Words by Jamie Brian
Photos by Jana Life
After losing his sight, Lucas Cassi uses yoga to gain control of his life again.
Lucas Cassi sits cross-legged on his black yoga mat and greets students with a broad smile as they enter the studio.
“Good evening, everyone,” he says. “I’d like to blame my lack of athletic shorts on my blindness, but I just couldn’t find them.”
His good-natured humor erases any tension in the room over exams, relationships or workday drama. Then, he asks everyone in the room to describe how they are feeling in one word.
“Tired,” one woman says and lets out a sigh as she adjusts her yoga mat. “Sore.” “Relaxed.” “Excited!” exclaims another, shifting her weight from one leg to the other in anticipation.
By the end of the class, whatever negative words the students chose have been forgotten for the moment, and the positive ones are a little more present. Cassi seems to have made a second home in the Student Recreation and Wellness Center studio. If he hadn’t lost his vision when he was 18 years old, he might never have set foot there.
In high school, Cassi was a do-it-all athlete, participating in soccer, cross-country, track, wrestling and rugby. He could dart across the field and run a mile in under five minutes. He was a perfectly healthy kid. His diagnosis of Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy in January 2006 came as a surprise.
The six months leading up to his diagnosis were a blur of doctor’s waiting rooms and tests. Life became a series of MRIs, spinal taps, blood work and four different eye specialists.
The disease is hereditary, but it was unexpected because no one else in his family had ever had it. While he was going through the tests, doctors believed there was a chance his loss of vision was because of a brain tumor. Blindness didn’t seem like such a big deal afterward.
“Living and having the little vision that I have is definitely a lot better than not living,” Cassi says. “When I was told that I was blind, I was happy.”
Even though he embraces his diagnosis with optimism, adjusting still wasn’t an easy task.
“It was like ripping a Band-Aid off,” Cassi says. “It happened all of a sudden, and I was in a lot of emotional pain.”
The world he knew became a different place. To be considered legally blind, a person’s vision must be 20/200. This is the point where vision can’t be corrected. A blind person’s vision would stop at 20 feet, whereas a sighted person’s would continue to 200 feet. After 20/800, vision loss isn’t labeled in numbers anymore. It’s classified as hand motion or mobility vision, and then the most severe stage is light perception vision.
Cassi, now 29 years old, is considered to have hand motion vision. He has no central vision or depth perception. He does have some cloudy peripheral vision, but he can’t tell the detail of an object.
“If someone were to raise their hand, I couldn’t tell you how many fingers they were holding up, but I might be able to tell you that there was motion,” he says.
There has to be enough contrast between the object and the background color for him to make out its shape.
Things he had taken for granted such as going to the grocery store became uncharted territory. He had to ask for customer service to navigate the grocery store, and he no longer had the independence of just jumping in a car and going wherever he wanted.
While his vision is gone, Cassi finds his othersenses are ready to help him through the day. Through an intensive nine-month training program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, Cassi took courses on cane travel, cooking, home maintenance and Braille
In the cane travel class, students were required to wear a Mindfold mask over their eyes to train as if everyone were completely blind. Once they had learned proper cane gripping technique, they learned how to navigate within the center. From there, they progressed to a series of three out-of-town trips and three drop-off routes.
One of the graduation requirements was a 5.2-mile walk from Ruston, Louisiana to Grambling, Louisiana. Successfully arriving in Grambling, students ordered burgers at the local Sonic and snagged a few business cards to prove they’d been there.
The out-of-town trips built confidence, but the drop-off routes were the true tests. Up until this point, students were allowed to ask for help or directions. Now, they were on their own.
“They’d take you to a parking lot, drive around in circles and drop you off,” Cassi says.
He would walk until he found a familiar cue, such as the whir of a train or the smell of fast food. One of the drop routes took him seven hours to complete. But he always made it back.
The center showed students how to prepare a meal for 40 people and build a grandfather clock, but its true purpose was to teach students how to be an independent blind person and to live without fear.
Students went rock climbing, horseback riding and whitewater rafting—all while wearing the eye mask. During his training, Cassi practiced using his other senses to do the things he had always relied on sight to accomplish.
