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Disability Health & Fitness

Yoga For The Deaf

Yoga is meant to be inclusive, but far too many practices take hearing for granted. That's something this deaf yoga instructor is trying to change.

I’ve always had very high expectations of myself,” admits Darcy White, a 36-year-old yoga instructor who resides in Washington, D.C., “which I think stems, at least in part, from the need to prove myself to people because I’m deaf. It was making me miserable,” she explains. “Yoga helped me let go of that.”

Darcy has always been an athlete. As a child, she was a gymnast. As a high-school student, she ran cross-country. And in college, she practiced ballet, tap, and jazz. It wasn’t until the age of 26 when Darcy first experimented with yoga. “I went to classes off and on for about six months, but didn’t stick with it,” she says. “I liked the physical workout I got from the Bikram class, but I didn’t stick with them, and looking back I realize that a big reason for that is that I didn’t feel a sense of community.”

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Darcy White teaches yoga classes for the deaf.

For Darcy, a sense of community is key to keep her coming back for more. “A vinyasa flow studio opened up a few blocks from my old place when I was 29 and I became hooked,” she says. “I had just finished grad school and didn’t have anything to do except go to yoga and apply for jobs.”

Whether people turn to yoga for spiritual guidance, exercise, or as a way to unwind after work, it’s safe to say that yoga classes, workshops, and retreats have swept the nation in popularity and availability. Few yoga classes, however, are inclusive for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

Few yoga classes are inclusive for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

“I’m used to being the only deaf person in the room,” Darcy says. “99 percent of the classes I take are not ASL inclusive because there are so few teachers that teach in sign.”

It can be intimidating and frustrating,” she explains. “I usually let the instructor know that I’m deaf so that they can be sure to face me when speaking to me or providing hands-on assists. Most teachers are sweet and respectful about it. I’m always grateful at the little things that teachers will do without me asking them, such as writing down their dharma talks so I can follow along.”

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She’s pretty good at cartwheels too.

Darcy, who has been deaf since birth, experiences first hand how lonely daily life can be when spaces are not inclusive. 

“I felt isolated in many activities and sports in school when it came to communication barriers,” she explains. “For instance, cross country doesn’t require verbal communication between runners to successfully compete in the sport. But during practice runs, my running mates would chat, laugh, and gossip with each other, and I couldn’t partake in that because I couldn’t run and listen at the same time, and my team didn’t know sign language.

These experiences only motivated Darcy to begin teaching her own yoga classes as a way of serving her community.

Darcy teaches yoga classes and workshops in ASL that are inclusive for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. As a teacher, Darcy is passionate about respecting people’s identities and intersectional issues that may impact her students. “I’ve developed chair yoga classes in ASL for people who use wheelchairs,” she says as an example.

For Darcy, teaching yoga is all about empowering her students and helping them feel more confident and connected to their bodies. “I love it when deaf and hard-of-hearing students tell me that what a difference it’s made to take a class where they have 100 percent communication access,” she explains. “Several students have mentioned that poses and transitions they observed or tried in non-signing classes suddenly clicked after taking my class. I love that I can help them make that connection. It gives my teaching a sense of purpose.”

Yoga typically provides both a physical and mental workout. For Darcy, who now prioritizes mindfulness on a daily basis, the spiritual aspect of yoga has been surprisingly enriching. “I anticipated the spiritual aspect of it, and didn’t think I’d get into that part of it,” she admits, “but I did and am a better person for it.”

Originally from Iowa, Darcy has lived in D.C. for over a decade, and is happy to find the District’s yoga community to be open-minded and diverse. “I don’t recall anyone ever making me feel uncomfortable in a yoga class because I’m deaf,” she explains.

I don’t recall anyone ever making me feel uncomfortable in a yoga class because I’m deaf,

But while yoga classes are generally friendly, it does not guarantee that they are inclusive. “The typical yoga class is tailored to the general population,” she says, “and is not taught with the intent of meeting specific needs, such as communication access, for the deaf community.”

Incorporating inclusive practices into the classroom is important, but often takes time to develop and perfect. While some teachers feel overwhelmed and even discouraged while working towards inclusivity, Darcy promises that it’s all about progress, not perfection.

