The World in a Grain of Sand: Yoga Through Touch for People with Multi-Sensory Impairment

Text: Nicole Schnackenberg | Illustration: Ingrid Sanchez (@creativeingrid)

The… “world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” – William Blake


Perhaps the most famous person in our living memory with multi-sensory impairment, which most typically describes a person who is both blind and deaf, was the deeply inspirational and pioneering Helen Keller. Helen, born in 1880 in Alabama, lost both her sight and hearing when she was just nineteen months old. In 1886, Helen’s parents, looking for answers, travelled to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston where they met with the school director, Michael Anaganos. He suggested that Helen could work with one of the school’s most recent graduates, Anne Sullivan. Here began a pupil-teacher relationship that was to span forty-nine years. In March 1887, Anne went to Helen’s home in Alabama and got straight to work, teaching the six-year-old Helen to finger-spell the word ‘doll’. Other words would closely follow. Over time, Helen managed to master several methods of communication including touch-lip reading, Braille, speech, typing and finger-spelling. She wrote her first book, ‘The Story of My Life’, covering her transformation from childhood to a twenty-one-year old college student, later graduating with honours from college at the age of twenty-four.

Helen became a well-known lecturer, sharing her experiences with audiences and working on behalf of others living with such challenges. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Helen tackled social and political issues, including women’s suffrage, pacifism and birth control. She testified before Congress, strongly advocating to improve the welfare of people who are blind. In 1915 she co-founded Helen Keller International to combat the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.

Being both blind and deaf, Helen would have been described as having a multi-sensory impairment. People with a multi-sensory impairment (MSI) are not necessarily deaf and blind (although they may be) but always have a combination of profound sight and hearing difficulties. Many also have additional challenges; their complex needs can make it difficult to ascertain their intellectual abilities in some cases. There is a huge variability in people with MSI, although they are typically unified by daily challenges with communication, access to information and independent mobility. Their deafblindness, as it is oftentimes referred to, can be congenital (from birth) or acquired such as through illness or injury.

Sense are the primary national charity supporting and campaigning for children and adults who are deafblind or have sensory impairments, and have collaborated with us here at Special Yoga to provide a workshop in yoga for MSI. The aim is to empower existing yoga teachers to feel more confident in sharing yoga with this population. The workshop is run by Graham Nolan who has been exploring the potential of yoga to enrich the lives of people with congenital MSI for some years now. Graham Nolan holds a teaching diploma with the British Wheel of Yoga as well as a diploma in Deafblind Studies. He has been working in the field of MSI for twenty years and has been a yogi for almost as long. Graham is currently undertaking his Masters at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, in ‘Communication and Congenital Deafblindness’. His research is based on mindfulness and tactile communication.

Naturally, people with MSI experience and communicate with the world through touch. When the senses of sight and hearing are not available, touch becomes the primary medium through which the world is connected with and understood. Touch is important, even vital, to the emotional, physical and psychological health of all human beings but becomes all the more fundamental for people with MSI. Within my work as a Special Yoga practitioner at Special Yoga I currently work with a young lady called Lucy* with MSI. Lucy is a warm and vibrant lady with a wonderful sense of humour and fun. She can neither see nor hear. I first started working with Lucy back in April 2015. At first I was a little nervous and apprehensive but the day of training I undertook with the lovely Graham Nolan at Special Yoga gave me a deeper understanding of MSI and a number of tools with which to best share yoga with Lucy. This increased my confidence exponentially. Very rapidly, my hour with Lucy on Saturdays became my favourite hour of the week. The connection that can be fostered through touch alone is utterly beautiful and totally indescribable. Lucy and I share a very special bond and understanding that I do not believe words or body language would or could ever have facilitated to such depth.

So what does a Special Yoga session with Lucy look like? Lucy likes to begin with feeling around her mat for a few minutes to ascertain where she is in the room. We then engage in some chanting. Whilst Lucy cannot hear the chants she can, indeed, feel the vibrations of my voice in her body. Sometimes I put her hand over my voice-box to enable her to experience this vibration even more fully. As we chant we move our hands from our own knees, into prayer position, and then back onto our knees again. This is achieved hand-over-hand. In the early days, my hands would guide Lucy’s. However, today it is definitely her hands guiding mine! We then move onto some deep breathing. Again, I sometimes place Lucy’s hands on my stomach to allow her to feel the slow movement of my breath. At other times I use my hands to guide her breath by moving my hands out on her shoulders on the in-breath and in on her shoulders on the out-breath.

When the chanting and breathing exercises are completed, we move into some yoga postures (asanas) together. In some instances I will place Lucy’s hands in the correct position for the asana then gently guide her upper body, such as in a seated twist. In other instances, I will put my body into the asana. Lucy will then use her hands to feel over my body to determine my shape before putting herself into the same asana. Again, in the early days this would take some time with Lucy needing to feel my body from head to toe. Today, Lucy is used to the sequence of postures and it only takes her a quick touch to see where my hands and knees are to know, for example, that I am in a downward facing dog. We always finish our sessions together with at least ten minutes of deep relaxation, during which I typically massage Lucy’s feet and sometimes her hands and shoulders too. Lucy really enjoys this. If she seems a little stiff throughout the asana part of the yoga practice, we may add in some additional long, deep stretches and hold them for an extended period of time, Yin style, towards the end of our session. In this case, we would finish off with a shorter period of massage and relaxation.

Lucy is excellent at letting me know what she likes and doesn’t like, what she needs and doesn’t need. Regardless, I watch her breath closely throughout the session to alert me to any discomfort or desires she might have. Long, deep breathing indicates to me that Lucy is relaxed and happy in the posture whilst short, shallow breathing lets me know that Lucy is perhaps struggling, feeling uncomfortable or is ready to move onto something else.

I have to say that we do laugh a lot! Sometimes I wonder if we are doing laughter yoga! It is normally Lucy who starts us both off giggling. I think Lucy finds my body positions during the asana portion of the sessions very funny sometimes. To let her know that I am also laughing, I often place her hand on my tummy or shoulders, which are obviously moving with laughter. This seems to make her laugh all the more!

Sharing yoga with Lucy each week has been a deep privilege beyond anything I am able to describe adequately here in words. If you are also interested in sharing yoga therapeutically with people with MSI, I truly cannot recommend Graham Nolan’s training day at Special Yoga highly enough. I can assure you that this journey will utterly change your perception of communication, of connection and of life in general. The workshop is designed specifically for yoga teachers, body workers or those interested in developing yoga and massage work in a 1:1 or small group situation with adults and children who have a congenital multi-sensory impairment. The day includes teaching, discussion, DVD, tutorials and practical activities. The next workshop in Teaching Yoga to Adults and Children with Multi-Sensory Impairment with Graham Nolan takes place at Special Yoga headquarters on Friday 2nd December. For more information or to book, please click here.

*written with kind permission of Lucy and her Mum.

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