This month is the first annual Great Canadian Yoga Stretch, a fundraising and awareness building campaign for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. It operates in a manner similar to many fundraising campaigns: participants set their “stretch goal” (anything from finishing their first yoga class to mastering a difficult pose) and ask their friends, coworkers and relatives to sponsor them as they work to achieve it.

The objective is to promote the healthy benefits of yoga and to raise money for research and programs for people with vision loss and blindness. All the funds raised will go towards fostering health and wellness in Canadians with vision loss, including nutrition counselling, independent living skills training, and fitness and exercise programs.

“I was born blind in one eye, so this event spoke to me,” said ambassador Will Blunderfield, a Vancouver-based yoga teacher and musician. “As a baby, my mother knew that there was something different about me. I had surgery when I was two years old to correct the blindness in my right eye.”

While I was scrolling around the GCYS website and researching the event, I came across some resources on yoga for people who are partially sighted or blind. I realized that I had never even considered the challenges that somebody without sight would face in a yoga class. As a yoga teacher who teaches in my community and believes in making yoga accessible to all, I was very humbled.

Talking with Will, I saw that he had a similar realization. Even though he has “recovered” from blindness, thanks to the research and programming of organizations like CNIB, he has never had partially sighted or blind people in any of his yoga classes.

“Doing events like this make me realize that yoga isn’t as accessible as it could be,” he said. “It makes me think about how we can work to include everyone.”

Will had some ideas for ways to open up the practice. “As a musician, my classes are very sound-oriented. I do my best to give clear, easy-to-understand alignment cues, and once students are in the pose, I use a lot of “feeling” and “descriptive” language (for example, “like an eagle in flight,” “triumphantly lift your heart as you lower your shoulders”). Being clear with our alignment cues and using visceral descriptive phrases I think is key for leading classes for people with vision impairment. Also encouraging the whole class to soften/close their eyes can be a unifying practice, encouraging all of us to listen more closely to both the instructions and the breath.”

I realize that the GCYS isn’t about raising money so blind people can do yoga; it’s not as simplistic about that. It’s about raising awareness about healthy living, and raising funds for a variety of programs and research for vision. However, the event has succeeded in challenging my assumptions about the accessibility and availability of yoga, and seeing that there is another population who may be in need but can’t participate because of barriers.

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