Tuesday 3 December 2013

How Yoga Practice Can Be Useful to People with Impaired Vision and the Blind?

I have taught free yoga classes to male students of a vocational training center for the visually impaired in Bangalore, India since March 2013. A short video which presents our work can be watched here.

The students are 18-30 years old and many of them come from underprivileged families across the country. They strike as people of extraordinary sensitivity and kindness. Those with severely impaired vision or blindness tend to be free from judgments about their own or others’ appearances, which makes them so distinct from typical youths in this age. They are constantly involved in helping each other and often maintain physical contact to facilitate walking and other casual functions. 

Most of them went to general schools where they were the only pupils with impaired vision and studied without access to Braille or audio books or computers adapted to their needs. In spite of that, they have lived in a relatively protective environment without extensive social interactions or the possibility to interact fully with their palls or modern technologies.

On graduating from the center they will likely find an employment and take the first step into a more independent life. This also means that they will leave their protective zone and will likely be faced with the rather hostile environment of modern Indian cities.

I believe the beauty of yoga lies in our ability to constantly evolve and reconsider what the essence of this discipline means to us.

Studying and teaching yoga in India over the last two years, I’ve learned from many teachers representing various traditions, but even more, I am continuously inspired by work with my students. Seva has become my path in this process, as I endeavor to bring free yoga classes to people who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to practice.

Our story

Just like Yin and Yang in the Chinese tradition, Ha and Tha represent the masculine and feminine principles in Hatha Yoga (a term which encompasses all posture-based yoga practices). The Ha element embodies the solar, expansive and active qualities, whereas the Tha element the lunar, integrative, passive ones. These two counter-qualities cover everything that exists in the world, from inorganic matter to human physiology and psychology.

In this context, the practice of postures (asanas) is a process of self-study of these two opposite forces and their integration in order to achieve a greater physical and mental balance. 

Each of us starts their yoga practice with a different constitution of these qualities, and their dominance may vary in different aspects of our practice. Nobody is entirely Ha or Tha, but these qualities interweave each other in a very dynamic way. 

I believe that the art of teaching yoga relies in large part on the ability to assess what is the current constitution of a student and propose them practices which will enable them to further explore these two qualities in themselves. 

While exploring their dominant element (usually their 'strength' or 'asset'), a student gains self-confidence, but may also get carried away and further exacerbate its dominance leading to strong imbalance. 

I then propose them a practice that embodies the opposite quality, which results in sublimation of these two experiences and establishes a greater balance between these two energies.

Here, I share the profiles of Praveen aged 18 and Kumar aged 22. Each of them embodies a dominance of one of the two energetic qualities Ha or Tha. They often experience stress related to studying in the training center and passing exams. The stress hampers their concentration when revising material and also echoes at night when they have trouble getting to sleep. These problems were Praveen's main motivation to join the yoga program. Kumar experienced some of these as well, but his main motivation was to increase his strength and health.


From the first class I have taught to Praveen I knew that his main strengths in asana practice were calm perseverance and great balance. Encouraged by his impeccable Vrikshasana (Tree pose) I  proposed that he do the Parivrtta Utthita Padangusthasana (Revolved Extended Head-to-Foot pose, see picture below). I was amazed to see that someone with severely impaired vision can do this posture so easily. Not only did this asana take me months to master, but even today I largely depend on my sight to balance myself in it. I saw confidence growing on Praveen's face as he was able to hold this expanding, invigorating posture for over a minute.

Praveen has a lean and firm body which doesn't allow him to go deep into stretches, but he has a great bodily sensitivity which guides him how far he can go without injuring himself. Because of his short hamstrings, a full extension of the lifted leg was initially not accessible to him in the Parivrtta Utthita Padangusthasana. So, I offered him forward folds such as Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch pose) which are excellent hamstring stretches, but also have strong calming and introvert qualities.  

As testified by Praveen in the video, the practice of yoga improved his confidence levels. Indeed, in spite of being determined and patient when practicing new asanas, he would usually underestimate his capacities. 

When, after 5 months of practice, I proposed him to do the Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) with the support of a wall, he insisted that this would be too difficult to him. However, when I assured him that it is safe and that I will be spotting him, he agreed to try the posture. He then tried to master it with his typical perseverance and he was exhilarated that he could actually do it. 

Praveen also likes meditation, chanting of sounds (A-U-M) and Nadi Shodana pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing), which all allow him to experience a state of deep relaxation. He said that this experience was “new” and “amazing”.


Kumar has exceptional flexibility and in his first yoga class with me he was able to do the full versions of intense forward folds such as the Baddha Konasa (Cobbler's pose, see picture below) or Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend). He also loves to explore slow movements, and he takes over a minute to contemplatively sit up cross-legged after relaxation in Savasana (Corps pose) at the end of the class. 

Whereas many people equal yoga practice with high flexibility, 'letting go' and slow movement, in Kumar's case these qualities were so dominant that he was unable to assume any standing posture for longer than 5 seconds. 

He would literally fall on the ground when struggling to hold relatively easy postures such as Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) or Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose). Also, even in the 'passive' seated forward folds he was not able to stay for longer than 30 seconds as his mind wandered and sought change.

I found two solutions which gradually helped him to master these basic standing postures and hold them for almost a minute. First one was the support of the wall behind the back of his entire body, which I suppose helped him relate his body to one plane established by the position of legs in these postures. We later changed the support to standing perpendicular to the wall and touching the wall with the outside edge of his back foot.

Second solution helps Kumar still his mind, which otherwise has a strong tendency to 'let go' and defocus. I simply count down from 10 or 20 to help him stay focused and if I forget to do so, Kumar will certainly ask me to count for him. This solution was not evident to me, as I generally consider counting distracting to practice and avoid it in my general classes.

In the video, Kumar testifies that thanks to yoga he feels "stronger inside" and can breathe more freely. I think he is now more aware of the dominance of the passive Tha qualities in his constitution. Thanks to the practice of standing and balancing postures he has discovered internal resources of the more active Ha energies which help him hold them for longer with a combination of muscular strength and mental focus. He wouldn't probably describe it verbally in this way, but I believe he can feel it.

Praveen and Kumar have only practiced for a few months, but they have already experienced that yoga has transformed them. Apart from the benefits described above, they also find it easier now to fall asleep at night and can cope better with what they describe as "too many thoughts in the head". 

As defined by the World Health Organization, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”   

Interestingly, this definition brings the full meaning of ‘health’ closer to the goal of yoga practice. In this sense, yoga is a wellness discipline, which is offered to people not as a generic prescription, but rather as an art of self-study that can lead to self-realization. However, regardless of their current level of health, what is good for one practitioner may harm another one.

In yoga, I discover for myself, my teachers have discovered for themselves, and you need to discover for yourself.

1 comment :

  1. This is my first time i visit here and I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially it's discussion, thank you. Guided Meditation for Eating Disorders