I’ve taken class with yoga teachers I didn’t know, who’s teaching style and instruction were so shocking and inappropriate I either had to abruptly exit the class or continually self-soothe throughout class by telling myself over and over again “remember, this isn’t yoga”.
On a slightly more mild scale, I’ve also been in classes where the instructor simply didn’t offer a sense of acceptance in their attitude. This created a tone of rigidity, judgment, and control. It also made it very uncomfortable to try to be vulnerable and go inwards.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for diversity within styles of teaching. That’s one of the most interesting and personal aspects of yoga; finding an instructor that resonates, who’s style just clicks and works for you. Different styles work for different people. Totally.
My focus is on the fact that no matter what the teacher’s style is or type of yoga it is, that class ought to be a safe space, period.
Physically, psychologically, emotionally; a student should be able to show up just as they are, with whatever baggage and background their carrying and be safe during class.
While any physical practice has risk of injury inherently, there are ways we can intentionally set ourselves up as best we, as students and teachers, can practice and teach yoga safely.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
The valuable information your body sends you about what feels okay and what does not completely overrides the teacher’s sequence and whatever anybody else is practicing. Teacher’s can do their best to create classes that set you up for a successful practice, but no one can ever know how something is going to feel for you.
Remember, the yoga adapts to you exactly as you are, not the other way around.
If a posture doesn’t feel right, that doesn’t mean it’s completely off limits forever. Over time with practice, lots of new shapes and experiences become available to you, but you can’t force your way through to get to them. And why skip those fresh and evolving learning experiences anyway!
When you’re stretching into an edge, let’s say in paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), and your body communicates something like “woah, okay ! That’s enough !”, it’s trying to protect you from injury.
What an amazing ability. Your body feels what you’re doing, senses risk, and then sends a signal up to your brain so that you back off and away from the risk. So cool.
It’s not going to serve you to push past that instinctual communication with force. Respect that that’s your edge right now and ease into being there. Your body will learn it’s okay and then open as it’s ready and over time. We’re not going to get instant gratification here.
Absolutely (!) try new shapes and keep an attitude of curiosity and exploration within your practice. But don’t force your body into a shape just because that’s the shape you’ve seen before or because it’s the most physically advanced version. You can also be a very advanced practitioner and not be doing the most physically advanced postures. Yoga is more than just the asana practice.
Tune into what behaviors are serving you/not serving you.
Keep coming back to why you’re practicing. Why you chose to get on the mat. The real deep WHY. The one you find when you dig down past the first couple why’s you might’ve just thought of.
To feel good and a sense of home in your body?
To experience more mental calm?
To heal and process your experiences?
I’m sure that even if you push and squeeze and force yourself into that painful and strained but interesting shape, that you will still be you, you won’t have an immediate nirvana moment, and you’ll still have your WHY at the foundation.
Because it’s a practice.
We’re not in class to complete or perfect anything. You will be safer moving through class with a tone of curiosity rather than harshness or force.
Think of your efforts more like water continually running over rocks to smooth them. It’s not immediate but it’s effective.
DON’T HESITATE TO TELL THE INSTRUCTOR IF THEIR ADJUSTMENT IS NOT WORKING FOR YOU
I know this can be uncomfortable to do. I still struggle with it myself. I think the reason it can feel so difficult is because on some level we feel like we are rejecting the instructor by saying “oh, that’s too much” or “that doesn’t feel okay”. But we are not rejecting the instructor’s offering; we are choosing what is best for ourselves in that moment.
No matter how pure and good the instructor’s intentions are in giving you an adjustment, for so many different reasons, it just might not feel right. And that deserves to be communicated. Hopefully the instructor will value the honest communication and appreciate that you are tuned in with yourself.
You also never need to justify your preference to not to be adjusted. Your body. your practice.
LEAVE IF THAT’S WHAT SEEMS LIKE THE RIGHT THING FOR YOU
I’m not saying that as soon as class is challenging, walk out the door. I know in Hot yoga students are encouraged to stay in the room and just take Savasana or a comfortable seat if they are feeling too hot/overwhelmed/etc.
There’s a delicate balance here that is ultimately up to you. Is the class bringing up something uncomfortable that you’ve realized you want to express or meditate on? Is the class physically challenging but still accessible to you?
Or do you feel unsafe or disrespected or even violated? Or perhaps the class is triggering a trauma and feels unsafe in that way for you.
Whatever the situation is, do what you feel, what you intuit, is best for you.
My point is to trust yourself.
I have endured numerous classes where my gut told me to leave, class felt very inappropriate, I felt unsafe, but despite my better judgement, I stayed. These have been valuable lessons, reinforcing the power and insight of intuition, inner knowing, and the strong Self-respect we must cultivate and honor more than any class, teacher, or potentially awkward exit.
TAKE CLASSES THAT SEEM APPROPRIATE FOR YOUR LEVEL
This might seem obvious…But I have had absolute beginners attend my advanced classes before and it seems to have not served them as well as a more beginner level class would have. Lot’s of looking around, sitting down, and seeming out of breath.
In a group class there is an inherent element of solidarity even though you are moving through your practice as an individual. There’s a set of sequences that everyone is being guided by and students are usually following along.
If you’re trying to keep up with an advanced flow but you’re not advanced, I imagine you’d feel overwhelmed, rushed, and confused.
Imagine you’ve never done hip-hop cardio and you find yourself in an advanced hip-hop class where the rest of the people there have been practicing hip-hip cardio classes for 3+ years. It could be intimidating and really uncomfortable.
Again- play, experiment, try new poses and take classes that seem interesting to you. But do this perhaps within or gradually a bit beyond your comfort zone so that the yoga you’re practicing is accessible to you and safe.