He continues to practice. His seven-year-old daughter, Madison, often comes up with creative ways to hone her dad’s skills. They recently played a game where she ran a stick and his cane on a chain link fence and asked, “What sound is this one?”
“At first, I got it wrong,” Cassi says. “I guessed my cane, and it was the stick. After hearing that sound, I knew what to listen for.”
Blindness has altered small bonding moments like this. It has also changed the course of Cassi’s professional life. Before he was diagnosed, he was happy getting by with a roofing job and didn’t see college in his future. Now, he will start at Kent State this spring to seek an undergraduate degree in interpersonal communication. His ultimate goal is to earn a master’s degree in orientation and mobility, which will allow him to teach the blind to travel and orient themselves to new surroundings.
“This has allowed me to develop myself as a person a little bit faster and more in-depth,” Cassi says.
He found a place where he can do just that: the yoga studio.
“I wanted to find more contentment in everyday life,” Cassi says. “I think a sighted person can look at something and be entertained, whereas myself, I don’t have that.”
At first, he tried to learn through YouTube videos, but they weren’t descriptive enough. The phrase “downward dog” alone doesn’t exactly give a good visual picture of how the body should be positioned. He still wanted to practice yoga, but he wasn’t making enough progress on his own. So, Cassi decided to enroll in classes at Centerpeace, a yoga studio in Kent.
“I felt like I could grow right away,” Cassi says. “I felt almost as if people were just as eager to teach a blind person as I was eager to learn.”
He had found the one-on-one training he needed to make sense of abstract yoga terms. After describing a yoga position, the instructor would use descriptive cues to help explain alignment. Statements such as, “Press into your mat with your pinky toe edge” would help students understand proper alignment.
Yoga isn’t something Cassi does. It’s something he feels. He learned what proper alignment of the body should feel like each time he was introduced to a new pose. Yoga became a way for Cassi to find stability in his life.
“You can see progress, and that progress is noticeable,” Cassi says. “You’ll start to be more observant of the subtle aspects of your life.”
According to the National Federation of the Blind, there are an estimated 7,327,800 people in the United States with a visual disability. Yet, many people have never met a blind person and don’t know how to respond to one.
During the 2015-2016 school year at Kent State, there were 20 students who were registered with Student Accessibility Services at Kent State as having a visual impairment, according to director Amy Quillin.
Student Accessibility Services provides accommodations such as electronic text and extended time for exams to help those students succeed in their courses. SAS also offers a door-to-door bus service from PARTA that can pick students up at one building and bring them to another.
Students with vision loss may face the occasional challenge of having their usual pathway blocked by construction, but blindness is just a circumstance. It doesn’t define them.
“People have a wide array of abilities despite the fact that they have a disability,” Quillin says. “The idea of focusing on the disability may do a disservice to the myriad range of abilities that students have to offer.”
Cassi stands at the front of the studio with his fiery blue eyes closed and his suntanned hands reaching toward the ceiling in a tree pose. He has a strong presence, but what Cassi enjoys most about yoga is the chance to forget about the world for a while. He tries to go inward in his practice through pratyahara, or the removal of the senses.
“I’m not relying on my hearing or my taste or my touch,” he says. “I’m going to a place where the external world is distant.”
Yoga is an outlet for Cassi to find calmness and to forget about the cues that help him maneuver through the day. Instead of listening for traffic or feeling for the edge of the street with his cane, he can just be still. He decided to become an instructor in order to give people the chance to find this tranquility, too.
He was at the studio one day when he heard a conversation about instructor training classes.
In 200 hours of training, he could be the one to make stress disappear. The training course was life-changing. During the year-long training program, he met with the teacher and 16 other pupils in his class, putting in 17 hours the second weekend of the month to learn about yoga positions, philosophy, anatomy and teaching techniques.
The program paid off. Now, he can inspire others through yoga in the same way that he was inspired. Even though things are looking up for Cassi, he still has to deal with discrimination.
“To hear people say that I’m not blind and to wave their hands in my face is probably the toughest thing that I deal with,” Cassi says. “The majority of the time, it’s just sad.”