February 19, 2012

Yoga: Lead Us from Darkness to Light.

Do you hear with only your ears? Do you see with only your eyes?

How can you chant a mantra if you can’t hear? How can you practice yoga if you can’t see?

These are the types of questions I asked myself before attending a yoga class for the blind and deaf. Bente Ramsing invited me to her yoga class a couple of Sundays ago. The moment I stepped into her classroom I got a little nervous. Why was I nervous? It was just yoga. I practice it. I teach it. What was the big deal? I realized that I had never been around a blind or deaf person before (when was the last time I was around a ‘disabled’ person?) – it was the unknown that was getting to me. This wasn’t going to be just any yoga class. I was going to be practicing alongside someone who couldn’t see me or hear me. My limited, scared little brain couldn’t fathom it.

As I got into a simple crossed-legged position on my mat, my thoughts continued to go on and on. What was this class going to be like? How was it going to feel practicing next to a blind and deaf person? How was she going to know what to do? Could she feel my presence? Was she scared? How would someone like me address her, communicate with her?

The ninety-minute class started with a short meditation – all of our eyes closed, all of us in the dark. I was right next to Bente’s student, who sat next to her interpreter. Bente sweetly led us through a series of sun salutations, standing and sitting poses until we found our way into final resting pose. I experimented a few times by closing my eyes during a vinyasa–trying to feel if only a tiny magnitude of what this other student could be feeling, experiencing. Have you ever closed your eyes during your practice? What happens to your balance? What happens to your mind? Sometimes it’s scary, overwhelming and sometimes it can take you to a place of surrender and expansion of an unknown warm vastness wrapping its arms all around you in all the right places.

The class ran so smoothly. There were no unusual interruptions, there were no outbursts, but there were just a few instances when I became aware of the soft muffled sound of moving hands – fingers coming together, motioning, creating a silent language. It was Bente communicating with the interpreter and her student. They used tactile sign language. It blew my mind. My heart softened. My mind humbled. My Universe increased in size.

Sign for yoga.

I realized that Bente had invited me into a new world. Her world where all students regardless of blindness or deafness were seen as individuals. She delicately instructed all of us (there were other non-blind/non-deaf students in the class) to find our own potential. Bente, with her soft tone, her open heart and her gentle guidance invited us into an essence of yoga, an essence of oneness, no matter if we could see it or if we could hear it.

When Bente Met Ella

Bente Ramsing, who has been working with the blind and deaf for twenty-five years, became a certified yoga teacher 1.5 years ago for the sole purpose of wanting to share this practice with the blind and deaf community:

“A couple of years ago I was working on a project in Nepal. There was a school for deaf and blind children. I wanted to see how they were teaching – we found that the students there were learning yoga and practicing every morning. I noticed that those children’s bodies were much better than the Danish deaf and blind children’s bodies. I knew then that I wanted to bring this back to Denmark.”

Upon getting her teaching certification, Bente put an advertisement in a blind and deaf magazine offering yoga teaching. She received one response. This one response came from Ella Shaeffer who is 69 years old. Before reading Bente’s article, Ella said she knew nothing about yoga, yet she wanted to practice because she wanted to do exercise, but didn’t know how:

“I wanted to practice yoga because my body was very stiff. I should have started practicing long before, but I could not find an interpreter. I started yoga because I wanted to feel my muscles and my body.”

Ella and Bente.

I asked Ella how her body was feeling now that she had been practicing for several months:

“My body has changed a lot. I’m not 100% without problems, but my body has changed a lot for the better. In the beginning, it felt nearly impossible to do postures, but it slowly got better and better. I used to go to a chiropractor, but it didn’t really help. I feel a lot better than before. I feel and stretch my muscles like I never have before and the breathing helps a lot.”

Bente says that Ella’s posture has gotten so much better and that her heart area is much more open. She said that every time Ella leaves the class, she is shining. I have to agree. Ella was all smiles and beaming at the end of class.

To help Ella get a feel for what is happening, Bente has created two ‘new’ yoga signs. She said she created two of them so far. She draws a smiley mouth on the back of one of Ella’s shoulders to let her know she’s doing the pose perfectly. She’ll also gently scratch on the back of one of Ella’s shoulders to let her know when the class is laughing.

It was obvious to me that perhaps yoga isn’t an option available to most people who are blind or deaf. I asked Ella what she thought about this:

“This is new for blind and deaf people. Many (blind and deaf) people wouldn’t be open to this or they don’t know about it. A lot of them are scared to try new things. It’s just the way it has been.” 

And, what about teaching to blind and deaf students? Bente said that it isn’t very common for people to teach yoga to the blind and deaf. Because it’s something new and because you have to get very close to the student, it can be a matter of overcoming a lot of fear.

Bente said she dreams of starting a new revolution – to bring people together in society no matter who they are:

“If you meet someone like Ella, it’s hard to understand how she lives or what she is all about. You don’t know how to go up and say hello, but it is possible to find the courage. It’s important to remember that when she, or other people like Ella, are on the yoga mat, they’re no different from you or me.”

You don’t need eyesight to see the light, and you don’t need hearing to listen to its sweet, supreme guidance. Thank you Bente, thank you so much.

{Yoga for the blind and deaf is taught at Yogacentralen in Frederiksberg, Denmark.}


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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