One tenet of karma yoga (or yoga of action) is seva—a Sanskrit word for “selfless service.”
I believe the beauty of this discipline lies in our ability to constantly evolve and reconsider what the essence of yoga 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 endeavour to bring free yoga classes to people who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to practice.
I’ve discovered that by diversifying the students we teach and the contexts in which we practice, we open ourselves to the intense richness of experience and meaning of yoga practice.
Yoga for Youths With Impaired Vision
There are two million blind children in India, but only five percent of them receive any education.
Fortunately, vocational and social skills training is provided to at least some people with impaired vision through non-profit centers across the country.
I have been teaching free yoga classes in Bangalore in one such center since March, 2013. My students are young males, age 18-30, many of whom come from underprivileged families across the country. Upon graduation they will likely find employment and take the first steps into a more independent life.
Here is a short video which presents our work.
Modern urban India is a rather hostile, noisy and competitive environment, but the vision-impaired people I’ve met here exemplify just the opposite.
They strike me as being people of extraordinary sensitivity and kindness; they are constantly involved in helping each other, maintaining physical contact to facilitate walking and other casual functions. While modern society is largely driven by consumerism and appearances, those with severely impaired vision or blindness tend to be free from judgments about their own or others’ appearances—a stark contrast with typical youths of their age.
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, and 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 our 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.
In my current understanding, the art of teaching yoga relies in large part on the ability to assess the current constitution of a student and propose to 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 a practice that embodies the opposite quality, which results in sublimation of these two experiences and establishes a greater balance between these two energies.
I would like to share the profiles of Praveen (age 18) and Kumar (age 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 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 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); I was amazed to see that someone with severely impaired vision could 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.
However, Praveen has a lean and firm body which doesn’t allow him to go deep into stretches. Because of his short hamstrings, a full extension of the lifted leg was initially not accessible to him in Parivrtta Utthita Padangusthasana. To help him with this, 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.
In spite of being determined and patient when practicing new asanas, Praveen would usually underestimate his abilities. After five months of practice, when I proposed to him that he do the Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) with the support of a wall, he insisted that this would be too difficult to him. I assured him it was safe and that I would be spotting him, and 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. As he testifies in the video, the practice of yoga improved his confidence levels.
Praveen also likes meditation, chanting of sounds (aum), Nadi Shodana pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing) and forward folds; all which allow him to experience a state of deep relaxation. And, the experience, he said, was “new” and “amazing”.
Kumar has exceptional flexibility, and in his first yoga class with me he was able to do full versions of the intense forward folds Baddha Konasa (Cobbler’s pose) and Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend). He loves to explore slow movements, and he takes over a minute to contemplatively sit up cross-legged after relaxation in Savasana (Corpse pose) at the end of the class.
Though many people equate yoga practice with high flexibility, ‘letting go’ and slow movement, in Kumar’s case these qualities were already so dominant he wasn’t able to maintain any standing postures for longer than five seconds. He would literally fall on the ground when struggling to hold relatively easy postures, such as Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) and Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose). 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.
The first one was the support of a wall behind the back of his entire body, which I suppose helped him relate his body to one plane (established by the position of the legs in these postures). We later changed to standing perpendicular to the wall, touching it with the outside edge of his back foot.
The second solution helped Kumar still his mind, which 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 immediately 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 probably wouldn’t describe it verbally in this way, but I believe he can feel it.
Praveen and Kumar have only practiced for a few months, but in addition to 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.
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Photos: elephant archives & Szymon Jarosławski