Yoga for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children

Swami Nirmalratna Saraswati, B. Ed., Dip. Lib.

In 1987 my work as a classroom teacher in the junior school of Van Asch College for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children, Christchurch, New Zealand, combined my studies in early childhood education, a few years classroom teaching and most valuable of all, my years of sannyasa life. I found myself surrounded by children who had everything that the average hearing children had. and more- deafness, in varying degrees from severe to profound. It was as if every aspect of human nature within these young children was magnified; every gram of sweetness, gentleness, innocence, eagerness to discover and learn and to be loved, as well as aggression, frustration, impatience, naughtiness- all magnified by their deafness or hearing impairments.

This was my first teaching experience with deaf children. I thought about the ease of communication experience when interacting with normal-hearing children, sharing a whispered secret, a game to guess the mysterious sounds coming from inside a sealed box, a walk in a park or in bush land to seek out the sounds of nature in a crunch of snow, in the rustling of leaves, in a bird's song, in the roaring sea. All the gentle and raucous sounds existing in our auditory world would not be part of the deaf child's experience.

I considered the immediately obvious difficulties that would arise upon diagnosis of deafness in a tiny child. The emotional upsets in family and social life, physiological strains and tensions when faced with developing tone, pitch and volume for "normal speech", the pent-up and suppressed energy that comes with coping in a world that is built to support and encourage the 'normal hearing person' etc. My mind began to consider what the ancient science of yoga had to offer these children.

Could yoga be adapted?

In what ways could yoga practices contribute to the expression of potential talents inherent in these deaf children? For children with pent-up feelings of anger and aggression, for those under pressure to achieve and conform, for emotionally distressed children and for those coming from emotionally charged home environments, the combined physical movements of yoga asanas and the progressive yoga relaxation practices are most appropriate and highly beneficial. Scientific research has shown that simple yoga nidra techniques help to induce deep relaxation, allowing the negative impressions stored in the unconscious mind a chance to come to the surface and dissipate.

The initial step seemed to be the practice of yoga nidra so as to induce some degree of mental, emotional and physical relaxation within the child. However, the technique relies on the ability to hear the instructions, so to adapt it for deaf children, alternatives to the usual verbal instructions were required.

Swami Satyananda had developed the present system of yoga nidra from the ancient tantric practice of nyasa in which the yogi adopted a meditation posture and mentally rotated his consciousness systematically through all parts of his body. This practice was to instil higher body awareness for meditation practices. As each part of the body was named and then visualized or touched, a specific mantra was placed in that body part.

From that technique of physically touching each body part came the idea of using the sense of touch to give the yoga nidra instructions to the deaf children. It was a great success. 'Touch-signs' would replace the spoken instructions. It needs to be appreciated that when profoundly deaf children close their eyes communication with the world is virtually lost, except for the sense of touch and feeling.

Initial steps for yoga nidra

The first yoga practices taught were to Minnie and Cher, two nine-year-old girls, both profoundly deaf. Their classroom teacher asked if I would teach them both some appropriate yoga practices. Minnie was having great difficulty in her speech therapy classes because her throat was 'too tight', no deep sounds could be produced in her voice box. Cher had similar problems but not to the same degree. My first thoughts were to teach yoga nidra, simhagarjanasana (roaring lion pose) and some simple pranayama. So, instead of their usual speech therapy Minnie and Cher came three times per week for yoga classes.

The initial yoga nidra practice was very simple. In turn both girls adopted a cross-legged sitting posture in front of me. I explained the instructions in my very limited 'Australasian Sign-Language' and demonstrated the technique to each girl personally, using the newly invented 'touch-signs', while the other watched intently. Their keen visual perception did not miss a movement and both grasped the practice very quickly. Before they closed their eyes to begin, I gave the following sign-language instructions:

  1. Sit in this cross-legged posture.
  2. Keep your body still. Do not move your body.
  3. When we begin, lightly close your eyes and keep them closed until the end of the practice.
  4. I will touch different parts of your body - right hand, elbow, shoulder, side of the waist, hip, thigh, knee, ankle, foot and then the corresponding parts on the left side of the body - with my hand.
  5. Each time I touch a part you must:
      a) say the name of that part to yourself
      b) see that part inside your head, like a picture, and
      c) Feel that part relax.
  6. When the practice is finished I will touch your forehead three times. Then slowly move your arms and legs and stretch your body. Lastly, open your eyes.

After taking personal instructions and demonstrations from me, Minnie and Cher practised upon each other several times. Having practised in the cross-legged posture, progressively adding more body parts (buttocks, back, shoulders, abdomen, navel, chest, neck, face, eyes, ears, cheeks, nose, lips, chin, etc.), I then demonstrated shavasana. Yoga Nidras from then on were mostly given in shavasana.

