Paths to Literacy

for students who are blind or visually impaired

What Is Yoga and How Can It Benefit My Child with a Visual Impairment?

Child doing Downward Dog poseThere has been a lot of talk about yoga lately. Many people tout the benefits of yoga, including improved energy levels, cardiovascular health, and increased flexibility. While the general public has seen dramatic results from incorporating yoga into their lives, yoga has even more benefits for children with visual impairments.

Yoga is a safe and effective exercise for children with visual impairments. Because of the gentle nature of this exercise and its tactile barrier of safety (our yoga mats), the exercise practice of yoga boasts a plethora of benefits for children with visual impairments. 

When I first started teaching at TSBVI, the ever-wonderful Linda Hagood was teaching yoga to children with visual and multiple impairments. I was lucky enough to see first hand the miracles that were happening with our students. From better communication skills, self-determination skills, to increased literacy. Of course, as an Orientation and Mobility Specialist, I was most fascinated by the increased motor planning and spatial awareness skills. 

This simple form of exercise has helped to shape hundreds of lives of children with visual impairments. It can help your child improve their life as well. 

 

First of all, what is yoga?

Yoga is a form of exercise that focuses on both your body and your breath. The breathing component is what makes it so powerful as a tool to use after the yoga session is over. As a practice within our schools, yoga is NOT a form of religion or spirituality. It is simply a very accessible mode of exercise that is motivating, fun, challenging, and beneficial to people with visual impairments. 

You may have been to a yoga class or seen one depicted on the media. Just like those classes, children often use yoga mats or other soft, non-slippery surfaces to practice. People move their bodies in different poses within this space to get exercise and to focus on their breathing. As with any exercise, yoga helps make you happy, gives your heart more power, and helps release stress. Aside from the exercise benefits, our children with visual impairments benefit greatly from this practice. 

 

Benefits of Yoga for Children with Visual Impairments

 

1. Increases motor planning by having to learn new movements.

Yoga poses are not typical walking, sitting, standing postures. Many of the poses are new movements for our children. As you teach your child how to move in a new way, their brain is learning new ways to plan their movements. The brain creates new pathways with this new information. Then, as they begin to plan movements off of the mat, their brains can readily pull out the information about the new movement pattern.  For example, if your child has been experiencing difficulty getting their backpack off their shoulders and onto their school chair, they may start to use the twist that they learned in yoga to help them move their body and put their backpack on their chair. 

2. Increases body and spatial awareness by having to move your body in new ways.

When your child is asked to move one arm above their head, they may lift their arm out to the side. Yoga creates a safe space for the caregiver to gently help your child learn where “above” their body is. By helping the body move in to the correct place around their body and the proprioceptive feedback given to the brain from the position, the child then has a better understanding of where “above” her head is. 

3. Increases communication skills when the child is asked to communicate during the session.

In typical yoga classes at a studio, a teacher often gives directions to the class and the class members move without talking. Yoga with children with visual impairments is wildly different than your “typical” class. In a yoga session with children with visual impairments, the children are often active participants in their literacy and communication. Not only are children often asked to engage with one another (if there is more than one student in the session), but they are also encouraged to engage with the teacher. They may be asked to make a choice between yoga poses, plan a story to be read within the yoga session, or engage in a conversation about the yoga session. 

4. Increases self-determination skills by giving the students challenges that they can eventually overcome.

The inherent challenges that we face when we are asked to do something new facilitate self-determination skills. Many children find yoga poses to be a fun challenge. Once they learn how to do the pose, their sense of self-determination increases immeasurably! Any exercise program that you complete once a week for at least 12 weeks has scientifically been proven to increase your self-determination skills as well. 

5. Increases literacy when stories, lists, and other literacy is infused.

When practicing yoga, many teachers use braille, large print, or tactile symbol lists to help their students practice literacy skills in a fun and engaging way. 

 

Ready to try yoga with your child with visual impairments? 

Try incorporating these three poses into their day. You can have a separate yoga session, or incorporate these poses into a “yoga break”, where they can do a little movement between seated activities. 

Sunshine Breath

From seated:

  • Bring your hands together so that your palms touch. 
  • As you breathe in, keep your hands together and lift your arms up towards the ceiling. 
  • As you breathe out, separate your hands out to the side and bring your arms down to your sides. (Teacher’s note: Have the child place their hands on either the ground or the seat of the chair). 
  • Continue with this breathing pattern for 5 breaths. 