EXPAND YOUR REPERTOIRE TO BE MORE INCLUSIVE
Everyone is carrying some sort of individual struggle even if it doesn’t seem like it all the time. We don’t always know what is going on for someone internally but ought to be sensitive to that experience anyway.
Especially in a yoga class, where students are being asked to connect with themselves, vulnerable and challenging stuff may come up. Teachers have the responsibility of creating a safe space for people there so that they have the opportunity to ‘sit’ with whatever’s coming up for them.
That processing might look like a student literally taking a seat and just breathing, it might look like taking more time in a particular pose while the sequence moves forward, it might look like adding more movement to allow for more unique expression.
As an instructor what I’ve found cultivates a welcoming, warm space that more effectively nurtures the student’s individual processes is having a more inclusive vocabulary.
Offer words like: “maybe”, “if it feels okay for you”, “option to…”, “I invite you to…”, “remember these are optional”, “remember to do what feels best to you” etc.
These words don’t make the yoga itself any lesser. In fact, they actually add enormous value to the class because now people can access what you’re teaching in a way that works for them as they are.
People are affected by the words we use.
What these inclusive words do is create a space that is more inviting and diverse. They communicate that there’s not one right way of doing the yoga. It makes it okay for students to show up and still practice yoga with whatever flexibility, healing, injuries, emotions, mental state, and struggles they’re experiencing at that moment.
Demos have their place for sure. If students are confused about what you’re teaching or you want to give them a more clear image of the peak pose you’re heading towards, offering a demo can be helpful.
However, it’s important to use demos as a tool, not always as the backbone of the teachings.
One of the reasons is because everyone’s body is going to look different when they are trying the poses.
If a student is practicing and a lot of their class time is spent watching the instructor do the poses this can be: A. distracting and take them out of the experience of their own bodies, and B. giving them a reference point and image of a posture that might not be available to them at that moment. It can create a feeling of inadequacy rather than acceptance and exploration for exactly where they’re at in their practice.
Students may also try to use force to get their bodies into the posture being demoed because they think that’s what it’s supposed to look like, which can be risky and lead to injury.
Another downfall of demos is that the instructor can actually become injured from offering a demo of a challenging or effortful posture if they are not warmed up properly.
I was recently trying to teach a particular aspect of upward facing dog by offering a demo. I wanted students to see what I was exactly talking about. While the demo seemed to get the idea across, right after even just that brief demo, my wrists were not happy about it because I hadn’t warmed up at all.
Overall, it’s about consciously deciding between when it will serve both you and the students to offer a demo from when it may be unnecessary or even harmful.
TEACH WHAT YOU KNOW
Again, might seem obvious. But totally important to keep in mind. Teach poses that you are experienced in and that you practice yourself. Make sure you can offer modifications for varying levels, options for deepening, or possible alternatives.
You’ll be able to serve students more thoroughly with your classes and speak to specific cues rather than general shapes, which is hugely helpful for students, whether they’re beginning their yoga journey or already advanced.
Teaching what you know is also such an excellent place to always begin. It sets you up for designing well though-out classes and also builds a bridge, connecting your personal practice and studies with what you’re teaching.
As you learn more as a student, you evolve more as a teacher.
You don’t have to go in knowing everything, just teach what you know and allow that to continue to grow and expand.
REMEMBER IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
The yoga works, ya’ll.
Even if you are the most amazing teacher, it’s still not about you.
This doesn’t mean you’re not valuable. Of course. If you’re an amazing instructor, you’re delivering the yoga intelligently and making it accessible, interesting, and maybe even are inspiring to students and building meaningful connections.
But the class is not about you, it’s about the students and the yoga.
This differentiation is subtle but noticeable when taking class. It’s the intentional with which the instructor is teaching from. It can appear as the teacher’s energy and attention being mostly on themselves, rather than on the students.
If the person guiding class isn’t tuned into the class, their teachings might be pushing people too far or not serving them for where they’re at in the moment.
This shows in adjustments as well.
Adjustments are not a one-size-fits-all sort of situation.
We’ve got different bodies, are practicing at different levels, and every time we show up on our mats we’re bringing something different. So something that worked one day may just not work the next. And that’s 100% okay.
I’ve heard of and received adjustments that were pushing too far because the instructor was trying to help deepen the pose. Which is a fine intention, but only if, the student has given permission to receive an adjustment, you’re checking in with them, and making sure it feels okay.
The adjustments ought to be approached by the teacher with the same curiosity that students maintain when approaching their yoga practice. Any adjustment made without that curiosity, perceptiveness, and tuning in is risky.
We’re all always learning. And we’re all always changing.
It’s actually very yogic. It’s about remembering impermanence.
What worked today might not work tomorrow. What worked for one person might not work for someone else.
Definitely keep learning, use the tools you’re cultivating, but don’t let your outlook narrow too sharply or harden into a single perspective of what works.
There is a freshness in impermanence that offers the opportunity to continually be learning and evolving wisely.
With this freshness, students and teachers are better able to serve; serve ourselves, the people we work with, and the community around us. Simply because we are holding an open, curious, spacious mindset for things and people as they are right now in this moment. Not what they were yesterday or will be in 2 months from now. Right now.
When we can just be with what is, whether it’s a lack of flexibility in a posture, or a classroom of students aren’t resonating with the sequence prepared, we can let go a little bit more.
We don’t have to cling to our ideas of how something or someone should be.
We don’t have to compare ourselves to other people or use that experience to measure our self worth.
We can ease more fully into what’s happening in the moment and find a little bit more sense of presence right there without trying to change it.
Natalie Mazur is a bilingual (English/Spanish) Yoga Instructor based in San Diego, California. She teaches private clients in their homes, virtually, and offers weekly group classes. Natalie has nine years of study and teaching experience combined, and has taught in the U.S. and internationally.
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