One of the biggest things that spoke to me personally about yoga was that I could move and breathe and participate in the group without needing to talk. Practicing postures and breathing helps me get out of my head (for many of us, being in our heads can be related to anxiety, stress, or trauma) and into my body (often this means more focus on the present moment). The need to talk pulls me right back into my head, not only the work of putting things into words, but “What is the right answer? How are people going to judge me for this?” It’s one thing to talk about letting go of that stuff – I agree that we all should! – but in practice it is much harder than we’d like to think.
I don’t think everyone has to benefit from yoga in the same way I do (assuming that everyone has the same experience as me would be a form of privilege), but there is an intention behind making minimal use of student talking, aside from hearing myself talk! There are various group activities where talking makes up the essence of the activity … while talking isn’t necessarily incompatible with a physical yoga practice, it’s also not an essential part of it.
In any setting, there are also often power dynamics at play which make participants feel inhibited to freely speak their minds, above and beyond the good intentions or supportive words of the instructor. For instance, the presence of teachers in a class of students, or officers in a jail setting.
In some settings, quiet is rare, and it can be a nice break to come to a calm, quiet place for yoga. Sometimes the experience of connecting with your own body, your own mind, is very personal, and not something people want to share, or have words to share. In these situations, pressing people to talk can cause more anxiety than stress relief, and I would rather avoid it.
What about when people DO talk?
Sometimes it is striking to come into a non-studio setting to teach and to observe how differently people approach talking – often there is more of it! Sometimes a person shares something (“This pose feels great!” “I can’t do that with my arm.” “Do most people get gas when they do yoga?”) and it’s fine, and I acknowledge it, respond if it’s relevant, and we move on. Sometimes people are very vocal, one person out of proportion to others, and the other members of the class ask that person for a bit of quiet …sometimes a teacher responding to each and every outburst would focus the entire class on one person to the detriment of several others. Sometimes a person does want to speak about something upsetting, which is understandable, but may also be triggering for someone else who wants to use this time differently (one of the reasons why I mostly don’t talk about trauma in my trauma informed yoga classes either).
It’s not always obvious how to solve this sort of situation with compassion and consideration to all, so I do my best. I wouldn’t want to make someone feel scolded for talking; at the same time, I want to think of the needs of the entire group. (Dr. Melody Moore’s Yoga Service Conference presentation on the Art of Facilitation had some great tips on managing time among participants in settings where talking is a part of the practice).
The tricky thing with talking is, if you are looking for verbal confirmation that students enjoy it, the students who LIKE TO TALK are more than happy to provide this positive feedback! But those who don’t, and who might benefit more without pressure to talk – it’s much harder since the issue of talking is the very same topic at hand.
Is it oppressive not to engage students in conversation during yoga?
I’ve mentioned Paolo Freire’s work before, and how he refers to a more traditional education approach as “banking education”… students are containers into which the teacher “pours” knowledge – kind of an insulting approach, and one that he proposes actually leads to and consists of a form of oppression. So when I avoid inviting more verbal interaction during class, is it any different what I’m doing? I would argue not – because verbally responding is by far not the only way of engaging! I use invitational language which is quite different from cues that “dictate” how students should move; I encourage students to notice what they feel, and move accordingly. I avoid telling people how they should feel or how a pose would feel, and I’m also cautious around language like “I want you to”. I certainly do have intentions in my teaching but the practice isn’t about what I want, it’s about students getting to know their own bodies better. People ARE making choices and engaging by how they choose to move and breathe and where they place their awareness. Just not with words.
How do I bring in talking in a deliberate way?
In some settings, I may have an icebreaker question at the start of class. What’s your favorite breakfast food and your name? If you could be an animal, what would you be? Tell the group something you are good at? Typically this is something fairly light-hearted that people can take as lightly or as seriously as they’d like, and they can also opt out of. While it is not intended to turn into a lengthy discussion – I just don’t see that as my role – it potentially lets students know that they CAN talk if they want to, and that I am happy to engage with them in words, to learn about them and also share something about myself. If a staff member is around to help organize the class but is not participating in yoga, it can be interesting as well to have them answer the icebreaker question, obviously only if they are open to it.
I think yoga instructors have different intentions for inviting conversation, and I wouldn’t judge someone for doing this. I would just ask that judgement be held when people experience my approach.