 

Reaching Mountain Pose

  • Come to standing. (You can stand behind your chair, desk, or table if you were just sitting.)
  • Lift your arms up towards the ceiling, strong and straight. 
  • Feel your belly get bigger when you inhale. 
  • Blow out and feel your belly come down. 
  • Have the student breathe in and out for 3-5 breaths. 

 

Moon Pose

From standing with your arms above your head:

  • Hold your hands together. Interlace your fingers. (Use other words such as “glue your hands together” if those concepts work better). 
  • Lean over to the left. 
  • Breathe in, feel your belly get better. 
  • Breathe out, feel your belly come down. 
  • Have the student breathe in and out for 3 breaths.
  • Keep your hands together, arms strong and straight, and lean over to the right. 
  • Breathe in, feel your belly get better. 
  • Breathe out, feel your belly come down. 
  • Have the student breathe in and out for 3 breaths.

 

Note: Get creative and use the words that are appropriate for your individual student. For example, if a student does not know what a ceiling is, you may want to either use the teachable moment to explore a ceiling, or use the word “sky” instead. 

Leave a comment below and let me know which pose was your child’s favorite. How did you work these poses into your child’s day? How did they make your child feel?

Yoga collage

Comments

I am a visually impaired

Posted by Torie

I am a visually impaired adult,, and never thought of yoga being used to help children with a visual impairment. When you think of it though, it teaches you how to move within space, how to know where you are on your mat, how to listen to what you are being told, how to focus on what you are being told. The list is endless. I have attended different yoga classes, all taught slightly differently. Some may have music the whole way through, while others only have music at the start or end of the class. Some may have no music at all. Some may last an hour and a half, while some only last an hour. The yoga class i attend is very much focused on what you want to do. If you don't want to do a posture, you just breathe it out or modify it to suit what your body feels like doing.

This was deffinetly a very interesting article though :)

yoga

Posted by Linda Hagood

Thanks for the nice comment Kassy! I'm not a yogini, just a speech therapist who's really found yoga to be a rich activity for bringing teams together and connecting with kids.  Your post reminded me that we all might have different goals for students when engaging in yoga activities.  I've really loved the kundalini children's yoga program that is promoted by Shakta Khalsa (childrensyoga.com).  It is great for kids who are visually impaired because it has lots of mantras and songs.  When I have adapted this program for v.i., I have addressed 3 different goal areas for communication, and they are described in my book entitled Better Together: Building relationships with people who have autism and visual impairment (2008) TSBVI.

1. Connection with others. Activities ike "passing energy" in which we sit in a circle and pass sounds or words around, squeezing hands to indicate connection, the "trees and the forest", in which students try to do the balance pose with arms up and standing on just one leg (usually quite a challenge), then connect to each other in a circle, arms on each others' shoulders to be a forest --the message is "we are stronger together as a forest than alone as a tree."

2. Self-regulation.  The mantras and songs, as well as the rhythmic movements in kundalini yoga are helpful for teaching kids that they can control the loudness, speed and intensity of their body and voice. There are mantras such as satanama that can be chanted at loud, soft and medium volumes, ending with a silent chant that is "inside your head" (beginnings of meditation).  Activities like carrying a bell across a room without ringing it to deliver it to a friends also teach self-regulation.

3. Creativity and symbolic thinking.  You mentioned stories, and I have had great experiences building yoga stories. Some kids learn poses (asanas) first, and this is a good way to begin to represent concepts like "mountain" and "moon" and "tree" or animals they may never have seen.  Other children, like one I remember who had Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and associated movement anxiety, like to write a yoga story first, bringing it to the group and teaching them how to do the movements that accompany the story.  This young woman's yoga stories usually involved her own anxieties--the nervous butterfly, who has to try satanama chants, ommmmmm chants, child's pose, and snake to calm down. Another example was the butterfly who couldn't find a friend, trying the elephant (too big), the lion (too loud), the dinosaur (too slow), finally locating a bird as a good friend who shared the joy of flying.  After she had brailled the stories, she was more willing to come to yoga and to use the stories to support demonstration of the poses with other kids.

I have loved doing yoga with O & Ms as well as OTs and classroom teachers.  Its a great place for me to observe how others might interact with students.  Thanks for starting this conversation!

Question, and a Resource

Posted by Allison H

Check out http://blindyoga.net/ for audio yoga tutorials.

Has anyone tried a Mommy and Me type yoga class with their VI toddler? My 19MO and I are both partially blind and considering joining a local yoga class for babies and toddlers. I'm concerned that accessibility challenges will make the class un-fun though. Anyone else tried it? I've taken yoga classes in the past and liked okay, but it's a whole different ballgame with a toddler. She will have less patients for inaccessibility than I. :D

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