Category: Practical / How To

Something For (Almost) Everyone

How can a power/vinyasa trained yoga in structor offer a more accessible class?
My 200-hour yoga teacher training is in power vinyasa yoga, but I teach in a variety of settings where it’s essential to make classes accessible to a broader range of experience levels that usually appear in a yoga studio class. This includes yoga service settings ( where people may be new to yoga or have physical constraints that aren’t very  common in power vinyasa yoga studio setting (knees so sensitive that it is rarely helpful to have them on the ground as a modification; a lot of difficulty getting up and down off the ground) – but also even corporate classes or classes in residential buildings where participants have all variety of experience levels.  Of course there are many styles of yoga, restorative and yin to name a few slower paced ones, that may suit participants well too, not just variations of power vinyasa yoga! But this post details how I’ve modified a more power vinyasa focused sequence with the many other power or vinyasa trained teachers in mind.
It’s worth noting that a trauma informed approach ( also very much influences my own teaching style, and this includes giving lots of options, including the option to rest or not do poses.  This post is focused on very specific and literal pose modifications, but language can also play a pivotal role in creating a friendly environment where people feel comfortable doing what they need to do to take care of their bodies.
Power yoga practice: From downward facing dog – lift your right leg – step your right foot between your hands.
Something for everyone: No down dog. Starting from forward fold or halfway lift, step your left foot back, perhaps with blocks underneath your hands. If lowering down towards the ground and coming back up is too much, this could also be done from tadasana – just step your left foot back.
Power yoga practice: Flow one breath per movement between poses – inhale warrior one – exhale warrior two – inhale reverse warrior – exhale chaturanga
Something for everyone: Vinyasa with the arms moving one breath per movement, but the legs stable, rather than pose to pose. Inhale warrior two – exhale gather your hands at your heart, inhale warrior 2 – exhale hands to heart.
Power yoga practice: Long holds of some poses.
Something for everyone: Slow enough to set up. Give a cue and wait for people (some! perhaps not all) to do it, then give another, but no super-long holds either.  The intention is not to bring uber importance to alignment, but to give people a chance to actually implement the cues given. Also use invitational language such as, “We’ll be here another four breaths, or you can finish when you feel done.” Sometimes me talking in between poses or sections of the class is an opportunity for participants to reconnect with the breath, pause and observe.
Power yoga practice: Offer a pose and then offer the modification. Inhale crescent lunge/high lunge – exhale revolved crescent lunge. Option to bring your back knee down to the ground for more stability.
Something for everyone: Start with the modification, then offer the advancement – in words but perhaps without a demo. From table top pose, step your right foot forward. Inhale kneeling warrior – exhale twist. If you’re stable here you can tuck your back toes under and lift your back knee up.
Power yoga practice: Offer to bring a block or strap if anyone needs one.
Something for everyone: Suggest everyone take two blocks at the start of class and speak to them as options more often than not (again as I’m very influenced by a trauma informed approach, I don’t often use straps outside of studios but if you are in a setting where you do everyone could be encouraged to take one whether they use it or not).
There are a few poses from the “skeleton” sequence I learned in teacher training that I regularly omit from my community classes, generally because there are safety concerns related to correct alignment and because in my experience many students (including regular practitioners in studios) do not practice safe alignment even when it’s offered: dancer pose, floor bow, half pigeon. I offer other balancing/spinal strengthening/hip opening postures instead.
In many of my studio classes, students who practice power yoga regularly also struggle to practice safe alignment in chaturanga and upward facing dog and yet do not practice modifications when offered, so I almost always omit this sequence from my community classes. If weight bearing on the arms for plank is a possibility, you can add holds of plank or forearm plank, or other core strengthening movements (tapping the shoulders, tapping the toes). In most community class settings I do not use plank holds.
To be fair, these examples are not truly something for everyone. People who want weight bearing on the arms, inversions, and generally a vigorous practice would probably not find this practice engaging. These people (and I include myself in this group as a student) are equally deserving of a suitable practice, but generally are well served by studio classes, including low cost community classes at studios.
I also think the idea that a single class can suit everyone well is not realistic for teachers or for students. Because of this, it makes sense to describe the class well in any promotional materials. For instance, “Participants should be comfortable sitting on the ground and coming up to standing; chairs are available for those who prefer to sit on a chair or rest on a chair, but this is not a chair yoga class.” And then mostly stick to that.
“One size fits all” may be promoted in some settings with the business goal of drawing as many people in as possible. As instructors, of course we can and should do our best to accommodate all students, but it need not be personal if what we offer doesn’t make everyone happy provided we’ve made an effort to offer safe alternatives and options to rest or skip.  Please feel free to share any tips or practices you have found to make a power vinyasa style of yoga more accessible.



Yoga Service and Cynicism: What Can Be Done?

So as a yoga instructor in a yoga service setting, what can a yoga instructor do in the face of cynicism?

