In a large gymnasium on the UC Berkeley campus, every Friday dozens of students and people with mild to severe disabilities gather to be in community to practice yoga. The lead instructor is Saraswathi Devi: tall, with long flowing white hair, she has the air of someone that is comfortable being in charge while being completely present with an open heart and helping hands. Being in the class fills me with a sense of gratitude and appreciation and thus inspired I decided to interview Saraswathi about her work.
Vlad: How did you get started teaching yoga to people with disabilities?
I would say that there is an underlying spiritual reason. Having been born blind in one eye with related neurological and biochemical disabilities that caused learning issues and other challenges, I was naturally inclined from earliest childhood to embrace anyone who was suffering or challenged.
I began to study with my teacher, Swami Vignanananda, in 1974. He authorized me to teach in 1976. At the Prana Yoga Centers, we teach asana, pranayama, meditation and yoga philosophy. In the very early days in the West, asana classes were not as compartmentalized as they are today. We had 20 something’s, seniors, pregnant women, children – everyone in one class – but, soon enough we were teaching classes at all levels and offering pre and postnatal yoga, children’s classes, programs for educators and psychologists and more. It continues to evolve.
Around 1988 or so, the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society invited me to a workshop given by someone living with MS who was a yoga teacher. I was inspired and encouraged by what he had developed, especially because it was so similar to the adaptations I was doing with some of our students whose needs were not being met in the standard ways. After that, the MS Society invited me to do workshops for them. The disabilities work expanded from there. A group of people with MS asked me to teach a weekly class and that lead to being invited in 1995 to teach at UC Berkeley, where we created a substantial program for people living with many varieties of physical and developmental disabilities. Also, I teach a similar class at the new Ed Roberts Campus and therapeutic yoga at Yogalayam/Prana Yoga Center, where I continue to teach in the classical manner – from asana to philosophy. Through Yogis on Wheels, our sister non-profit, we’ve begun serving disabled children in South India.
When many people encounter someone who can’t walk or who speaks with impediment or maybe can’t speak at all, whose body or face might be differently configured, who drives a wheelchair wired with all kinds of equipment, they usually don’t see a person in front of them. Instead of seeing someone with thoughts and feelings, a mind, a personality, they see a disease or a mobility device. In these classes, I’m interested in dissolving all such conventional societal membranes. We offer instant love and respect to very student who comes through the door – no matter who, no matter what. That process of entry into the spirit of any and every person fascinates and thrills me. A disabled person deserves that kind of communication as much as anyone. When I’m rolling on the floor with someone who has cerebral palsy or toning into the ear of someone with a serious brain injury or holding someone in Cobra Pose, while pressing my fingers deeply into acupressure points along their spine or applying Reiki energy to the muscles of their back, I feel that I am breathing right into the heart of creation with that person. For me, offering yoga to another is a very intimate spiritual communication more than it is a physical practice. I love doing that, being in that. I love the service of that.
No. Not disabilities yoga per se. Swami-ji was a great yogi in every sense of that word. Those of us who worked very closely with him received plenty of instruction in the physical skills, but the training was even more a very intensive spiritual guidance that was designed to awaken in each of us a fullness of character, a commitment to selfless service and an evolving Inner awareness. So, Swami-ji expected us to take the teachings and share them widely, telling us, “stay faithful to the practice, keep your balance and you will find your way.” That was a great invitation to me. I eventually found myself working from childbirth to the deathbed and everywhere else in between.
Vlad: The people who come to these classes at UC Berkeley – what do you think yoga does for them?
I can’t speak for them, but I can speak from what I observe and what they tell us. Each of the students has different needs and concerns, so the benefits are different. Some examples are improved circulation, loosening of joints, reduction in pain and stiffness, increased strength and balance, better digestion, improved sleep, increased ability to handle stress, enhanced self –esteem. Some of the students have progressively advancing disease. Progress may be retarded in some cases. But, the psychological effects may be more important. Some of the students tell us the class is the highlight of their week. Others say the class in one of the few places in the world where they feel loved and respected. Most of them acquire more joy and satisfaction in living. You can see this in their faces over time. Most of the students have been coming to class for years. Many have become my dear friends. There is a lot of laughter. We have fun.
Picture a room full of people with very limited mobility lying or sitting on the floor or propped against the wall, each one supported by two to six helpers, being held in yoga postures.
