Handing on Knowledge: Teaching Yoga to the Deaf

Norma Colon

Jennifer KaganB.K.S. Iyengar has said, "The sun shines everywhere, it does not shine only here and there. In the same way, yoga is for everyone." By everyone, he does not mean only those who hear, speak, and see, who have two arms and two legs, who are strong and vibrantly healthy. Guruji said everyone. Full stop.

But everyone does not have access to yoga. The Deaf and hard-of-hearing community is one of the most underserved populations. According to the DeafYoga Foundation, there are 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States; only a few yoga classes and 20 instructors serve them.

That inequity is starting to be addressed by DeafYoga (deafyoga.org) and, in the Iyengar Yoga community, by Jennifer Kagan, a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and graduate of the Teacher Training program at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York. This spring, Jennifer teaches "Yoga in American Sign Language," an eight-week course in yoga fundamentals accessible to Deaf students. The series follows the groundbreaking 2007 class for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing taught by Vicki Vollmer (Intermediate Junior I). Jennifer, who had presented the idea to Senior Teacher Mary Dunn, interpreted in American Sign Language (ASL) as Vicki taught.

That inequity is starting to be addressed by DeafYoga and, in the Iyengar Yoga community, by Jennifer Kagan.

Vicki leapt at the chance to teach a class she found innovative and challenging, saying, "The idea of communicating the power and depth of yoga without the tool of verbal language was fascinating." She signed up for ASL classes and began to study Deaf culture. The class was well received, but Vicki moved to Italy after the second semester. I offered to teach the class with Jennifer. The class was canceled, but Jennifer was not deterred. She started two evening classes for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing at a downtown Manhattan studio. The classes were successful. She also taught yoga in ASL at LaGuardia Community College for one semester. That successful class has moved to the New York Institute, where it has crowded the assigned studio.

Vicki recalls how much she enjoyed teaching the class with Jennifer. According to Vicki, there's not a great difference between teaching the Deaf and the hearing, because "when we teach yoga, we utilize our whole being to express the information. Language is an important tool, but just as the Deaf students never took their eyes off me, I had to heighten my tools of expression–pace, rhythm, facial expressions, clarity and simplicity of demonstration–while being sure they could always see me." Vicki says, "I loved working with Jen as a team, the give and take, seeing what worked and what didn't. I was blessed to work with an ASL interpreter who knew our subject [Iyengar Yoga]. I would love to teach a class like this again, but I think the ideal situation is to have someone like Jen–a serious practitioner of yoga, a teacher, fluent in ASL and a member of the Deaf community–teach. I recommend that anyone who takes on a class for the Deaf study some ASL; it's fun and allows us an experience of another way of being in the world."

Teaching Iyengar Yoga to the Deaf

Jennifer teaches Iyengar Yoga to her Deaf and hard-of-hearing students in ASL–using her hands, face, and body. A resident of Brooklyn, she was certified at the Introductory level in 2008 and is also a certified ASL interpreter with 15 years of experience. She also teaches classes for hearing students. "Continuing to teach in English is essential to the development of my teaching," she says, "and to my ability to transfer that knowledge into a second language [ASL]."


ASL Yoga logo
Jen Kagan's logo, with the hand shape for "Y", is on T-shirts she sells to fund scholarships for students who can't afford yoga classes.

"ASL is an incredibly efficient and dimensional language," says Lynette Taylor, Jennifer's ASL mentor, "a visual, gestural language with linguistic features such as depicting verbs and classifiers. Some of our verbs mimic the action, and our use of classifiers is a way to indicate movement and who is doing the movement."
In preparing to teach Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Jennifer created a mentorship with Taylor, an advanced, longtime ASL interpreter and instructor. She consults Taylor on language use and communication specific to yoga–largely uncharted territory. They work together in asana practice as well as conversation, defining, clarifying, and refining ways to communicate yoga better through ASL.

When asked if Deaf and hard-of-hearing students respond differently than hearing ones, Jennifer says, "I find Deaf students incredibly focused and able to translate what they see [in the teacher's demonstration] to their bodies. They are more investigative with the actions. They ask thoughtful, analytical questions. They are very focused. I don't have to teach them how to look and see: that is natural for them. I only have to direct their eyes. They make me a better teacher."

What follows is an interview with Jennifer in which she explains her experience of teaching Iyengar Yoga to Deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Q. What special difficulties and challenges do you meet teaching Deaf students?

A. I see Deaf students not as disabled, but as a cultural group with a unique visual language. This requires adaptation so that my teaching is completely visual. This can be a challenge, but in that challenge, there is so much to learn. The disability is in my limitations in being able to meet their needs.
When students can't see me, there is no communication. So, I have to break down my teaching into discrete actions that build on one another. This is no different than how we are taught to teach [Iyengar Yoga] to the hearing.

If I have to make eye contact during a pose, I alter my position so they can see me. In poses where they can't see me, such as Adho Mukha Svanasana, I get down to their eye level; in Ardha Uttanasana at the wall, I get underneath them.

Because the "scaffolding" of poses is so important, I like to teach in a course format with the same students for a set amount of classes. I have to "scaffold" and link much more consciously.

