In a few weeks, I will be offering my first 6 week course of yin yoga. That has brought up a lot of ethical and practical considerations in my busy busy mind. My heart is clear that it is time, the outline of the course wrote itself down in just a few minutes. So why is my head so concerned about the quality of offering I will put out into the world?
Yoga is something I was on a war path with for a couple of years now. I drift in and out of my practice, and it took what felt like an eternity to find an approach suitable for my body. Growing up, yoga wasn’t a thing. The first exposure I had was through social media. Very slim women, perfectly tanned, bending themselves in tiny bikinis in front of scenic ocean scene – often photo-shopped or at least covered with a filter.
Some of these yogis clearly have had years of dedicated practice. Some, however, appearing to be completely unaware of alignment or the other 7 limbs surrounding the Asana practice. There is no judgement within me about the worth of the ‚flashy yogi‘ for lack of better wording. But there is deep sadness that these images where all I was exposed to for such a long time.
Why were there no people like me practicing yoga? Why were all of these humans capable of handstands, bends, full hip rotation, never out of breath, never having a bad day? And why was I not able to fulfill those guidelines. With my disproportions in limbs, and limitations in rotation of joints, with the a sensitivity that so strongly witnessed the internal energetic and emotional movement throughout my practice. Why could I not shut up and suck it up? Why did I have to question my teacher when they told me to push further even though it injured my body? Why was I always the one being a hassle?
I first fell in love with yin yoga, because I was enough. It was the first Asana practise where the teacher trusted me to know my edge. Where finding that first point of resistance was honoured and encourage. It was the first practice I found that allowed me to explore the pose, my breath, the internal movement, and become fully present in my experience. Esther Ekhart was the first to make me feel enough when I needed to modify or couldn’t do a pose at all – I have found other teachers of other styles since. Through Esther, I found a way in. I followed her through a number of styles, slowly gaining confidence to try other classes and teachers, slowly building a yang practice to my yin.
I have been to classes of teachers who did not offer preparation or a detailed break down before asking students to perform Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulder Stand) or Utrasana (Camel Pose). Where you are able to do the pose or just sit this one out. No guidance towards getting there, little support. Where I said I didn’t feel comfortable to stretch further and in reply my teacher talked about how we sometimes have to stretch the mind. Where coming out of the pose is considered failure of the student. Where you did what the teacher said because the teacher knows what’s best for you.
The studio class I currently go to is fantastic. A teacher with great knowledge and a kind approach to teaching. Encouragement, inclusiveness, openness. Looking at my shoulders and the current lack of strength and rotation without judgement. Quickly teaching me how to support myself throughout the poses that challenge me. Explaining how I can improve based on my body’s ability. And still gently coaxing me out of my comfort zone. Have I mentioned how much I love Maitri Studio?
This article is not meant to divide teachers in good or bad. Or practices in right or wrong. Or to shame insta-yogis. I follow quite a few bendy bikini yogis who teach me about all 8 limbs daily.
Walking along the path I have travelled down and reflecting on the type of yoga teacher I want to be, I can’t help but ask:
Where is the line of responsibility in teaching? (Something I have asked often in all of my approaches, classes and modalities.) What does teaching with integrity mean? What do I have to do/invest/reflect on, to provide a safe space – physically and emotionally? When is adjustment serving my students, what is the purpose of my adjustments? To which degree can I trust students to keep themselves safe during my class? Do I stand behind the teachings I have read and am now implementing, or have I come across research that makes me question the ancient teachings? What is my responsibility to add my voice to the collective so that there is a balance to the images I find myself flooded with daily? And most importantly, how does my understanding of yoga transfer into my life once I step off the mat?
A lot of questions without a definite answer. Asking 5 different yogis will bring at least 5 different perspectives. So here is mine. It is young, based on only a few months of teaching. It is wise, based on thousands of hours spent ‚holding space‘ for people in distress. It is subject to change – I hope to evolve my perspective any time I am presented with new information or experience. I get humbled by my practice so often, I would be a fool to stick vigorously to what I once thought to be right.
So: right now, for me, it comes down to this. I can broadly divide classes I have attended into two categories – those in which I have felt safe to hear my teacher and those I didn’t. I want to be the first type. Granted, that may not always be possible. And that may not always be realistic. For me, however, there are a number of steps I take to do the best I can to ensure this.
1. I know that I cannot know what is going on inside a student and trust their choice first and foremost.
If a student chooses a modification even though I consider them capable of going deeper, I trust that there is a reason. If I am worried that a student is pushing to hard, I connect with them quietly and ask what they are experiencing rather than make that judgement for them. I offer a teaching that explains which parts of the bodies we are targeting here, share options to adjust, and continuously remind students of the aims and philosophy of yin yoga.
2. I let students know about my limitations.
I say things like: ‚And if you’re shoulders simply don’t to this right now – as mine don’t – then take good care of yourself with this option instead‘. I also share with students if I have struggled with a pose in the past and how I overcame that. One of my favourite teachers once told me that she struggled with Bakasana (Crow/Crane) for 5 years before she was able to fully practice it. It took a lot of commitment to build strength, recover from injury and work with her body’s abilities. There are some poses I will never be able to do ‚properly‘ with perfect alignment and full mobility unless I suddenly wake up with different bone structure and joints 😉
3. I do what I can to know my field.
I study anatomy, meridians, spend time part of discussions in movement forums, listen to what experts in the field have to say, see what the base for teaching is, and always check in with my own heart if that teaching is aligned. I question my teacher when what they ask of me doesn’t seem right. Not to be a pain in the butt or to make their life difficult, but because it keeps me safe to know WHY keeping elbows close to the ribs in Chaturanga Dandasana is suitable or unsuitable for me at this moment in time.
This is something I ask of myself, too. When I plan a lesson, everything has a purpose. If one of my students was to ask me about doing a pose differently, modifying, or even just wants to know why I chose one pose over another, I will have an answer. I don’t know it all – alas, I’m just starting out. But I do what I can to know as much as possible.
4. I have an open conversation with my students.
Last night, I spent some minutes after a workshop listening to a student’s experience of strong emotions in certain poses. She needed a hug, I offered and she accepted. Another student approached me and brought up concerns about how she feels in certain poses. We listened into the body and I helped her make her own decision. Another student asked if we could look at a certain Asana and I’m including that into my series to explore deeper.
A dear friend of mine once said in the middle of a class : ‚ Somehow none of this is particularly comfortable.‘ And everyone moaned in relief – me included. How wonderful that she felt safe to say that. And what a great opportunity to talk about emotional vs. physical discomfort in yin!
I’m ready to step of my soap box. Knowing that my opinion and struggle is just a tiny drop in the ocean of conversation. I may not have much standing on the grounds of being a teacher, but I have some standing on the grounds of being a scared (and at times injured! from following the repeated guidance of a teacher) student. I know that there are some amazing teachers out there, I know that everyone is doing the best they can. I know that there are a lot of different philosophies and approaches to yoga out there. My sharing today is one step of many I’m taking towards belonging and integrity as a teacher, but mostly as a human.
Let me know your thoughts! I want to hear your opinions, examples, stories!
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