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Benefits of Yoga for People with Visual Impairments

Yoga, an ancient Indian exercise system, is uniquely appropriate for people with visual impairments. Very little equipment is needed. After some postures and stretches are learned, the yoga student can work alone at home or continue with a class. There are many components; any of these may have a positive long-term impact.

Coordination and gentle exercise: For those people who are not very good at physical education activities, yoga is a chance to start again and develop strength, flexibility and balance.

Stretching and range of motion: Many types of exercise stress strength training and result in bulking up of muscles. Yoga emphasizes stretching muscles and working to increase each individual's range of motion.

Posture and body awareness: As strength, flexibility, and balance increase, as well as confidence, posture may change. Old habits of movement are noticed and may change -- one's whole appearance may change.

One-pointed awareness and body-mind unity: Concentration on the breath and movements is a concrete experience in mental focus -- which can be generalized throughout all life experiences. This mental focus can help a person learn to dismiss frivolous and insignificant thoughts when they surface and become a distraction.

Relaxation and stress management: The relaxation component of yoga introduces people with visual impairments to a whole new dimension. People with visual impairments who travel in the community with a cane or a dog have to maintain a very high state of alertness whenever they travel. They never can relax and travel automatically. A sighted driver is similarly alert when driving in a strange city or in a snowstorm. After driving the same route repeatedly, or after the snow stops falling, there is much less need for such alertness. The sighted driver can operate almost automatically. People with visual impairments do not get a chance to travel independently in such a relaxed state. When yoga was first taught at Pittsburgh Vision Services, about 20 years ago, the participants commented most frequently about this newly discovered area -- relaxation. Everyone was delighted to find such a rewarding new aspect within themselves.

Supportive and non-competitive atmosphere in class: Yoga teachers make a conscious effort to create a supportive approach with each individual student. There is no competition or comparison between class members. One way to observe one's personal progress is to notice when one's former limits are being exceeded.

Finding a suitable yoga teacher: In order to teach yoga successfully to people with visual impairments, the usual teaching methods need to be changed. Either a current yoga teacher will need to learn how to teach motor activities without depending on strictly visual demonstrations, or a current teacher of people with visual impairments will need to learn how to teach yoga.

From Liz DePiero, retired teacher, WPSBC, volunteer
yoga teacher, Pittsburgh Vision Services


Talking to a totally blind person can be like talking to someone on the phone. YOU CAN'T SAY "WATCH ME. DO IT LIKE THIS.”

Extra groundwork at the beginning: You need to establish names for the positions you are in before you start moving into a posture, such as: table position to get ready to do the cat stretch. seated, legs crossed (tailor sitting, sit like an Indian, sit like a Buddhist) long-sitting (seated, legs straight ahead) side-sitting (seated, one leg bent outside, with that foot beside your seat, the other leg like tailor-sitting), knees and legs parallel; you may need to lean on the hand on the side away from your feet

The learning progression is to understand and do the movement, to move smoothly, to coordinate the movement with your breathing, to do the movement with the other side of your body or to the other direction, and to do the movement very slowly.

You need to explain moves explicitly. I tend to avoid using Left and Right unless they are necessary. “Stand on one foot ... stand on the other foot."

Have each student determine his or her dominant hand and foot. Often this is the hand you eat with, and the foot you automatically balance on. Then you will be able to say "Stand on your dominant foot.”

Every position needs a name. Long sitting, feet somewhat apart, move feet to one side and then the other. The students named this "windshield wipers." Later, when lying on our backs with knees up, I painfully tried to explain letting one knee bend down to the middle and then the other, and a student said, "That's windshield wipers with your knees!" Use the ancient Indian names in English. Some moves resemble more modern ideas (windshield wipers). People who were born blind may need to learn the idea of the move if they have never seen it.

Let the student determine when it is time to switch to the other side. "Do this until you get tired on this side, then switch." Ask them to do it the same number of times on each side or the same number of times in each direction.

Sometimes you need to be a model.

Some of your students may have a little vision. You may need to move near them and let them watch you. To make it easier for them, you may need to wear plain-colored clothing, with high contrast with the background behind you.

For people with no vision, you may need to be in front of them, facing the same way they are, have them feel you as you move, with your verbalization as a backup.

You may need to move a student into position if they don't understand your directions. One of my students just didn't get the move for Cat Stretch. I demonstrated it beside her, with her feeling me. Then she tried it and I helped by pushing her into the arched position before she understood.

To increase awareness of a move, have the student feel his or her body as the move is made, such as placing a hand under the small of the back when lying down on your back, to feel the arch at the waist. Then bend the knees up and feel the arch decrease, as the back is flattened. Another example -- put your hand on your abdomen to feel your breathing.





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