If you know me, you know that I’m very much grounded in the actions, skills, and efforts of teaching yoga. I rarely talk about feeling my way through teaching, as I see teaching yoga as very practical, tangible, and real. I have the utmost respect for those who can resonate with their upper chakras to guide their classes, but it’s just not who I am or how I get the job done. I have carefully crafted my craft and I am proud of the hours of study, trial and error, and just plain experience that has fine-tuned my teaching abilities. Still there is this inexplicable thing that happens, especially during savasana or final relaxation, which I can only describe as this warm, encapsulating bubble. It’s the action of holding the space.
The first time I heard this term, “holding space,” it sounded like just another hippie, new-age term, and in my field there are a lot of them. I remember nodding my head as if I understood its meaning. To me, a good teacher creates the right atmosphere in savasana, dimming the lights, assuring all students are comfortable, describing how to relax, and then meditating or at least trying to keep their own mind clear as their students took this final pose. Apparently, but not so apparent to me, there was something else that I was doing in savasana, that one day a student described as “holding space.”
Over time I received news that during the course of my entire class I “hold space” for my students. What does this mean? My mind started analyzing, and analyzing, because I don’t feel for the answers. After a lot of analysis and time, because maybe analysis takes longer than intuition, I came to a conclusion!
Holding space is so simple to do, and important, in a yoga class or in any healing practice! And here’s is how you create an atmosphere that is inviting and accepting in which your students will want to journey with you:
Some things I see as just black or white. This or that. It is or it isn’t. Even when it comes to my job of teaching yoga. You are either in correct alignment or you are not. But as I’ve continued to teach I have learned that practice makes progress and if progress is not allowed how can a student grow? There are so many aspects that make a good teacher. The very necessities are understanding anatomy, knowing asana alignment, and being able to safely sequence a class. But so often what is overlooked in training programs are the more subtle qualities that can make one teacher stand out from the rest.
I once work beside a teacher who lacked humility, liked to show off her sense of humor constantly in class, and would cross ethical lines by becoming friends with most of her students. My black and white perspective lumped her into the category of “bad teacher.” But as time passed, as I continued to grow as a teacher, and as I had similar experiences of my own, I was able to see what stood out the most about her teaching, and what stood out the most to her students. She had the ability to observe what students needed on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. She met her students’ needs. She met them where they were on the mat that day and each day they came to class, and they continued to come day after day.
Her students kept returning to her classes not because they thought she was their new best friend, or because they enjoyed the gossip or the jokes that she would tell in class. They continued to follow her from class to class and from studio to studio, despite what I viewed as her “disruptive” or “inappropriate” behavior, because she had a gift for seeing what her students needed.
Recently I spoke with a yoga teacher who graduated from one of my past training courses. She was agitated that the senior students in her class who, disgusted by the droning sitar chords she would typically play, asked for some golden oldies instead. I thought of my poor mother when I was 16 and decided that three sticks of Nag Champa incense must be burning at all times while I locked myself in my room. Frankly, most baby boomers are over Hare Krishna’s, sitars, and incense. They lived it! So if you’re a yoga teacher who just created a playlist filled with kirtan, play it for your 20 somethings, not your 65+ crowd.
This blog post is all about when to stick by the sequence you had previously written for your yoga class and when to ditch it all together. This post was inspired by a new yoga teacher, who was once my yoga trainee, who recently wrote the following on a private yoga forum:
"Although I had been taught to keep my sequence and modify it to fit her needs, I felt that I could not ask her to do multiple asana that I know she simply cannot do. I have done this when I have a pregnant woman and a student with an ostomy bag. It's not that I can't or don't modify. However, if I was planning a twist class and my ostomy student came, I would teach a hip class instead. I feel like asking the student to modify a few times is fine, but asking them to modify for the majority of the class can be discouraging. Am I the only one? Is this an issue? And if so, how can I overcome this?" ~Concerned Yoga Teacher
"At the center of your being you have the answer:
you know who you are and you know what you want"