Extending the Practices

Subsequent yoga nidra practices were extended to include breath awareness in nostrils, throat, chest, navel centre and abdomen. Yogic breath was also introduced. It was very necessary to teach breath awareness in these specific body parts as separate practices before including them in yoga nidra. The children need to know, need to understand, how to do the breathing practices before you include them in the yoga nidra session. In this way you will not overload them with too many new instructions at one time. To be able to teach the breathing practices- thoracic, abdominal and yogic breathing - the instructor should know the practices well and be able to give simple sign-language instructions together with clear visual touch-sign demonstrations for each practice.

So as not to make the yoga nidra too involved or too long, only one type of breath awareness was given per session. Before every yoga nidra practice, instructions were given as simply and clearly as possible as to what the practice would include. In this way the children knew exactly what to do when the touch-signs were given by the instructor. For example, when breath awareness was to be part of the yoga nidra the children were told that after body rotation had been completed the instructor would lightly stroke the nose for nostril breath, or the chest for thoracic breath, or from chest to abdomen for yogic breath. The children had been taught that the breath awareness was to begin in the appropriate body part as soon as the touch-sign was given and was to continue there until that touch-sign was repeated.

Games of visualization had been made up during other classroom times so the children were well-versed in the procedure before it was incorporated into the yoga nidra practice. During these games each child decided on five to ten or more items that they wanted to see inside their head. With the inner gaze directed to the eyebrow centre (in shambhavi mudra), the child silently named his listed items in correct order as he visualized them one by one.

When visualizations were included in yoga nidra they always came after the breath awareness section or after body rotation, depending on which of these sections were in the yoga nidra practice. To indicate the beginning of the visualization section the instructor's palms pressed lightly onto the crown of the student's head. Then the children knew to begin visualizing the numerous pictures already chosen in their classroom visualization games.

After the visualizations had been worked through, the children were taught to finish the yoga nidra practice. A simple sankalpa can be added to the yoga nidra if appropriate. For my situation and students, the best time for the sankalpa was just before the children began to stretch their body at the end of the practice.

The children in the junior school were also taught yoga nidra, with the initial demonstrations and instructions explained in a similar manner to those for Minnie and Cher. All the young children, six and seven years old, became expert instructors and practitioners in a few short lessons. They checked and corrected each other's practice until every child knew exactly what to do. Extra body parts were added by the children, and they even took their yoga nidra into the playground to share with their friends from other classrooms. In the junior school the yoga nidra became part of the daily routine either before or just after lunch, for ten minutes.

The exact application of yoga nidra techniques depends largely on the individual's physical, mental, emotional (and spiritual) needs. You will appreciate the need of the deaf to be constantly visually alert so as to communicate with each other and those people they come in contact with. Sign language, facial and body gestures, mime and lip reading, are some aspects of total communication for the deaf and hearing impaired, and they all place heavy demands on visual perception. The yoga nidra practices at Van Asch school gave the children an opportunity to switch off from the external visual world, thereby allowing those centres in the brain a chance to rest with conscious awareness. On this point alone the yoga nidra practices were highly valuable.

The children also displayed facial expressions of tranquillity and calmness, relaxation of body parts, especially in the shoulders and hands, a stillness and quietness after the practices which other teachers commented on. One teacher told me after observing the pre-school children in their yoga nidra practice with each other as instructors, "I never would have believed it was possible for those dear, horrid little monsters to be so calm, relaxed and gentle with each other. It is the nicest experience I've seen in all my years at this school. Thank you."

No Barriers

Other yoga practices were taught to Minnie and Cher, especially some simple pranayama, which I believe have an important role to play in the speech therapy practices for the deaf and hearing impaired. After a few lessons of yoga nidra, simple asanas and pranayama including the practices of brahmari and simhasana, both girls were producing deep, loud and strong sounds from their voice boxes. Positive and quick results were obviously apparent to the girls. They certainly noticed their new abilities in sound production without any adult telling them. Other children may respond more slowly.

The potential for yoga in many areas of education for the deaf and hearing impaired is waiting to be explored. This yoga nidra technique was only a trial run to see what was possible, but I felt that we had cut through a barrier between the outer world of auditory sense perception and the inner realms of the hearing impaired. The children were "hearing" my instructions through the non-verbal language of touch. The problems caused by the absence of sound were bypassed. For this reason the future education of hearing-handicapped (and "normal") children is certain to benefit greatly by integrating the science of yoga into all aspects of curriculum study. All that's required are open-minded school principals and staff who are willing to implement the yogic techniques through educators well versed in the science of yoga.