How do you help students be safer in community yoga classes? Obviously student safety is important in any context; this blog focuses on yoga in non-traditional settings. I think safety in this context can be unique because these settings may lack the set up or amenities teachers have access to in more traditional settings.
Asking about injuries
I give students space to share information about any health conditions they’d like to, but always mention in writing that if they have concerns about their ability to do yoga, they should check with their doctor. Lots of people won’t, or don’t have a doctor, but for the vast majority of yoga teachers – it is very unrealistic to create the expectation that you know how to modify for various health conditions, particularly in a group setting. Students should be considering how their body feels and should feel more than welcome to skip poses or find a more pleasant alternative – rather than assuming the teacher takes their health concern into account when teaching the group. For students who choose not to share their health concerns, the advice to listen to their own body is particularly important.
I do my best to modify poses that seem more challenging, and just to work primarily with poses that can be modified in simple ways (rather than bringing in trickier/”more advanced” poses then trying to modify them). Sometimes I start with the modification (open arm twist) and offer options to move on (palms connected with elbow outside knee) to what I usually consider the more traditional pose (prayer twist). The more I teach, the more I can predict which poses will challenge a group, and the more adeptly I can add in modifications or change what I had planned to teach on the spot. It would surprise me if most people new to teaching started out with this ability – it sure is nice to have but it just takes experience actually teaching real people (not teacher trainees) to learn this.
I would also consider the pace of my community classes to be a modification, compared to the pace of the public classes I teach. Moving into and between poses more slowly is a fantastic way to “modify” for people who are just less familiar with the poses. Quite a lot of the foundational poses are accessible to all ability levels.
Perhaps the biggest “modification” of my community classes compared to my public classes, or at least my understanding of the common approach in most public classes, is the intention. My intention when I practice and when I teach (any class) is to move in a pleasant way with one’s own breath, relieve stress, and feel good. More generally I want people to feel part of a group and not singled out for their “mistakes”. Obviously this can mean different things to different people (some people do feel they need a physically vigorous practice to feel good, and I include myself in this group), but it is rarer for me to focus very specifically on benefits of specific poses. Some people believe that if your head fails to touch your knee in janu sirsasana, you are not getting “the” benefit of the pose – I disagree. And not just that the person fails to benefit, but that there IS one such specific and narrow benefit of a pose.
Provided people are listening to their own body (see below), one big benefit is attending a yoga class and feeling successful enough to want to return. Over time people do gain a greater awareness of their body in space and often a new level of flexibility.
Trusting your own intuition and body
This is the most important point in my book. I make it clear that I offer a lot of alignment cues but it is the responsibility of participants to check in with their own body, as they do in the 23 hours of the day they are not in a yoga class, to make sure they feel okay in each posture. I also emphasize that if any postures don’t feel right, people are free to skip poses, and wait for the next one (or take a gentler expression of the pose, whatever that means to them). I can say “in warrior two you want about three feet between your two feet” and people can choose whether they take that or not. I don’t repeat it multiple times to persuade people who haven’t done it. If someone isn’t doing a pose, I don’t assume it’s because they didn’t hear me.
In both public classes and community classes, people sometimes move in ways that surprise me. By this I mean that when I imagine taking that stance or shape in my own body, I don’t anticipate it feeling good. But – in particular in my community classes where the pace is slow and people have ample opportunity to look at my alignment and that of other students, and hear a few options – that person has a better sense of how their body feels than I ever will, and I strongly believe that assuming otherwise is quite offensive (and verging on paternalistic). People should listen to their own intuitive sense of how their body actually feels, rather than tuning out to that and depending on a teacher to tell them how a pose “should” feel. Obviously I would do or say something if a student was doing something seriously unsafe (“widen your feet into two separate lanes for more stability” in crescent lunge to avoid tipping over), but it’s pretty hard to hurt yourself doing warrior two in a gentle vinyasa class.
Security related safety
Both the public setting and the non-profit location where I teach community classes have their own security set up. One has a paid/trained security guard. The other has a front desk and doors that must be buzzed open. Both are located in neighborhoods that are considered “transitional” – perhaps similar organizations in different neighborhoods would not have this set up. I make an effort to have a staff contact (ideally the same person week to week) who is present and on-site -though not necessarily taking the class – who I can reach out to if a specific issue arises.
The biggest issue I have had is a door that sometimes would lock from the outside once we were in. We could always exit (open it from the inside) but if anyone outside wanted to get in, they would need a key. I didn’t think this was ideal and try to check before each class starts, and wait to start the class till the door can be opened. It seems unlikely there would ever be a security issue, but in case of a setting where we might want someone (such as the security guard) to come in but for some reason were unable to open the door, it seems safest to make sure the door is unlocked.
Most students recognize that we are in a public space that anyone can join. To be honest, security is a bigger concern to me personally in studios which sell retail and where students leave their belongings unattended during class. These aren’t common occurrences in community classes.
I think this category of safety is important as well, but overlaps a great deal with creating a trauma-informed yoga class.
Here I will just say I am mindful about my own qualifications and generally do not go out of my way to seek out teaching situations with high trauma clients, or with people expecting some kind of psychological therapy from their yoga practice. Of course trauma survivors do not wear signs and can be part of the larger community, which is why it’s important to let trauma sensitivity inform any class.