We make liberal use of the usual yoga props – mats, blankets, blocks, bolsters, straps, sandbags, eye pillows, chairs, benches, walls and an inversion table. We also use light free weights and massage tools. The students practice as independently or interactively as necessary. Most of them require a very high level of intervention. There are usually 24 to 28 students enrolled. They range in age from early 20’s to early 70’s. They live with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, multiple systems atrophy, advanced arthritis, spinal cord injury, brain trauma, severe birth disorders, down syndrome and more. Some cannot speak, think or see conventionally. Some are challenged psychologically.
We have two assistant instructors, a few senior helpers and about 60 volunteer assistants. Many of our volunteers receive UC academic credit. The training is mostly on the job, but we also provide out- of-class workshops. Our approach combines modified techniques from Yoga Therapy and Thai Yoga Massage, itself a hybrid between held postures and acupressure. To that, we add a little bodywork, range of motion, muscle resistance and the gentle use of free weights. And, at the beginning and ending of class, we practice breathing, meditation and visualization techniques.
What is unique about this class is the generous number of people working with each individual student, allowing us to bring the students into positions that would never otherwise be available to them. The more helpers, the more fine-tuned and detailed the experience we’re able to offer. We hold the postures for as long as possible, sometimes for 5 to 10 minutes or longer. It takes time to move through thick barriers such as edema, spasticity, neurological damage, numbness, weakness, pain, fear. We fold, stretch, swing, rotate, twist, balance, and hang upside down. We emphasize working with each student as a whole person, rather than simply responding to a clinical picture. While we get to know the details of their bodies’ strengths, weaknesses and needs, even more importantly, we come to know our students’ minds and hearts.
The helpers derive at least as many riches from this experience as the students do. The class has social and political implications. Most of our assistants find their lives changed markedly by learning to unhesitatingly respect and value persons they previously thought were so different from themselves, only to find that the disabled are people just like themselves.
I learn a lot about how a person with disabilities copes with everyday living. Some of our students can’t feed or dress themselves and almost none of them can drive a car. Using a computer requires multiple adaptations. They need help with an infinite number of details the conventionally-abled take for granted. Everything has to be done at a much slower pace and with much greater complexity. There are accessibility, financial and housing issues. Health care provisions are limited and tedious. There is psychological strain within families and between friends. There is social and political prejudice to contend with every day. I am inspired by the incredibly beautiful humanity of these students – by a thousand qualities I see in them – their intelligence, perseverance, patience, kindness, cheerfulness, compassion.
I continue to learn about managing a lot of people in subtle detail, each one with unique and changing requirements, in a large room, all at once. We are attempting to provide each of the students a private lesson experience in a large group setting. I try to apply this skill to many other situations. There is a lot in the yoga teachings about keeping oneself very well balanced in health, perceptions and behaviors. An aspect of that is to move gracefully through certain periods of dis-equilibrium into periods of greater equilibrium. This class, with its moment to moment shape-shifting, its many bodies and personalities, is a very good place in which to fine-tune that skill. Filled with equanimity, we are free to love easily.
Brendan, about 30 years old and living with cerebral palsy, arrived in class about three years ago. Always quiet and shy, he was not easy to get to know. Speech issues made some of us wonder about his level of cognition. One day recently, he said”I’ve written a poem. Would it be all right if I read it to the class?” I said, “Are you kidding? Absolutely, please!”
The next week, Brendan came to class and I asked, “did you bring the poem?” He said, “Oh, I forgot, but I think I can speak it from memory.” We gave Brendan the floor and he recited the poem, but only after he gave us a fifteen minute introduction as to why he had written it. Most of us had only heard him say maybe five words in a row.
The basic idea was,”I am a fully grown adult and I still don’t understand why I was put on earth this way. I may never know. Society treats me like a lesser being. I get very angry, because I don’t deserve this. Much of the time, I don’t feel comfortable where I am, although I do feel comfortable when I’m with my family and friends who love and respect me. And, I do feel comfortable in my acting class. We were all thinking “acting class? Wow!” Then he said, “and you guys are like family to me. I feel safe expressing to you for the first time these deep parts of how I feel. By then several of us were crying. After the recitation, Brendan said, “would anybody like to ask a question?” Here is Brendan, who kind of slips through the cracks wherever he goes, invisible not just because of the cerebral palsy and the wheelchair, but because he is so reserved and quiet. And here we all are, raising our hands and asking him about his life and where he went to school. At the end, I said, “Brendan, you can see the tears in these eyes. Look at these faces. Every single person in this room will remember this moment for the rest of their lives, because you shared your truth with us. That is moving enough, but you also spoke for others with similar experience. And that has great meaning for people across the globe.”
For more info on Saraswathi and to visit her classes go to: http://www.yogalayam.org/