After my gentle yoga workshop last week, I needed to dramatically change the way I taught my yoga classes at the private school. I began class with one question.
“What do you think yoga is? This isn’t a quiz. You don’t have to tell me what you think I want to hear. I just want to know based on what you’ve learned here, or seen online…what is your perception of what this yoga stuff is about?”
I got a lot of deer in headlights looks. “Is it about flexibility?”
“Thank you! Tell me more.”
Then, they began to murmur, “Pilates, stretching, cardio, push-ups, Instagram, holding poses,” and so on.
While I wasn’t surprised, I was a bit crest-fallen. In two months, I really hadn’t taught them anything about yoga but shapes: what the body was supposed to look like in a pose. It isn’t that I didn’t talk about kindness, presence, nonviolence, or breathing. I talked about them all the time. But it struck me that I couldn’t REALLY teach them anything about presence, kindness, or body awareness while showing them the opposite. It’s like I was saying, “Listen to your body, but do that while you are groaning in pain during this very long Navasana hold.” While I believed that I was telling them to listen to their body, I was teaching them to listen to and ignore their body. I was teaching them that their pain signals didn’t matter. I was teaching them that the inability to withstand an hour of discomfort meant they were weak-all of the things I did not want to admit I believed.
I take personal responsibility for what I’ve taught my students, but I know this is a “power yoga” community-wide problem. Before I began my teacher training program, I attended a two-hour “master class” put on by a prominent yoga teacher. I remember fifty students crammed in a sweaty studio in Eagle pose. My whole body shook, and my legs cramped. I heard him say, “You do this like you do everything. Stop quitting.” I guess this is inspirational for some people. I just felt ashamed. I quit Eagle pose because it hurt. I believed it hurt because I and my body weren’t good enough. As I fell out of the pose, he walked by and said, “Yes, there are a lot of weak links in here.” This is a person that trains hundreds of people every year to be yoga teachers. And I hear that same rhetoric over and over in different forms, “go to your edge, be comfortable with discomfort, breathe through the pain.”
This vinyasa practice has contributed to my life, and I am not writing this to demonize it or the teachers of it. We can have more integrity with our language. We need to know what we are saying and why we are saying it. Many of the above-mentioned phrases are meant to build resilience. Building resilience is key to overcoming fear and stress-the two states we often find our students in. Yet, we are teaching adaptation to adversity in a very harmful, non-productive way. When we say a phrase like, “be comfortable with discomfort,” to someone who is highly uncomfortable, we are communicating that they are supposed to feel a certain way, and if they are lacking in that feeling, they are doing it wrong. If they did know how to be comfortable with that discomfort they wouldn’t need to be in a yoga class to begin with. We are shaming students for having normal feelings and body sensations beyond their control. When we shame our students, they just end up feeling more ashamed, which is the complete opposite of resilient.
How do we teach resilience then? The only way you can teach it. Building compassionate connection to your students:
1. Inviting them to rest. YES! Rest. Not, “rest if you need to,” which still passively communicates that resting isn’t something you should want to do. “I invite you to take child’s pose at any time,” or “You are welcome to rest,” are good options. Make resting a legitimate, acceptable, and welcome choice.
2. Instead of asking them to feel a different way (breath through pain, be comfortable with discomfort), prompt them to notice how they feel. The student isn’t obliged to feel as great as you do in crescent lunge. It’s more useful information for the student to know how they feel so they can be empowered to make a change if need be, or even better, ask you, the teacher, how they might make this pose more comfortable.
3. Instead of prodding them to go deeper into asana, (i.e. “go to your edge”) ask them to notice how they feel. If they feel overwhelmed, they should back off. If they feel at ease and strong in that moment, maybe they can choose to go deeper. Take the focus off of going deeper and longer all of the time, to increasing their own body awareness and empowering them to make informed choices about their own bodies.
4. Give your students choices. Resilience is built when we are in a safe environment and have the ability to choose. That way, they choose to go into full Wheel when it feels appropriate to the them, and not when the teacher pressures them to. The former empowers the student, and the latter creates a sense of dependency on the teacher. (I need to go to Lauren’s classes so she can inspire me to do things I don’t want to do.)
If you feel resistant to teaching in this way, I can completely empathize. While I’ve been wrestling with my own need to incorporate these things into my classes, I’ve been afraid doing so might lose what students I do have (so far so good). Yet, when I look at the science of how the brain works, I know that people learn when they feel safe, connected, and empowered. We cannot learn, build resilience, and release tension when we are prodded and shamed. I don’t think any of us are deliberately trying to harm people; we’ve just been misinformed.
We must start being honest with ourselves about the things we say and its effect on our students. Are we teaching people to be resilient in the face of great trial, or are we just teaching them to be numb? Yes, there is value in leaving one’s comfort zone. But there’s a difference in choosing to jump into the deep end of the pool when you are ready, and being pushed by a person you trusted when you don’t know how to swim.