The following article appeared in Yoga Journal, Oct. 2009.
PAWS AND BREATHE
by Ellen Karrell
Yoga helps blind and visually impaired adults work better with their guide dogs.
Kandy Evers was making her way down the city sidewalk, had on the harness of her new guide dog, when the dog stopped short and
backed up three steps, forcing Evers back. “A Prius had swung into the driveway right in front of us,” Evers said.
The car was so quiet, I wouldn’t have known it was there.”
That evening, on the 11-acre campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, Evers unwound from the tense
traffic practice by going to yoga class. This nonprofit center, which matches blind and visually impaired adults (and some children)
with guide dogs free of charge, added yoga classes to its residential program three years ago. Since then, hundreds of participants
have gone through the requisite training program with greater ease.
“This is an intense learning environment,” says staff nurse Helen Brackley. Participants spend up to
four weeks becoming attuned to their dogs as the learn to work together as a team, something that requires extreme focus. The program
can also be physically demanding. “Residents here are getting more exercise and walking faster than they’re used to,” Brackley says.
Program participants bond with their new canine friends at Guide Dogs for the Blind’s San Rafael, California, campus.
In an effort to reduce stress and prevent injury among the program participants, Brackley brought in Suzanne Kanner,
a veteran Iyengar Yoga instructor and co-founder of the Yoga Center of Marin in nearby Corte Madera. Kanner’s popular classes at Guide
Dogs for the Blind have made a big difference. “We used to see maybe three cases of shin splints in a class of 25,”
Brackley says. “Now we get about one case every four classes.”
Evers, who lost her sight two years ago and is a recent graduate of the program, found that besides offering stress
relief, yoga helped ease the transition to working with a guide dog by conditioning the body. “Yoga definitely helps strengthen and relax all the muscles you use daily with the dog,” she says.
While Kanner adapts the class for her vision-impaired students by choosing poses that can be done safely and announcing
her intentions before laying a guiding hand on a student, she says her classes at Guide Dogs for the Blind, with their emphasis on
awareness and alignment, are little different from those she teaches to sighted students. “Yoga requires keen concentration
and strength as well as flexibility, and it brings balance, poise, and a deep sense of inner tranquility,” Kanner says.
“Sighted or blind, this is what students are gaining from their practice.”