – I can’t wait to implement them in my own practice.
I truly believe that yoga teachers and bodyworkers already have so many of the skills needed to support people with MSI – it’s just about translating what we are trying to teach into a different format and being creative. By moving away from some of the Instagram images of what Yoga should look like and starting to think about ‘why we practice this?’, ‘how could I demonstrate that physically?’ and ‘what outcomes am I looking for’, you are already on the right path to supporting Yoga to become more inclusive.
This article has been taken from the 2nd issue of Amrita Yoga Magazine released in 2016. If you are interested in buying this magazine, you can do so from here!