When observation is critical

When Observation is Critical- YogaNYC

Om. Aum. ॐ. Chanted three times, it’s the near-universal signal that yoga class has begun. However, on Monday evenings at the Three Jewelsstudio near Union Square, ASL (American Sign Language) class begins when Jennifer Kagan looks around the room, makes eye contact with each of the students, and silently brings her flattened, downturned hands together with symmetrical motions. In response, the eight or so students come to standing with their feet together and their weight distributed evenly – Tadasana. The cracks and creaks of the wood floor, the pops of loosening joints, the rustle of exercise gear and the sticky slurp of rubber yoga mats are all extra-audible. That is because Jennifer teaches without speaking, in American Sign Language, and many of her students cannot hear.Kagan’s class is the only Iyengar yoga class taught in ASL in the United States. Kagan, the daughter of a yoga teacher and an interpreter for fifteen years, cites her interpreting background, which she calls “inspiring,” as the motivator for the class. Kagan did her teacher training at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York with Mary Dunn and James Murphy and began the ASL class (she teaches another weekly ASL class at LaGuardia Community College) at the end of 2007. She also continues to consult with Lynette Taylor, a native signer and nationally-recognized interpreter, who she calls her mentor. “Teaching Deaf students was a goal from the inception of my training, but I did get a kick when the Institute offered a class for the Deaf. I interpreted for Viki Volmer, a wonderful teacher from whom I learned a lot. I started my class not long after that one ended.” The class got off to a slow start, but really coalesced, Kagan recalls, after an ASL retreat she led at Heathen Hillthis past spring. Now she has a regular group of students that she guides through a progressive Iyengar course format. “I am really grateful for the Iyengar method,” Kagan says. “Deaf people want to learn – they learn through their eyes – and Iyengar suits that.”The class I attended focused on lengthening the torso in asanas like Trikonasana, warrior I, Uttanasana, and wide-legged forward bending — instructions that would be familiar to anyone who’s practiced the Iyengar method – though the standard operating procedure was, of course, noticeably different. To bring the class out of a pose, Kagan flicks the lights or stomps (gently) on the floor. “You have to really observe when students can’t see you,” Kagan explains. “I have to observe their bodies to judge whether my instruction is effective and then use that observation to teach the next action – I can’t give instruction to ‘improve’ their poses while they are in it and can’t see me. Teaching in a room with a mirror helps communication and frees me to move about. And I dream of a way to do live projection on the ceiling and walls so the students can see and get instruction no matter their position! A girl can dream!”Other modifications Kagan describes are (she notes) very similar to teaching hearing students – focusing on discrete actions, building on other poses. Regularly attending students receive lots of hands-on adjustments. And, “as they develop their practice, they come back with language – and lots of questions.”For their part, the students – a mix of hearing and deaf individuals – are openly enthusiastic. Bram, an interpreter, says that Jennifer’s is the only class he takes. “When I began the class, I hadn’t been certified yet,” he recalls. “It calms the mind and leads to clearer, better signing. I think it’s the reason why I was able to get certified.” Virginia mentions (via an interpreter) that yoga really helps with vertigo; Grover that it supports his meditation practice. Several students cite communication issues in attending classes geared for the hearing community; others note a long search for a class that suits their needs. Steven, a long-time student of karate and kickboxing, had wanted to take yoga for many years, but couldn’t find anything appropriate. “Communication between the student and teacher is key,” he signs. He learned about Jennifer’s class via a New York deaf news website and then — “Sign me up!”–Ruth Curry

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