First, what I can’t do: I can’t change students’ life experiences, and at least in the setting of a single yoga service class, I can’t change the stereotypes created and, I hate to say it, damage done by an industry that portrays yoga as something for thin, rich white women. Even in a mandatory class, I can’t make people do yoga do yoga to at least see if they feel any benefits. In a trauma informed approach, every part of the class is optional, including the option to not do it at all.

I think it’s beneficial to consider what can be done, but also worth pointing out that sometimes cynicism is there a for a very good reason and isn’t necessarily something that a yoga service instructor can/should/needs to change.

What I can do:

  • I can give thought to students’ likely life experiences and learn about them, both the life experiencs and my students as human beings, separate from this service context, over times. I can acknowledge, at least to myself, that stereotypes do exist, and while I may not have created them, neither have my students! It’s not just their imagination or prejudice against yoga…they have accurately read this unfortunate reality of yoga in the US.

Continue reading “Yoga Service and Cynicism: What Can Be Done?”

Mandatory Yoga?

In some settings such as shelters, participants are either literally required to go to yoga, or they may choose to go because it’s better than the alternative of nothing (and still not particularly want to be there). While there may be reasons an organization would do this, it can be hard to reconcile this with the idea of a trauma informed approach to yoga.

One of the reasons trauma informed yoga can be healing is because trauma is often related to a situation we don’t have control over, and a trauma informed approach offers participants options and choice and both symbolically and literally returns that sense of control…so mandating participation in yoga runs contrary to that idea of offering choice.

For me as an instructor, the class I taught in such a setting was the most challenging scenario to deal with cynicism LINK. To be clear, I teach adults and this post focuses on mandatory yoga classes for adults – it certainly happens that classes are made mandatory for youth in other settings, but there’s such a difference between youth and adults that I don’t expect my experience to cover both.

If it’s possible to set up a class which is optional, even if it means lower attendance, I prefer that – when we treat adults like children and dictate what they “must” do, it’s not surprising that they may not respond in a positive way “like adults”.  Even classes where students “sign up” for yoga, if they are required to participate in something, it’s not clear how much of a choice it is to do yoga. That said, some non-profits will hold mandatory sessions with activities like yoga because it has been made part of their regular programming (which can be helpful for ensuring space is held for the classes and a budget alotted for mats or other props) and is essential to receiving funding that keeps them going. There are likely reasons behind every decision, and there may not be one “bad guy” creating problems … but rather a flawed system. Continue reading “Mandatory Yoga?”

Yoga Service and Cynicism: How & Why?

How does cynicism show up in yoga service, and why? And what can you do as a yoga instructor do about it?

First, what do you mean by cynicism? As human beings we make deductions about how others feel ALL the time, not just in yoga or in working with underserved communities. Of course there are times when our interpretations might be wrong. To me, it’s rare that people call me out or call yoga out directly, but what I think of as cynicism is the rare occasions when people smirk or laugh at what I teach or make comments quietly to their neighbor…in a way that doesn’t seem positive. In some settings, it’s very possible that cynicism is why people don’t come to class. Continue reading “Yoga Service and Cynicism: How & Why?”

Trauma Informed Yoga and Savasana

“The hardest pose”… “The most important pose”…Savasana is at the center of a surprising amount of strong emotion in yoga, at least in some circles of teachers! With some poses (arm balances, inversions, but any, really) we might say that the pose isn’t really the point. Not so much with this.

What if people leave during savasana, or skip it, or move during it?  In particular, leaving during savasana can be noisy and disruptive to other students. In the bigger yoga sculpt classes I teach, which incorporate weights AND savasana, and where I’ve found people a little more likely to head out early in some locations, I politely request each time that I invite people to stay, but if they know they must leave early, to please do so before we start savasana, so those who are staying can experience that quiet time without the sounds of multiple sets of footsteps and weights being put away.

Why do people leave class early? In some settings, with some people, no doubt, it’s just practical. They need to get a head start on their day, they don’t want to wait to shower, who knows why. They may not care if their noise disrupts others in rest – and this is unfortunate.

For others, savasana can be triggering. What might it feel like for a sexual violence survivor to  be directed to lay on your back, close your eyes, be still, and know that the instructor may circulate and massage your neck and shoulders? How about a first responder whose life is literally on the line at work, who hates closing his or her eyes because know what is going on in the immediate vicinity is essential to survival? This pose may not feel safe or relaxing at all – even if the yoga practice right before was tremendously beneficial.

At the same time, what if a sexual violence survivor, a first responder, or someone else whose trauma comes up in this pose takes the risk of trying it out? And, with eyes closed, several people walk by their resting head (perhaps with weights they will need to loudly put away?). Not good either.

And as a yoga teacher, you don’t know who is who, most of the time. Some survivors won’t be bothered by savasana; even if you know a student is a first responder – totally possible they leave early just to beat the others to the shower! As yoga instructors, we don’t know what’s going on for our students, and it’s not really the nature of our relationship to know their personal lives as a psychologist would.

The Breathe Network blog has an excellent video on why savasana might be so difficult for trauma survivors – and in particular its similarity to freeze (link forthcoming).