“I would never expect a teacher to be able to meet the needs of every student in class–I certainly can’t–but I think the least that teachers can do is ask questions on how they can help make the class more welcoming and accessible, keep an open mind, and be flexible with accommodations.”

While society is constantly moving towards a more progressive and inclusive world, many people are still misinformed or uneducated about issues for the deaf community, including how to interact with people who may be deaf or hard-of-hearing.

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Posing near some inspiring graffiti.

“A good rule of thumb,” Darcy explains, “is to talk to people the way you’d want them to talk to you, at a normal pace and volume. Most deaf and hard-of-hearing people can’t lip-read, and cochlear implants don’t cure hearing loss.” And while Darcy teaches her classes in ASL, she notes that it is important to remember that sign language is not universal, and typically varies by country.

More than happy to pave her own way and lead on her own, Darcy is still grateful for the deaf community in D.C. “We’re small enough that we all know each other or have a mutual friend,” she explains. She recognizes, too, that many people lack community and support, and may feel gauche or out of place attending a new class or workshop.

“I completely understand why a deaf or hard-of-hearing person would not feel comfortable attending a class that’s not accessible to them,” she explains, “so I would never push them to participate. Unfortunately, a non-signing class is often the only option, so if that’s the case, I’d encourage them to find another deaf or hard-of-hearing person to go with them for support.”

Ultimately, Darcy encourages everyone who is interested in yoga to give it a try, even if they do not see themselves as an athlete, or even flexible. “People seem to think you need to be flexible to do yoga,” she jokes. “You don’t! Yoga will make you flexible.”

Yoga will make you flexible.

But for Darcy, the benefits of yoga go beyond flexibility and grace. “Yoga has helped me become more self-aware of when I start to go back down that path of needing to be better and more successful,” she explains. “Yoga helps me to tune into how I’m feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally, which helps me to take better care of myself and to have self-compassion.”

Chronic Illness Health & Fitness

The Kick-Ass Yogi Who Fights Lyme Disease With Swear Words

Jyll Hubbard-Salk might be the feistiest yoga instructor in the Five Boroughs, and her students wouldn't have it any other way.

“Ass up! Ass up!” shouts Jyll Hubbard-Salk, a 50-year-old yoga teacher, to a crowd of sweaty students in downward-facing dog position. Wearing tinted aviator glasses and gold bangles up her arms, she stands before a shrine decorated with amethyst crystals, bundles of sage, and a bronze statue of the Hindu goddess Shakti—as well as an empty Jack Daniels bottle and an upturned Zoo York skateboard.

Jyll Hubbard-Salk.

“I’m not your typical yoga teacher,” says Jyll, who founded Urban Asanas, a magenta- and orange-painted yoga studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. During the 30 classes she teaches weekly—from “Breath and Beats,” a vinyasa class with a live DJ, to the restorative “Urban Unwind” class—she tends to say “fuck” at least twice as much as she says “namaste.” It’s part of what keeps people coming back. “I cuss when I teach, and some other teachers are like, ‘Oh my god! Blasphemy!’” But for her cultish following of students, this tough-love, real human approach is a refreshing break from a wellness culture with its fair share of the holier-than-thou. (“Jyll snapped me back into reality, forced me to face myself,” wrote one student in a Yelp review.)

When she opened Urban Asanas in 2012, after saving up $20,000 over a five-year period, Jyll’s mission was to make yoga classes more accessible, diverse, and affordable for all. This felt especially crucial in the gentrifying neighborhoods of central Brooklyn, where some new yoga studios charge $8 for a coconut water and $3 to use a mat. (Urban Asanas offers donation-based “community” classes and complimentary use of all props.) The studio’s opening also coincided with Jyll’s diagnosis of lyme disease, an autoimmune disease transmitted to humans via tick bites. The joint pain, lethargy, and stress it caused called for her to double down on her commitment to self-care via yoga and meditation.

Here, Jyll discusses why striving for goodness might be a better bet than striving for greatness and how to stay sane even amid the insanity of 2017.

Why did you start Urban Asanas? Why not just teach at an existing yoga studio?

