by Sherrill Stone
Although it is possible to just go through the mechanics of performing yoga
poses (called asanas) and obtain some physical benefits, it can be intensely
challenging to perform them correctly. The movements are fluid while
maintaining proper breathing technique and alignment of the spine. It sounds
easier than it really is. Unless you have a keen awareness of what your body
is doing, it is usually recommended that you attend a few classes so that an
instructor can help you position your body correctly.
But yoga is not just about the physical postures, it’s about a wholeness of
the mind and body, an awareness of your inner consciousness, being able to
control the activities of the mind, and the importance of being present in
each moment of your life. Participating in a yoga practice can be a lifelong
journey that benefits your physical, as well as mental, health.
So what if you’re interested but don’t understand the language or ideas
presented and can’t communicate with your instructor. For those who are deaf
or hard of hearing, this presents a challenge even before trying your first
downward facing dog! Then you realize that many of the poses are practiced
with the eyes closed and the instructor speaks very softly without much
facial movement! Or you’re unable to inform the instructor of a recovering
injury and you perform poses that you shouldn’t or that should be
drastically modified to prevent re-injury. Even if you can speech read, you
have to keep breaking from your pose to see what the teacher is saying, or
looking around to see what others are doing (Sexton). And perhaps the
teacher only uses the Sanskrit words for the poses, not English (such as
Padmasana, meaning Lotus pose)! This doesn’t make for a very relaxing or
Although, yoga was introduced in the United States in the 1960’s, most deaf
people have been unable to participate. Mostly because there were no classes
offered in sign language, but even if there is an interpreter present you
still have to keep watching them rather than concentrating on your teacher’s
movements or your own practice. Also many of the concepts don’t translate
well from English to sign, because they are in affect entirely different
languages. According to Lila Lolling, founder of DeafYoga, "There's no sign
for consciousness," she explains. "There is, but it [means] to know. [To
have] 'consciousness' and to 'know something' is not the same thing. There's
no standardized sign for yoga, meditation, enlightenment, or pranayama." (Mosteller).
Sure there are a few books on yoga that do a fairly good job of explaining
the movements, but a large portion of those in the deaf community use sign
language as their first language and have not learned English.
Recently, however there has been a “deaf yoga” movement. In Austin, Texas, a
health conscious city where the deaf community comprises 60,000 of the total
1 million population, 1 in 5 people participate in yoga(Sexton). So Lila
Lolling, an ASL interpreter and certified yoga instructor, founded DeafYoga
in 2004, dedicated to training deaf yoga instructors (both hearing and deaf)
and designing classes to make yoga accessible to the deaf. Her organization
is comprised of hearing and deaf students who are working on creating yoga
based words in sign language to “allow deaf people to explore the philosophy
and practice of yoga in their native language” (Sexton).
When teaching her classes, she uses a remote control for the lights and dims
them during the asanas and then brightens them to bring students out of the
pose. She waits until everyone is out of the pose to begin instruction and
demonstration of the next movement, signing through the movement and then
the class continues. If a student needs correction on a posture, she pulls
on their mat, touches their foot, or taps on the floor in front of them to
get their attention, then drops to within the students view to sign
One student who had been trying yoga for 10 years felt that even with
translators, “still things lost”, and finally found DeafYoga and said, “asl
cool. Spirituality…a wonderful thing. I feel like I’m expressed!” And
another student who had tried mainstream classes for over 30 years said many
of the concepts -breathing, meditation- were too difficult to grasp in
English, but now can experience and understand the concepts(Sexton).
And deaf yoga is already in other cities around the country. Leonardo
Minutello-Ehl who is a certified yoga teacher and teacher of the deaf offers
classes in Canada at Yoga, PAH! After teaching "Deaf Yoga" at a Canadian
Deaf Women's Conference she says, “I was amazed at how ready the Deaf
community is for accessible Yoga classes taught in sign language.” And this
fall at Gallaudet University, DeafYoga was taught to over 200 people
attending classes during yoga week (On The Green, Oct 2008).
Through teacher trainings offered by the DeafYoga Foundation, the number of
instructors (both deaf and hearing) is growing. Many cities and deaf
communities are offering classes either by teachers who are fluent in sign
or are interpreted for the deaf. Search the net and you’ll find plenty of
fliers for classes offered by those individuals who are willing to make the
adjustment! Not a surprise really, after all Kharma yoga is selfless
service, seeking to eliminate ego and to serve humanity without reward!
(Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center, 1996). What each of us do to benefit others
in turn benefits ourselves.
Sexton, Shannon. Date not available. Signs of Change, Deaf-Friendly Yoga.
YogaPlus. The Himalayan Institute. Retrieved 22, Nov. 2008: http://www.himalayaninstitute.org/yogaplus/Article.aspx?id=3177
3 Oct 2008. Yoga Week classes draw new and experienced yogis. On The Green.
Gallaudet University. Retrieved 22, Nov. 2008: http://pr.gallaudet.edu/otg/BackIssues.asp?ID=14115.
Mosteller, Rachel. Date not available. Silent Practice: Creative
communication is key in yoga for the hearing impaired. Yoga Journal. Cruz
Bay Publishing. Retrieved 22, Nov. 2008: http://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/2699
Minutello-Ehl, Leonardo. Biographical Information. Yoga, PAH! with Leonarda.
Retreived: 22, Nov. 2008. http://www.yogapah.com/about.html
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center. 1996. Yoga, Mind and Body. New York, New
York. DK Publishing.
*This Sanskrit word is also a symbolic gesture, of two hands pressed
together in front of the body while making a slight bow towards another!
“This gesture is a mudra, a well-recognized symbolic hand position in
eastern religions. One hand represents the higher, spiritual nature, while
the other represents the worldly self. By combining the two, the person
making the gesture is attempting to rise above his differences with others,
and connect himself with the person to whom he bows. The bow is symbolic of
love and respect.” from Wikipedia! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namaste