I love yoga. I really do.
I love to practice solo, and in small or large groups. I am also passionate about teaching.
Now that I’ve said that, I also need to say that I’m worried about the physical or emotional harm we may unintentionally cause others, and ourselves, through the practice and exploration of yoga.
I recognize that all of us, as yoga teachers, want those attending our group practices to have a good experience. How often do we hear, “keep practicing and you will get those knees parallel to the ground in Bound Angle pose,” or “bend your front knee in Warrior 1 so that the thigh is parallel to the floor,” 0r “if you have to, use the block to reach your hand closer to the floor.”
I know these and many other commands and cues are well-intentioned. However, yoga is practiced in numerous venues: studios, shalas, gyms, Crossfits, assisted living places, parks, beaches, prisons, schools, and even breweries, to name a few. This means yoga is reaching a huge and varied population. People come to classes with injuries—physical, emotional, and psychological. People come with everyday aches and pains—pregnant, arthritic, athletic, limber, extrovert, introvert, new, and experienced. And, even in a regular yoga setting, there may be people on their mats with post-traumatic stress, trauma of any level, recent or recurrent emotional states, depression, and chronic conditions.
If you study yoga, you will learn about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: a book composed of four parts and containing 196 short sentences. Sutra means thread, and yoga means union; the yoga sutras are aphorisms weaving through this union. One section describes the eight limbs of yoga, with the first being the yamas: ahimsa (nonharming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (nonstealing), brahmacharya (restraint), and aparigraha (nongreed).
This article will explore the first of the yamas—ahimsa—which encourages not causing harm. Sounds simple enough, right? No shooting, stabbing, kicking people, spitting, and yelling. While things probably won’t go that far in a yoga setting, we do sometimes—unintentionally—cause harm in teaching yoga, and also in practicing it.
If we took a poll of how many ways we can cause non-intentional harm in yoga class, we could easily come up with over a dozen. But I’ll be focusing on three: words, body language, and hands-on adjustments and assists.
Our words are powerful. I recall a nursery rhyme from childhood: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I remember reciting it many times. We now know that is far from the truth though. Words do hurt.
The number of people flocking into group yoga classes has grown faster than one can move through a 108 sun salutations. Instead of sending commands to the class with what to do or not do, let’s give them control and choice. We can “invite” them, or say “if you like.” We are here to teach and guide and facilitate a group practice, which means the participants are free to explore and experiment with each pose, or not.
We did not walk in with their body, mind, or emotions in that moment, and we have no idea what they are experiencing inside physically, mentally, or emotionally. Give them space to practice. If we say to someone, “use a block if you need one,” it can be a simple suggestion that the block will bring the floor closer to their hand. However, it can be misinterpreted as a put-down that they need to use a crutch. Another way would be to have blocks available for everyone and place them next to each mat. Demonstrate with only a few words how to use the block, or any other prop, and let them decide if they want to use it. Our spoken words reach the ears and the minds of everyone differently.
Someone who is shy, sensitive, ego-driven, aggressive, angry, depressed, or happy will translate your words through their interpretation. It’s better to be kind and thoughtful by saying less and choosing positive words.
As Judith Hansen Lassiter, a well-known yoga teacher and writer so simply states: “Be kind.” Try to use more encouraging phrases, and not ones such as: if you need to, if you cannot, work to your progression, keep trying, or use a block if you have to.
2. Body language
Are you entering the room racing and frustrated, fumbling to set up? Take a breath and laugh, offer a quick apology and a smile.
Are we standing at the top of our mat with arms crossed in front of us, looking around the room, furrowed brow, lips set into a thin grim, and eyes narrowed? Relax. Take a breath, loosen the jaw, and smile.
Our physical habits determine the uniqueness of our posture. Ever notice how you can know who is walking several hundred feet in front of you on a crowded street just by seeing their gait? Or how you can recognize someone entering a dimly lit restaurant by their confident stride? Or how about your aunt, who stoops forward, shoulders to her chest as she moseys into the room? The people sitting on their mats will notice your confident standing and seated posture, but also the slouched, “I would rather be home” one, and the rigid, tense one of shoulders back, chest thrust forward, and piercing eyes.
Body language is also important if you are scanning the room from your mat, or walking around among the mats. Maintain good eye contact, and avoid stopping to watch someone who might become self-conscious. You can let the class know in the beginning that you’ll be walking around and they are welcome to send you a signal if they would like your assistance. And then remind yourself to be open to whatever they need from you, even if it’s just a quick question.
3. Hands-on adjustments and assists
I love a great hands-on adjustment or assist, but not always. A grumbling GI tract that almost made me not unroll my mat does not welcome a teacher twisting me deeper into Half Lord of the Fishes pose today. Please do not go there.
It’s important to remember that an unskilled instructor can cause pain or injury. Touch is powerful and can be a great way to help practitioners experience the pose, but it can also bring forth repressed memories of physical abuse, a tragic car accident, or an unwanted past touch. A touch can also bring physical pain or discomfort.
Verbal cues or a quick demo can often be all that is needed. And remember, let them explore. It is, after all, their body and mind that arrived on the mat today. While some may disagree with these suggestions, the above are only some examples I’ve seen.
I recognize that other points of view are valid. Not all hands-on adjustments or assists cause harm, but I feel strongly that consent is needed every time, and should be asked for more privately. I was trained in Ashtanga, and have had numerous adjustments and assists that I welcomed. As long as the yoga teacher is well-trained, the recipient has given consent each practice session, and the receiver has updated the teacher on any issues, a good hands-on adjustment may be of benefit. Although, I still believe in letting the person explore the pose themselves in the moment they’re practicing it.
This article speaks to both the yoga instructor and the student. Listen to their cues and follow with full attention on the signals your body is sending to you. If you experience pain, slowly back out of the pose. If you experience discomfort in a joint, same advice. If you do not want to do a pose, don’t—that is fine. It is your practice at the time you are actually doing it. You may feel differently another day.
Bessel Van DerKolk, MD, in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body, and David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, Ph.D., in their book, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body all speak to teaching trauma-conscious yoga. Although the books, along with others, specifically relate to teaching individuals diagnosed with a trauma- related condition, we can bring the tools into everyday group settings.
Be present, be kind, be competent, and be engaging to everyone on their mats. To those of us practicing, know that we are in control, we have choices, we can feel encouraged to explore, experiment, and listen to our bodies. There is no right or wrong way to be in a pose—there is only what’s safe or unsafe for us.
Let’s bring a safe environment into the group yoga setting, while keeping laughter, respect, and community in it, too.