I kept going to yoga studios where I was the only black girl. I wanted to have space where everyone wasn’t a size two, like [cheeks sucked in]. Eat a piece of meat! Enough of those bitches.

In class you’re always telling your students to “sit in your shit,” and to “get uncomfortable to get comfortable.” What does this mean to you?

When I say “sit in your shit,” for me, it’s about needing to get into a place where I can feel what I need to feel, let it come to the surface, and purge through it. It doesn’t feel good. But if I stay busy all the time, if I don’t have to stop and think about anything, then it hits the fan.

Hubbard-Salk opened her studio as a positive space for people of all body types.

You make your students laugh all the time, which is kind of rare in yoga classes. Why do so many yoga people seem to take yoga so seriously?

They’re tightasses and they’re not living their yoga. A yoga teacher I know recently had plastic surgery and changed her face — I’m like, who’d believe that? Who’d study with you? That’s not real. That’s not what yoga’s about. Yoga’s about life, living. I can’t pull it out of a book. I cuss when I teach, and some teachers are like, “Oh my god! Blasphemy!” But I’m a proponent of real yoga. Yoga is every day. I’m consistent in how I am at my house, with family, friends, and at the studio. It’s all me. I’m not putting on different hats. I’m not like, “This is my soft yoga voice.” There’s people I know who are like, “I wanna be in Yoga Journal!” I don’t need to be on a magazine cover. My aspiration is to just change people’s outlooks and make them feel good. It’s not something I’m doing myself—it’s something I’m helping people find on their own. I’m sitting in the pews, like, “You got it! you got it!”

How do you use yoga and meditation to help manage lyme disease?

I’ve had lyme disease for four years. It’s an autoimmune disease. She comes and goes as she pleases. It makes me super lethargic, so I have to keep my stress level down with yoga and meditation. I eat no gluten, no sugar. I gotta stretch, get acupuncture, got to specialists, smoke a lot of weed, medicinally. But I have to say, I’m living with it. I’ve heard some horror stories.

You’re someone people turn to for guidance, and in the wake of the recent election, many people have been really needing guidance. How do you help your students cope with politically-induced stress?

People are still reeling from the election. Yesterday, in class, half the class was crying, and I was crying with them. The day after the election, all three of my kids were in tears. I told them, you gotta be the change. My two oldest daughters will be able to vote in the next election. Go out and talk, get active, go speak. And they are. My oldest, Sierra, is speaking about race relations at the 2016 NAIS People of Color Conference in Atlanta.

And I’m an advocate of self-care. You have to take care of yourself.  If you’re not doing work to take care of yourself—resting, meditation, good food, good company—especially in winter, the darkest time of year, you’ll get moody and depressed. And we have to get to know each other. When was the last time you said hi to someone on the street? Just say ‘Hi, how you doing?’ That softens people. Everyone’s rigid. I’ll have my students introduce themselves to people in class. And when was the last time you picked up the phone to call someone? An aunty, a grandma, a friend? Don’t text me. I wanna hear your voice.

Who taught you this attitude? Who are your “role models?”

My kids are my role models. Honestly, I don’t look at people like that, as role models. I have mentors, and women who just inspire me, but I’m not looking at people like Oprah as role models. They’re working it out, just like I do. A homeless person who’s out there trying to survive has as much to teach me as some star. The people I admire, they’ve lived. They have stories to tell. There’s nothing a little 25-year-old white girl who just got certified can teach me in a yoga class. I need someone who’s been in the game for a minute.

 

I’m not the Mother Teresa, and I’m not the raggediest [expletive] out there. I don’t wanna be great, I wanna be good. Great’s cute too, but I wanna be good. When you always trying to be great, there’s an expectation of failure. But I can get that balance. I wanna live in the pause, the space between breaths. I’m my problem, and I’m also my solution.

At 50, I’m clearer and more present than I’ve ever been in my life. I got there through yoga and meditation—and not giving a fuck. I don’t [care] about Kim Kardashian. I don’t [care] if Kanye’s crazy. I don’t [care] People are like, “Are you thinking about plastic surgery?”  Never in my life have I thought about altering anything on my body. I like me. I love me. I like being with me, and I think I’m cool. I don’t [care]. My life’s complete. If I died today, I’d miss my kids, but I’m good. I’ve had love—I’ve had a little bit of heartache—but I’m complete.

