Teaching yoga to the visually impaired takes a different approach; using only basic yoga poses presented in a clear, step-by-step manner, specially designed for those with little or no sight. One of the most important things to remember is to give good verbal cues. First, you set up the parameters or “landmarks” for the students to use as a reference point within the room and on their yoga mats use the mat edges for alignment cues. In the beginning, keep the poses close to the mat and use a similar sequence to build confidence. Use the walls and a chair if necessary for a safe practice.
We use our eyesight for so much of our everyday balance; you know how hard it is to balance in tree pose with your eyes closed? Visually impaired people tend to be very rigid and tense due to the fact that they are constantly on vigil to stay balanced and not fall or trip. Because falling is the leading overall risk of injury for the visually impaired, overall balance is essential and yoga can help. Turning up the music in balance poses also helps them to “tune in” and bolster the hearing sense.
Breathing techniques help them work through physical and mental stress. Using the breath as an anchor or a focal point instead of the vision, this technique helps build much-needed self-confidence. Remember not to rush and to encourage slow mindful movements. Give them time for understanding spatial relationships with balance and movement and time to develop the mind-body connection. In addition to all the wonderful mental, emotional, and physical benefits yoga brings to every practitioner, visually impaired people enjoy these additional specific benefits: Greater spatial awareness, mental acuity, balance, improved posture, and confidence in movement.
Benefits of Yoga for Children with Visual Impairments
1. Increases motor planning by having to learn new movements.
Yoga poses are not typical walking, sitting, standing postures. Many of the poses are new movements for our children. As you teach your child how to move in a new way, their brain is learning new ways to plan their movements. The brain creates new pathways with this new information. As they begin to plan movements off of the mat, their brains can readily pull out the information about the new movement pattern.
2. Increases body and spatial awareness by having to move your body in new ways.
When your child is asked to move one arm above their head, they may lift their arm out to the side. Yoga creates a safe space for the caregiver to gently help your child learn where “above” their body is. By helping the body move into the correct place around their body and the neutral feedback given to the brain from the position, the child then has a better understanding of where “above” her head is.
3. Increases communication skills when the child is asked to communicate during the session.
In typical yoga classes at a studio, a teacher often gives directions to the class and the class members’ move without talking. Yoga with visually impaired children is different than your typical class. Children are often asked to verbally engage with one another (if there is more than one student in the session), they are also encouraged to verbally engage with the teacher. As you can imagine, these classes are noisier and more interactive than a typical yoga session.
4. Increases self-determination skills by giving the students challenges that they can eventually overcome.
The inherent challenges that we face when we are asked to do something new create self-determination skills. Many children find yoga poses to be a fun challenge. Once they learn how to do the pose, their sense of self-determination increases immeasurably!
Visually impaired students seem to more easily turn their attention inward and focus on how the poses feel in their own bodies. I have students who ask, ‘Am I doing this right?’ I’ll say, ‘You tell me. Does it feel right?’ Yoga is about empowerment and getting in touch with their body intelligence.