Of course as instructors of groups we can’t make everyone happy all the time. But what could make savasana feel safest for more people? Continue reading “Trauma Informed Yoga and Savasana”

YSC 2017: Inclusive Cuing

How can yoga teachers cue in a way that is relevant to a variety of experience levels and mobility expressions? Any public yoga class is bound to include diversity, as will any yoga service class. Jasmine Chehrazi spoke about inclusive cuing at a breakout session of the 2017 Yoga Service Conference (read my pre-session thoughts too). My takeaways:
  • The answer isn’t all about the language you use. Remind yourself however you can (sitting with students, mantra, silence) that you are one with your students. Recognize this unity before differentiation. Consistency is part of this too. Rather than using “special” rules for yoga service or trauma informed classes, work with the same general teaching guidelines all the time. For me, this often means adjusting the class to the broad “level” of the group, but speaking with similar language and referencing similar benefits of the practice.
  • Focus your teaching and cues on processes rather than goals. In a physical practice, sure, we are teaching poses, but the “full expression” in my body may look very different from the full expression in yours. Avoid language that ranks poses as “full expression”, or “if you want to go deeper”, or “if you can/can’t”. Invite students to explore where they feel engagement or sensation within a pose, perhaps even at the same time they feel ease somewhere else.
  • Students sometimes say they don’t know what feels right Why? How can they not? My view is that sometimes our culture trains us to defer to a teacher or instructor and set our own experience aside, so even if we *do* feel, we dismiss that or devalue it in favor of what the teacher says. So if a teacher *doesn’t* say what to feel or do – “what’s wrong with this teacher?!”  Sometimes, though, we disassociate from our senses due to stress or trauma, and this is a widely recognized and real phenomenon in trauma research. Disassociation has a helpful purpose in some short-term settings – to minimize the impact of an emotionally or physically painful event; to stay focused and alert despite extreme fear – but in the long-term it’s ideal to turn back on the connection to our senses and as a result feel the full range of emotions. This is where yoga comes in, not just doing physical poses to “get them right”, but to bring our awareness to the moment and the physical sensations in the body.
  • Verbal outbursts can be tools for exploration  “Ouch!” Rather than treat this as a disruption to class, treat it as an opportunity to reflect on the sensation (obviously after the student is in a pose or shape that isn’t painful). What did you feel? Where did you feel that? Did anyone else feel something similar, or something different? Observing these physical sensations is not just incidental to the practice, it’s an important part of it and we can do this off the mat too.

Continue reading “YSC 2017: Inclusive Cuing”

Cultural Competency: Points from the Breakout Workshop

I participated in a Yoga Service Conference session entitled Best Practices for Cultural Competency and came away with a lot of thoughts! What I think loved the most about this session is that it made me think – and write, on my own, later! – excessively, rather than list notes during the talk. I think this speaks to both the value of this session as well as the talent of these speakers as educators in a general sense.
It’s challenging to try to summarize what was presented on a topic which is potentially very sensitive – it’s also my goal to maintain the privacy of individuals who participated alongside me. It’s probably best to read this post as what I came away with and am sharing, keeping in mind that my focus may differ from what the presenters intended, and that I am omitting some information in order to keep the confidentiality of the group.
Professor of Journalism Tamara Jeffries, and Dr. Santiba Campbell, Professor of Psychology, framed their presentation in terms of their experience bringing a for-credit yoga class to Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Bennett is a small, private historically black college. They were explicit that this was their experience, in a specific setting, which was distinct from some of the various settings yoga service teachers may work in.  I thought it still made a lot of sense to have a very specific starting point to serve as a context, rather than speaking only in generalities.

Continue reading “Cultural Competency: Points from the Breakout Workshop”

Cultural Competency…not enough?

I’m white and it’s rare that I perceive someone to be reacting to me differently in a negative way because of my race (I wrote about one unusual comment more than a year ago here). It’s very likely that people DO react to me differently because of my race – but since I’m white, it’s in a positive direction that I perhaps take for granted.
When it may seem that I’m being treated in a negative way due to my race, it’s obviously painful. I can’t change my race. I care about making our society kinder and more inclusive and I like to think of myself as on the same “side” as people of color – it hurts to feel I’m being grouped with the white people I’d consider racist. So what to make of it? I won’t pretend my answer is right for everyone, and of course my perspective has evolved,  even somewhat since I wrote the post linked above last year.
I can’t read minds –  I could be wrong.
I could be mistaken that someone is making a judgement based on appearance. In her workshop on facilitation, Dr. Melody Moore touched on the concept of projection – assuming a person feels x because *I* feel x.. Personally, I DO feel guilt or at the very least unease regarding this country’s poor treatment of people of color. It’s possible that because *I* feel personal guilt, I assume that in a given setting a person of color considers me personally guilty –  even if they don’t.
What if I’m right?

Continue reading “Cultural Competency…not enough?”

Do I encourage my students to talk in trauma informed yoga classes?

Mostly, no.

Why not?
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.

Why else?  Continue reading “Do I encourage my students to talk in trauma informed yoga classes?”