What advice would you give the many people who really don’t feel that way?

You gotta get to know you. You gotta slow down. You gotta take the time to be like, okay, that’s not cute, but that is. We’re so superficial, only looking at [our faces] in the mirror. I’m always telling my students, Get to know your back body. Get to know your kidneys. What does the back of your heart look like? I didn’t wake up like this. I’m always working on myself. Always trying to get better. It’s  work. It’s not easy. But I think I’m worth the work.

Acute Illness Health & Fitness

Head Over Heels

A yoga instructor manages to balance her pregnancy with an upside-down career.

A yoga instructor manages to balance her pregnancy with an upside-down career.

Everyone handles pregnancy differently. Lizzy Tomber preferred to spend hers upside down, suspended in mid-air, and balancing on her husband’s feet.

Lizzy is a traveling yoga instructor. She specializes in acroyoga, an intensive form of yoga that combines traditional poses with acrobatic moves performed with a partner. Along with her husband Josh Young, Lizzy runs Acropedia, an online community of acrobats and yogis. Together, they travel around the country, leading acroyoga workshops and training sessions.

 

Acroyoga, which got its start in California about a decade ago, makes use of familiar yoga poses, like planks or back bends, but the exercises often take place while balancing on a partner’s feet or hands. The idea is to use gravity to promote strengthening and stretching. Lizzy compares some types of acroyoga to Thai massage, where a partner’s manipulation of your muscles creates deep relaxation. However, Lizzy and Josh prefer a more dynamic form of practice, one that emphasizes a more acrobatic type of performance.

Letting your partner toss you into the air and catch you with his feet isn’t exactly the sort of thing endorsed by Dr. Spock, but it made perfect sense to Lizzy, who has been doing acrobatics since she was a child. As a young girl, she is now 33, Lizzy would force her siblings lay on the ground while she did diving rolls and backbends over their rigid bodies. “I would be climbing up door frames and instead of telling me to stop, my mom would tell me to climb higher,” she says. Lizzy even has pictures of herself doing acroyoga on her wedding day.

 

When Lizzy became pregnant, she thought that the aerial somersaults would have to stop. “We used to do a lot of moves where my husband would throw me and catch me on my belly with his feet,“ she laughs. ”Obviously that couldn’t happen anymore.” But what could she do?

She immediately consulted her doctor, even bringing along a photograph to make sure she understood her work. Fortunately, the doctor was supportive and encouraged Lizzy to be mindful, but to do what was comfortable for her body. “I’ve spent almost my whole life being aware of my body so I have a very good sense of what I can do, and what is pushing it too far. My doctor really understood that it would probably have been worse for me to stop doing yoga than to keep doing it.”

She encouraged Lizzy to continue, but to follow the first rule of yoga: “if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it.”

 

“People [saw] pictures of me doing a handstand while I was nine months pregnant, and thought I was crazy,” Lizzy says. But for Lizzy, who has spent a good chunk of her life in bizarre positions, doing a handstand while pregnant actually felt great. “It was lying on my back that was uncomfortable.”

Feeling your body, as well as knowing your strengths and limitations, are all virtues that yoga supports. Pregnancy was the culmination of all Lizzy’s training, a chance to test her knowledge of herself by continuing to do what felt best for her body. “I slowed down, but never stopped,“ she says. ”I felt very strong throughout my pregnancy.”

Lizzy attributes her acroyoga practice to her to keeping her healthy and happy during her pregnancy. Instead of feeling like a disability, her pregnancy felt empowering. “I didn’t get sick, I was happy, I was active. I really felt great the whole time,” she says.

Since giving birth to her son David in February, Lizzy has taught other pregnant women in her workshops and continues to perform acroyoga, often with her baby in a sling on her chest. When he’s older, Lizzy and Josh hope that acroyoga will be a natural part of David’s life, but until then, they are trying to teach an entirely different generation of Tomber the benefits of acroyoga. For her 100th birthday, Josh balanced Lizzy’s grandmother on his feet, proving that you’re never too old, too young, or too pregnant to stay fit in whatever way feels most natural. Even if that’s somersaulting through the air.