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Deaf Yoga: 

Deaf Yoga
by Sherrill Stone
12/1/2008

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 enlightening practice!

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 instructions.

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.

Namaste*

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
 


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