Image Source: Österreich via Pixabay + edits.

Practicing Yoga in Japan Changed My Outlook on Going Blind

How yoga helped (or forced!) me to set aside my feelings of self-doubt and start learning to accept the things in life I can’t change.

I was sprawled on the floor in a warm, dark yoga studio while a soothing voice attempted to guide me through a restful mediation conducted entirely in Japanese. My mat wasn’t where it was supposed to be underneath me, and my legs inched dangerously close to the person next to me. That was really the least of my worries at that point.

A few weeks before, I had signed up for a monthly plan at Kimiko Itoyama’s studio, i-yoga, in Fukuoka, a city in Southern Japan. I had hoped committing to the plan would motivate me to actually attend classes and get my money’s worth. It was ambitious, but the amount of fried food I’d been eating since I’d move to the city the year before pretty much demanded I do something — and fast!

Fukuoka was ranked the world’s 7th most livable city in Monocle’s 2016 Quality of Life Survey. Image Source: Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons.

A Good Idea at the Time

Hypothetically, it sounded great. However, there were two pretty significant barriers standing between me and any sort of a beneficial yoga practice:

  1. I do not speak Japanese.
  2. I am visually impaired.

The first problem seemed pretty easy to overcome. I mean, I had been doing yoga for years in the US. I figured I could peek around and see what other people in the class were doing, then follow suit. This wasn’t a very good plan because in my Power Yoga classes in Fukuoka, following other students led me to judge myself pretty harshly. I’d hear an instruction called out in Japanese, and see ultra-flexible students pretzel themselves into impossible positions.

When that happened back in the states, I’d look at my best friend who joined the same studio I did, and we’d make a face. Then it was all ok. But here I didn’t know most people in the class, and I sure wasn’t going to swap reassuring glances with them that the next pose was not humanly possible and see them silently agree. No, they didn’t have any trouble with the poses at all.

So I judged myself. Week after week I’d worry that I looked stupid, uncoordinated, and out of place. These feelings were only exacerbated when our instructor would call out a balance pose. This is where issue number two came into play.

A Balancing Act

Working on my balance at Momochi Beach, Fukuoka.

I have lattice degeneration, which basically means my retinas are pretty fond of detaching. In fact, when my surgeons caught the problem I was twenty-two and they estimated I only had about two weeks of vision left unless I had surgery right away. The surgeries were successful enough to restore a large portion of sight in my left eye and some in my right. I’m twenty-nine now.

Side note: the doctors cannot really predict how much longer I’ll have my sight. It’s pretty much just a waiting game that I try not to think about too much.

Believe me, I’m really grateful to have gotten any sight back. But one of the complications that I grapple with is seeing double permanently. My eyes work at opposite strengths, the right is +8.5 and the left is -6.5. They can’t agree to see one image. Instead, there is a fuzzy picture sent from the right eye that is constantly overlapping halfway across the clearer image coming from the left eye.

Spin around five to ten times then try to do any yoga pose. Even Child’s Pose. Go ahead, I’ll wait here while you do…

The Process of Failing

Doing some yoga in stunning Ohori Park, Fukuoka.

It isn’t fun, is it? Throughout my life I had always been reluctantly athletic. I’m good at a few sports, and was always doing some activity, but I never loved anything. As I got older, I figured I should take up yoga to help improve my fitness.

I hadn’t counted on losing my sight. I also hadn’t counted on the problems that came with not being able to communicate using the same language as the teacher. I couldn’t properly convey that I had some pretty serious limitations going on.

Some days my eyes would cooperate, and I’d be able to balance like everyone else. Then others the sibling-rivalry-like power struggle between my left and right eyes would cause me to fall or wobble constantly.

Each persons’ yoga practice is different, and logically I know that.

When you’re in a room listening for instructions you don’t understand, scanning the other students to see if you can copy what they are doing, and wobbling like a toddler learning to walk, it’s pretty hard to keep things in perspective.

As my practice progressed, the teacher proved to be pretty incredible. She knew enough English that she would follow up her Japanese instructions with a few helpful English words to give me some sense of what was going on in the class. She was welcoming, accommodating, and not at all judgmental on the days when my balancing skills simply didn’t exist. Now, I began to realize that I really wished I could absorb some of that grace and understanding to use on myself.

I was relying on this internal validation that I was doing everything perfectly, and I was in essence setting myself up to fail pretty spectacularly. It’s almost impressive the things that our brains can tell us about ourselves, all in the name of achieving arbitrary goals. No one was measuring my yoga progress, and no one but me cared if I fell or had to move out of a pose. It wasn’t a failure to anyone but me.

Shutting Off My Brain

Attempting to balance yet again, this time while backpacking in Myanmar.

On the particular night where my story began, I had chosen an alternative to Power Yoga. It was intended to be restful, meditative, and restorative. My friend translated the schedule for me so I didn’t end up floundering in some headstand practice class or something like that.

It seemed to completely elude me that I’d been lost in very brief Japanese meditations during Power Yoga, so going to a class that revolved around in meditation probably wasn’t going to pan out so well.

This was one time in my life when my utter inability to plan well worked in my favor. The room was so dark that I couldn’t really judge my progress against other students. I was sitting next to a yoga teacher who was visiting from Canada. She introduced herself. I immediately began oversharing, stating matter-of-factly,

“I can’t see well, and I can’t understand Japanese.”

Now, she could have just said, “Why in the world are you here?” or something to that effect. Instead, she just accepted it for what it was, and took it upon herself to help me through the harder parts of the class. The thing is, most of her assistance was nonverbal. It was a gentle tap if I was using the wrong leg, not an audible command to change my pose. I didn’t need my eyes or my language. I just needed to show up and try.

Throughout the class, I was so lost at points that I couldn’t really judge myself too much. Have you ever sat in a high school or college class and got so lost that you just turned off your brain? You could probably hear the professor rambling on about the topic, but instead of sounding like words you might have heard more of an unintelligible hum. Everyone around you might have seemed engaged and up-to-speed, so you just gave up control. That’s what happened to me in this class. It was too dark to see, I didn’t know what the instructor was saying, and so I just had to abandon the hope of a perfect practice and rely on feeling and gentle guidance.

I know sometimes relinquishing control isn’t a great method for coping with stressful and confusing situations. But in the absence of any other solution, it was really all that I could do. And it ended up working beautifully. I felt so liberated not having to scan the room and covertly assess the other students’ every move.

Accepting Things as They Are

For me, yoga is now about accepting my body the way it is. No matter how strong you are, or how dedicated you are to achieving the perfect pose, there are going to be days that things run smoothly and days that could have gone better.

I’m not perfect, and I still have moments where I judge myself pretty harshly for failing to meet my own ridiculous standards. But that class was definitely pivotal for me.

Removing the control and the pressure that I had been putting on myself allowed me to see just how much I was negatively impacting something I only started to do for positive reasons.

I had to completely reframe the way I thought about success and failure in order to understand just how much damage I was doing. Luckily, I was shoved into that headspace fairly serendipitously by wandering into this restorative class.

While it sounds cliche, I learned how important it is to practice self-acceptance. You should strive to be better and work harder, but not through negative techniques and destructively branding yourself as a failure for no reason.

These days, I use yoga to maintain a positive state of mind in addition to increasing my physical health. It has done a world of good, and I’m excited to practice it wherever I choose to live, no matter what language it is taught in, or what my physical limitations may be at the time.

Visually impaired author and adventurer

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