Teaching yoga and meditation to deaf and hearing impaired students is not much different from teaching anyone else. It takes mindfulness and a tailoring to their individual needs. A little awareness and some simple tweaks to your teaching can make all the difference in giving a deaf or hard of hearing person the experience they deserve. Below are some tips and guidelines to help make your class “hearing impaired-friendly.”
It’s okay if you don’t know how to sign
American Sign Language (or ASL), is the official language of deaf people in the USA, and is “spoken” with the hands. It is a fascinating and beautiful form of communication but it’s not something that one can learn overnight. I, myself, am definitely still a student. It’s okay if you don’t know how to sign right now. Most deaf are used to communicating with hearing folks in different ways. Often they are skilled at reading lips, which is one reason it’s important to make eye contact and face them when you speak. They’re also pretty good at deciphering your gestures and would probably beat you at a game of “Charades” any day of the week! Feel free to use these to your full advantage in order to get your message across. Point to body parts, right and left, etc. whatever it takes. But if you ARE interested in having some signs at your disposal, there are several websites out there that can get you started. Think of some of the most common words and phrases that you use when teaching and then compile a list of those that you want to learn. This can be an interesting reflective exercise. The internet has several free sources for learning signs, simply “Google” and off you go. Another idea is to learn the ASL Manual Alphabet as you can then finger spell words to the students. Practice in front of a mirror or better yet with a friend.
Make eye contact
When I asked a dear deaf friend of mine what advice she would want to give teachers new to instructing the hearing impaired she said this, “Provide eye contact often so the deaf can begin to relate in whatever way needed.” Eye contact, facial expressions, etc. are all important forms of communication. Eye contact engages a student and helps them feel connected to you and like a recognized member of your class.
Demonstrate and explain
Demonstrate and explain postures, pranayama techniques, meditation methods, etc. BEFORE having the students go into them. This way they can pay full attention to your instructions, have an idea of what they’re doing beforehand, and can then focus entirely on the task at hand. In general classes, we teachers will often continue with verbal cues as our students actively practice, which is beneficial. However, if you can’t be heard, a student will have to strain, come out of alignment, or out of the pose entirely just to see you; or they risk missing all of that great and important guidance all together. This is why pre-explanation/demonstration is so important.
Once you have your student in an asana (after you’ve explained and demonstrated), a physical adjustment can be just the thing for helping them to understand what you were trying to convey and to maybe help them go a little deeper. This is no different than a hearing student. You may want to let them know in the beginning that there is the possibility of physical adjustment during the class. This way they know what to expect and are not started when they don’t hear you coming up to them. Ask permission in case they want to opt out as not everyone feels comfortable with this.
Keep them in the loop
When a hearing impaired student is in a posture such as child’s pose, or savasana, where they are unable to see, or their eyes might be closed, keep in mind that you will need to let them know when it’s time to transition. A gentle touch to make them aware of what’s going on will prevent them from being the only ones lying there when everyone else has gotten up. If you have dimmer switches in the room, a simple rise and fall of the lights could also work, much like the chimes or singing bowls some teachers will tap to cue students. Another idea might be to have a student practice something for a certain count, or amount of breaths, which they can keep track of on their own (but keep in mind that one student’s breaths might be longer than another’s). Did you ever fall asleep in savasana and feel a little silly, or like you missed something, when you opened your eyes and were the only one lying on the floor? Then you have an idea of what I mean here. This is a courtesy that allows a student to be on the same page as everyone else.
I believe that yoga should be accessible to everyone and that, with a little bit of mindfulness and modification it can be. Maybe you know a deaf person who is interested in yoga, want to offer lessons to a deaf acquaintance, had a deaf person walk into a class and want to be more prepared for next time, or just stumbled upon this article and figured it would be good to know just in case. Whichever example you might fall under, never be afraid to work with a person to bring them the benefits and joys of the practice you love.
Natalie Kraft is a certified teacher of yoga and meditation and holds degrees in both Psychology and Holistic Health and Wellness. She consistently works to integrate these practices when working with clients. Natalie lives in Ocean City, NJ with her husband and their two beautiful daughters. Connect with her through her website, Facebook, or Twitter.