Vikki O’Brien: Why I set up The Deaf Women & Yoga project

Posted on March 20, 2017

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The Deaf Women & Yoga project originated out of a combination of my enthusiasm for the benefits of practicing yoga, and my friends at the Deaf pub either recounting their experiences or wanting to know how they could access yoga classes.

It was funded by City of York council to introduce yoga, through BSL, to Deaf women in the city. Each woman received a complimentary mat to enable them to develop a home practice.

Most Deaf people I’ve spoken to who’d been to yoga classes, without appropriate access, reported injuries to necks and backs and a level of anxiety from the limits presented by either trying to lipread or follow audio cues.

It was clear that the full information, and the whole experience, of a yoga class wasn’t always happening for Deaf people, particularly those who used BSL.

That’s not to say they weren’t welcome in yoga classes, no-one mentioned being told they couldn’t participate or being discouraged from returning. This goes to show that the ethos of yoga being a practice that is open to everyone and anyone is heavily ingrained in the yoga community.

However, this doesn’t provide a bridge to finding a way to being truly engaged in a yoga class or being able to understand the specifics of asana (postures), pranayama (yogic breathing) or pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses).

Yoga is like a jigsaw puzzle, in a way, you need to have all the pieces to begin to create the picture. It may take a lifetime, or more, to really see the picture clearly but you need all the pieces to start with.

Yoga teacher training is all about creating good verbal imagery and being able to direct well through audio cues.

I remember, during my teacher training, thinking ‘how will this work for my friends and family who are Deaf’? It has been quite a challenge to guide a yoga class in BSL, to find the appropriate signs and way of explanation that maintains the richness and depth of information that is found in a spoken English yoga class.

It’s not simply just translating from English/Sanskrit (original language of yoga) to BSL, but finding a way to effectively explain transitions and visually show where the body needs to be in a posture, how the breath nourishes the body and how best to use it, and encourage participants to be relaxed enough to perhaps close their eyes.

The level of anxiety reported by Deaf yogis was a big surprise. Some of the Deaf people I spoke to said they were worried if they closed their eyes, the class would finish and they would be left in sivasana (corpse pose/final relaxation) while everyone else left.

They felt that it was difficult to know when to move to the next posture and were unable to lipread when they were in poses like adho mukha śvānāsana (downward facing dog). With this in mind, I decided to take a three-pronged approach and allow time for explanation, demonstration and exploration.

I created hand-outs of the surya namaskar (sun salutation) by drawing yoga stick people and filmed myself going through the sequence, to support the series of workshops for Deaf women. In class I provided live explanation and demonstration and then the women had the opportunity to explore, ask question to me and to their fellow yogis.

It worked well, the classes were more like workshops and took longer than a spoken English class would, but they were very successful.

Interestingly, the personal development and interaction extended beyond the mat and into the tea break as topics of conversation began to cover women’s issues. It was remarkable to witness the organic development of a comfortable, safe space that grew on and off the mat.

Many of the women reported better sleep, improved flexibility and self-awareness. They also commented on the benefits of using yogic breath to create a calm environment. Some were confident enough in their own developing practice to go to a regular yoga class and participate.

Being able to provide the tools to enable Deaf people to participate in any yoga class is the aim of what I want to do with BSL yoga. By raising awareness of what Deaf people need to appropriately access classes, bridges can be forged to enable Deaf people to explore yoga from an authentic and heartfelt place.

After practicing yoga for over 6 years, yoga teacher training has led Vikki to offer yoga classes and workshops in British Sign Language, a language she is fluent in and uses everyday with her friends and family.

Vikki has been involved with the Deaf community in the UK for over 15 years, studying at the University of Reading (Theatre Arts, Education and Deaf Studies), and completing her Master’s degree in Deaf Studies at the University of Bristol. Her work with the Deaf community has included communication support work, drama facilitation and community advocacy.

Whilst working with Deaf children and their families in the South West of the UK, Vikki also completed a diploma in Dramatherapy (University of Worcester) and a postgraduate certificate in Mental Health and Deafness (University of Birmingham).

Now living in Yorkshire, she teaches hatha and vinyasa flow styles of yoga to Deaf and hearing people. The combination of working with the breath and movement simultaneously in classes, brings an internal and external awareness to participants that can lead to personal growth and development. Vikki is currently studying to become a children’s yoga teacher and hopes to incorporate family yoga classes into her future class schedule.

You can find more information on facebook: @bslyogayork or www.bslyogayork.wordpress.com

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