great canadian yoga stretch: extending ideas of accessibility

This month is the first annual Great Canadian Yoga Stretch, a fundraising and awareness building campaign for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. It operates in a manner similar to many fundraising campaigns: participants set their “stretch goal” (anything from finishing their first yoga class to mastering a difficult pose) and ask their friends, coworkers and relatives to sponsor them as they work to achieve it.

The objective is to promote the healthy benefits of yoga and to raise money for research and programs for people with vision loss and blindness. All the funds raised will go towards fostering health and wellness in Canadians with vision loss, including nutrition counselling, independent living skills training, and fitness and exercise programs.

“I was born blind in one eye, so this event spoke to me,” said ambassador Will Blunderfield, a Vancouver-based yoga teacher and musician. “As a baby, my mother knew that there was something different about me. I had surgery when I was two years old to correct the blindness in my right eye.”

While I was scrolling around the GCYS website and researching the event, I came across some resources on yoga for people who are partially sighted or blind. I realized that I had never even considered the challenges that somebody without sight would face in a yoga class. As a yoga teacher who teaches in my community and believes in making yoga accessible to all, I was very humbled.

Talking with Will, I saw that he had a similar realization. Even though he has “recovered” from blindness, thanks to the research and programming of organizations like CNIB, he has never had partially sighted or blind people in any of his yoga classes.

“Doing events like this make me realize that yoga isn’t as accessible as it could be,” he said. “It makes me think about how we can work to include everyone.”

Will had some ideas for ways to open up the practice. “As a musician, my classes are very sound-oriented. I do my best to give clear, easy-to-understand alignment cues, and once students are in the pose, I use a lot of “feeling” and “descriptive” language (for example, “like an eagle in flight,” “triumphantly lift your heart as you lower your shoulders”). Being clear with our alignment cues and using visceral descriptive phrases I think is key for leading classes for people with vision impairment. Also encouraging the whole class to soften/close their eyes can be a unifying practice, encouraging all of us to listen more closely to both the instructions and the breath.”

I realize that the GCYS isn’t about raising money so blind people can do yoga; it’s not as simplistic about that. It’s about raising awareness about healthy living, and raising funds for a variety of programs and research for vision. However, the event has succeeded in challenging my assumptions about the accessibility and availability of yoga, and seeing that there is another population who may be in need but can’t participate because of barriers.

What you can do:

  1. this made me think about balancing poses. often, as a challenge, an instructor may ask the class to close their eyes in a balancing pose. out of ignorance, i wonder what balancing poses are like for the blind, and what a drishti means.

    thanks!

  2. Hi Roseanne,
    Thanks for posting about this, I’m approaching my goal woot! 🙂

    It’s funny, I think often about how yoga really isn’t that accessible… (beyond the whole money, race stuff) but then my life is basically thinking about individuals who have difficulties and special considerations.

    Specifically, how many hearing impaired individuals have you had in your classes?

    I think beyond simply being aware or adjusting your practice slightly, it would be wonderful for yoga instructors-studios to promote accessible yoga to these communities. Contacting local CNIB reps, community centres or organizations that would have more insights on how to support local individuals.
    Like the hearing impaired community, the community of the visually impaired can be quite separate from the community at large. Putting out emails, posters or changing your website, for individuals who have difficulty seeing, may not be enough.

    anyhoo- just some stuff that rumbles around my head 🙂

    Like you, I think this is a wonderful opportunity to broaden what we think of as “accessible”.

    Lisa

    • so true! i’ve never even had a partially sighted or hearing impaired person in any of my classes.

      this post has actually inspired a series about yoga for vision impaired people, and i’ll be talking with some CNIB reps/yoga teachers in the upcoming weeks. i’m really excited about deepening the conversation!

    • Given my chronic ear problems, there was a period last summer and fall when my hearing was somewhat impaired, though not enough to actually be a problem anywhere…except in yoga class, where the idea that speaking barely above a whisper, even when addressing a large group of people, is more spiritual or something seems rather popular. I found I had to avoid a number of teachers, since I could barely hear a word they were saying…and, actually, there are one or two I still avoid, since my hearing’s always a bit less acute than most people’s (and, while I do my best to position my mat so that my good ear’s toward the teacher, they tend to move around)…

      I feel like a bit of a jerk for writing that last bit, since the teachers I’m talking about are truly dedicated and generally great…but it’s been a problem at times (and, actually, I’ve seen a similar phenomenon with poets who insist on reading to an auditorium without a mike, since, apparently, having an auditorium full of people straining to hear them is “intimate”) and one that would be really prohibitive for anyone with a real impairment.

      Anyway, it’s great that you Canadian yogis are doing this, and, though I’ve sent a bit of monetary prana from below the border, I’d love to see a version of it down here…

      • yah, i hear what you’re saying, dr jay. there’s something about that “yoga voice” that many people feel they need to use when teaching yoga classes. it may not be the most effective thing, whether teaching a yoga class or conversing with people, or even speaking authentically in any kind of situation.

        and definitely: when it comes to yoga as service, canadian yogis rock! we know how to do it properly around here. i’m so grateful that you’ve been able to lend your support…

  3. I can’t wait to learn more – thanks for this information.