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.”