Deaf students have to use visual memory more than the hearing students. They see a demonstration, especially for a pose in which they won't be able to see me, and they have to remember the actions. I have to be clear and succinct with my instructions. But they don't have the luxury of being led through the instruction as hearing students do. So their attention to the demonstration has to develop smriti (memory) and they have to apply the actions independently once in the pose.

I can't add elaborate or add in new points while they are in a pose in which they can't see me. Often that means we do fewer poses. But because Deaf students are eager to learn and understand, repetition and a slower pace are not so much an issue. If I've given clear instruction and a clear demonstration, I can observe whether it is working.

Some Deaf people have issues with balance, so I use the wall from the beginning to build confidence.

One of the difficulties I have are poses where I can't use my hands. For instance, if I'm teaching Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, I have to explain what is going to happen and then show it. I have to be extremely articulate with my own body, and I have my own limitations. When I saw students struggling at first, I questioned my ASL, I questioned my teaching. And while this self-analysis is still important, the students need the same time to gain understanding as their hearing counterparts.

Since the students gain most of their information visually, I demonstrate and do all the poses with them. This can become very tiring, so I'm looking into other visual aids, including the use of technology, to support their understanding. I have taught with an assistant who signs, and that is helpful as well. I can split the room and she shadows my instructions. But an Iyengar assistant would be great. Typical studios do not have mirrors, but in fact, mirrors are very helpful when teaching Deaf students because I can move around and still be able to communicate.

In general–show, show, show. Use "do"

and "undo" in your demonstration and make

it clear which is the correct action and which

is incorrect.

Q. How do you work with inversions?

A. Before teaching Sarvangasana, I teach poses that build confidence and opening. Then I teach Chatush Padasana before sending them upside down. I teach shoulder stand and Chatush Padasana with the feet on the wall so I can stand over them and they can see me. In the beginning, I have two students work at a time and let the others watch.

Q. Are certain actions or poses especially hard to communicate without the use of spoken language?

A. I think many poses create a challenge because I'm used to teaching in spoken language. I have to rethink what I do and be much more conscious in how I build up to the pose. If I've taught the actions well, then I can refer to previous poses and actions for understanding. Vicki is the one who taught me to be innovative about placement of students. She thought quickly on her feet and made intelligent and sensitive decisions about room setup for visual accessibility. I sometimes get stuck in class and think, "What did Vicki do?"

As my students mature in their practice, I look forward to culling natural language from their experience. Remember, this is all new; there is no precedent in the ASL language for yoga language such as "pull up the knee caps" or "lift the chest." I look for the students' expression of their experience and incorporate it into my teaching. I teach from my understanding, so I am translating that experience from English to ASL, but as the Deaf students mature and develop, naturally derived language begins to blossom.

Q. It's been said that hearing is the most important sense in Pranayama. Have you worked with Pranayama, and how does it go with your Deaf students?

A. I don't teach Pranayama beyond breath awareness. I use [the ASL sign for] the lights dimming up and down; the sign for that mirrors the sign for "inhale and exhale." This provides a visual and mental support. And it's something the students created.

I believe that the importance of hearing in Pranayama is for hearing people and that there is a way for Deaf folks to experience it. They have a different relationship to their breath other than hearing. Since I am not deaf, that path to Pranayama will be one that the students will uncover. It is something that will develop in time with their input and the mentorship of a senior teacher who is open to finding a path that isn't dependent upon a hearing paradigm. I know this is not a limitation, but a challenge for us to rethink the approach.


Jennifer Kagan teaching
Jen Kagan teaching yoga in American Sign Language at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York.

Q. Do you have advice for teachers who may not be working with an entire group of Deaf students, but rather with one Deaf student among a population of hearing students?

A. Communicate with your student and see what they need. Every deaf person is different in terms of residual hearing, comfort in a hearing environment, preferred mode of communication, and identity as a Deaf person. Do not assume they can lip-read. Do not assume they can understand you.

In general–show, show, show. Use "do" and "undo" in your demonstration and make it clear which is the correct action and which is incorrect. Use another student and point–literally point–at where you want the students to look. That's very important. Point where you want their eyes to go, otherwise they won't see what you are doing. Slow down. Check in with the Deaf student to make sure they are following. They must be able to see you. If they don't, there is no communication.

Alert the student when the pose is finished or the class moves to another pose. Let them know how you will alert them, saying for example, "I will touch your back when you are finished." Or flash the lights or bang on the floor. Show how you are going to adjust them before you do it; tell them why you are doing it. Be conscious about the "tone" of your touch. Observe their bodies for understanding: that is something we do for all our students.

Vicki approached teaching Deaf students with an attitude of, "How can I adjust my teaching to their needs?" It became a fun challenge. If we think of Deaf students as disabled, it only leads to frustration.

My hope is that Deaf students will be ignited by yoga and attend other classes. Hopefully someone will choose the path to become a teacher and the association will accommodate them to make certification possible. A Deaf teacher teaching Deaf students would be a dream come true!

Norma Colon, a Latina from The Bronx, New York, is an Introductory certified Iyengar Yoga instructor with 30 years of experience. Immensely grateful for the blessing that Iyengar Yoga is in her life, Norma is a strong supporter of the Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York and writes about yoga every chance she gets.