ASL Sign Language Livens Deaf Yoga
"PAH!" is the ASL sign for "at last!" At last, here is a yoga class where deaf students can relax and participate fully.
A global shift is afoot to raise worldwide consciousness by beginning within and, in the words of Mohandas Gandhi, "being the change we wish to see in the world." Values of compassion, integrity, dignity, support, and joy are not lost despite the violence and fear we sow in mass media and contemporary places of global conflict. There are still public and private figures who teach equality and inclusiveness, and model them in their own lives.
One measure of a society's compassion is the extent to which the mainstream of public life includes people who are different. One hundred years ago, Helen Keller was speaking publicly for the need to educate deaf and blind children to tap into their human potential. We have come far since then, but in many ways, still today, to be a person who is hard-of-hearing means to be shut out from many public experiences that have been designed to accommodate a hearing majority. Something a hearing person takes for granted, such as signing up for a fitness class at the local community centre, may be fraught with obstacles for a deaf person. Now Leonarda Ehl is working to change that, one yoga class at a time, and with her yoga DVD Yoga Pah! signed in ASL.
Yoga Instructional DVD in American Sign Language with Yoga Pah! and Leonarda Minutillo-Ehl
On one of the last sunny Sundays of summer I met Leonarda Minutillo Ehl and her Yoga PAH! class at Spanish Banks in Vancouver in the early morning when the grass was still wet and the dog walkers had not yet left home. As the class unrolled their mats on blankets facing English Bay and the round blue mountain peaks called the Lions, they were communicating excitedly in silence with busy hands, for these students are deaf and their language is American Sign Language.
Some are experienced at yoga, others are here for the first time to try, for in this class at last they do not feel frustrated because they don't hear and speak. Here Leonarda teaches them in ASL, and one of her first instructions is to count their breaths in a pose and come out after three breaths if she doesn't cue them otherwise. This frees them to relax into the poses where they lose eye contact with the teacher, as in Child Pose, Downward Facing Dog, or Savasana, so they can relax into the posture and feel the benefits. Because they get instructions directly from the teacher, without the need for an interpreter, they don't need to look back and forth from teacher to interpreter, with delay in understanding the instructions. They can follow the class directly with a minimum of distraction. "I finally feel I can relax in yoga class," one student says.
To practice yoga in nature is particularly healing. When we stand in Tree pose in a forest, or in Mountain pose gazing at a mountain, we feel rooted to the centre of the earth and deeply connected with the oneness of all things. Here, against a backdrop of mountains and ships at sea, the willows drape on grass, the shadows shorten and the morning warms. As Leonarda moves through the flow of postures, from opening meditation and centering, through pranayama or breathwork, Sun Salutations, and into a sequence of seated, lying on the belly poses, arm balances and standing postures, ending with final relaxation, I can see the power of yoga settling the class. I can see the participants moving into concentration and inner stillness and they focus on their breath and wrestle with the geometry of the body in the postures, striving to hold even the strenuous postures in comfort, at the place of dynamic stillness where the opposing lines of energy are balanced.
Centering at the start of class in Spanish Banks Park, with Stanley Park and freighters from around the world on English Bay in the background.
Signing opening instructions.
Tapping energy meridians to circulate life energy, or prana.
Watching instructions for Chair.
Holding Chair (Uttkatasana) position.
Resting in Child Pose watching the breath.
Beginning the Sun Salutations: standing backbend to Forward Fold.
Sun Salutations: right foot back to Lunge.
Sun Salutations: left foot back to Plank.
Sun Salutations: right foot forward to Warrior 1.
Sun Salutations: Breathing in Warrior 1.
End of Sun Salutation: Standing Backbend to resting in Mountain Pose.
Signing instructions for Warrior 2.
Adjusting Warrior 2.
With holding and breathing, the mind quiets and yoga begins. Patanjali Yoga Sutras begin with "Yoga chitta vritti nirodha"--yoga quiets the movements of the mind.
Stillness in Warrior 2.
Balancing in Side Plank
Leonarda started her own yoga journey in university with a Sivananda teacher who taught her for ten years. Her life felt better when she practiced yoga, and she saw the practice transforming her. Her interest in signing began when she worked the summer she was 18 in the same restaurant as her deaf cousin, one year older. This inspired her to learn sign language, and she went on to become certified as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and as a teacher of the deaf and hearing impaired.
A few years later, the two interests, in yoga and signing, crossed. She attended the Canadian Deaf Women's Conference at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in early 2006 and was invited to lead a yoga class for participants. Each morning of the Conference she taught a yoga class to 21 women from across Canada, an experience which opened her eyes to how isolated many deaf people feel from yoga classes. To learn more, she joined a Deaf Yoga Retreat at the Sivananda Ashram in New York in 2007, where one of the organizers invited her to come and sign at the Bahamas Sivananda Ashram. There on windy days on the ocean platform, hearing yoga classes would be moved because the hearing people could not hear, but the signed classes went on anyway, because the ocean noise did not bother them. Pictures from this class are at www.yogapah.com.
Leonarda has released a DVD called YogaPAH! A Taste of Hatha Yoga that includes a 10 minute class outdoors, a 30 minute class indoors, 2 mini lectures on "yoga" and on "om," a glossary and a pre-teaching instruction where she signs the instructions of how to use the DVD to guide home practice. This allows students to move directly into the flow of the classes without the distraction of the detailed instruction every time they use the DVD. There are subtitles, a voice-over, and signing. Both deaf and hearing yoga students will be interested. More information is on the website www.yogapah.com.
"PAH!" Yoga at last!
Are you a teacher of the deaf, or the parent of a deaf child? Are you the teacher or parent of a hearing child? YOGO24 is a 24-hour yoga relay that runs Nov 30-Dec 1 under the umbrella of UNICEF in honour of Wold Aids Day. Read more about it here. Its mandate is to bring yoga into the schools and allow children to benefit early from the health, mindfulness and community-building experiences of the practice. Ask your local yoga teacher to learn about how to bring yoga into schools for the deaf this fall, either through visits by ASL-trained yoga teachers or through training for ASL-knowledgeable teachers in the rudiments of yoga with the help of Leonarda's Yoga PAH! DVD.
Gandhi, Mohandas. An Autobiography or The story of my experiments with truth. Dover Publications; Dover ed edition (June 1, 1983).
Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. W. W. Norton & Company; Cen Sub edition (May 5, 2003).
- Yoga PAH! with Leonarda
Leonarda teaches yoga for Deaf people, and for hearing people as well.
- Yoga Sutras, Chapter One - On Being Absorbed in Spirit
Patanjali Yoga Sutras is the classic textbook of yoga, the first written record of the teachings.
- Sivananda Bahamas Yoga Retreat
Sivananda Bahamas Yoga Retreat
- Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres | Ashrams
International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres. Founded by Swami Vishnudevananda over 50 years ago, we have over 60 yoga centres and ashrams around the world. Our teacher training course now has over 26,000 graduates. We offer yoga vacations, retreats
Are you a deaf or hard-of-hearing person?
If you are a deaf person, to what extent is lack of access to ASL Signing at public fitness classes a barrier to your participation?
Do you know someone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing?
Gandhi's ideas about resisting violence without becoming violent are an influential model for social reform.