Category: Practical / How To
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.
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?”
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?”
“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”
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- 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.
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.