Written by, Amy Lynn Smith
The first time someone suggested I try yoga, I thought, “No way! I’m not a pretzel.” But I could not have been more wrong. I discovered that yoga isn’t about exceptional skill or flexibility. It’s about aligning with the center of who you are and finding bliss in even the gentlest of movements. Even better, yoga is adaptable to everyone, no matter their physical or visual abilities. Yoga benefits the mind, body, and spirit, especially when combined with meditation.
During the hectic holiday season and all year long, yoga and meditation are a wonderful way to reconnect with yourself and relieve stress, while moving your body in ways that help you feel both centered and expansive. I spoke to my two favorite yoga teachers, Sara Davidson Flanders and Natalie Piet, for tips on ways people who are blind or visually impaired can get started with a yoga and meditation practice.
Sara, who began her study of yoga and meditation in 1992 and has extensive training in teaching many forms of yoga and meditation, says sighted students often have the experience of practicing with their eyes closed – proof that vision isn’t needed for yoga. However, she suggests that people who are visually impaired and have never practiced yoga start with postures on the floor, either seated or lying down, or in a straight-backed chair. You can build confidence and strength, then try standing postures, maybe holding on to the back of a chair or using a wall to help with balance. A yoga mat also adds stability.
Although videos can provide helpful audio cues (see list below), there’s a simple practice anyone can do sitting in a chair or cross-legged on the floor.
“It’s a beautiful practice of moving the spine in the six directions: a forward fold, a back bend, a twist to one side and then the other, and a side bend from one side to the other with the arm up by the ear reaching toward the direction you’re bending in,” Sara says. She adds that the back bend can be as simple as lifting your chest and pulling your shoulders back and down while seated, or lying on your stomach and lifting your chest and head using your forearms for support. “Taking smooth, easy breaths in and out through the nose, and spending three breaths in each position, can be very supportive for the nervous system and being in touch with the body.”
Natalie, a yoga teacher and Ayurvedic practitioner, underscores the importance of breathing.
“During the day our breathing tends to be shallow, so as we move into practice we want to deepen the breath – sometimes we say belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing – and channel it through the nostrils with the jaw relaxed and the lips closed,” she explains. “Then just keep your presence inside the breath. It’s natural for our minds to wander, but make it the ritual of the practice to very sweetly continue to abide this presence inside the flow of the breath.”
Alignment is important, too. Sara recommends that beginning students work with a video or, if yoga studios are open, a teacher. “Especially for students who are visually impaired, alignment cues really help give a lot of instructions on how to flow into the movements,” she says.
If a local yoga studio is open, or offering online classes – as many are during COVID-19 – call and ask if they have teachers who are especially good at providing alignment cues. Many videos will offer the same level of detailed description, especially those created for people who are blind or visually impaired.
But alignment isn’t just about positioning your body to get the most out of the postures and do so safely. There’s an inner component, too.
“There are a few different ways to think about alignment but I think the highest is that we’re aligning with our own source within,” Natalie says. “The breath helps our mind and body align with our heart. In our culture, we spend a lot of time in our head, and the physical practice of yoga invites our vital awareness and presence back into our body.”
The same can be said of meditation – which truly is for everyone, she adds. “Especially for someone who is visually impaired, I think they would just delight in the practice because of the infusion of vitality that meditation brings to life and the other sense faculties in general, and it’s a wonderful way to process and release stress.”
Meditation doesn’t have to be elaborate or time-consuming. Just a few breaths or five minutes a day can be enormously beneficial.
“Start with a couple of deep breaths to commit to turning inside, to check in with our own deep inner wisdom and presence – it’s really a refreshment for the whole being,” Sara says, noting that when sighted people meditate they close their eyes. “To just feel into the movement of our breath, to feel our placement in our body and our surroundings and just settle into the experience of being present with what is can be very powerful at bringing a sense of connectedness and centeredness, and cultivating peace inside ourselves, which is a great gift anyone can do at any time.”
There are websites created for people who are blind or visually impaired, as well as teachers like Sara and Natalie who provide detailed verbal descriptions. Both Sara and Natalie offer private online sessions. You can reach Sara via her website below and Natalie at Natalie.Piet@gmail.com.
BlindYoga.net, for beginners who are blind or visually impaired
BlindAlive, yoga for beginners who are blind or visually impaired
Full Radiance, Sara’s website, which includes free videos
Yoga in the Dark, a documentary about yoga for people who are blind or visually impaired