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:
Intention Setting: Maybe you’ve been to a yoga class where a teacher asks you to set an intention, or has set a group intention, or maybe you practice with an intention already? Intention setting can be very powerful. It’s a way to remind the mind and body of your purpose. You project into the future, laying a path for your mind and body to follow. In my personal experience, this is very effective. Even if you don’t follow the exact path planned, you at least come to the mat and say, “I have a purpose for being here.” That can make a huge difference in the way you practice that day.
In this same way, set an intention as a teacher. Not like: “I intend to teach an inversion at the end of this practice” or “I intend to end class on time,” but more like “I intend to stay connected to my breath” or “I intend to look at every student in every pose.” Set intentions regarding your relationship with yourself and your students, and you will impact everyone’s overall experience. The space in which you are teaching and your students are practicing will be elevated just through your intention setting.
Be Present: This overused new-age term has gradually become mainstream. Not because yoga is becoming more mainstream, but because being present can be easily, and repeatably created. It is a result from simple and specific actions you can take, which means it’s replicable time and time again. Now that’s what I call practical! If you notice your mind wandering, take it back to the moment by observing something in the moment; that’s just one simple action to be present. Easy enough. The only reason we don’t work on being present more is because it’s redundant, and maybe even defeating, when we find that we are constantly taking our mind away from the past or future and bringing it back to the now. As soon as we accept this to be our reality, it really is no big deal. It is a practice, just like any other. When teaching yoga there is always something in the moment to observe – your students! They are living, breathing, and moving and your mind can easily fixate on them to stay in the moment. Strive to be present with your students through observation. This will have huge pay offs in many other areas of teaching as well! You will begin to observe all sorts of things about your students. Sometimes I think new teachers are scared to look at their students. I remember fearing that I did not have the solution, so I wouldn’t even look in case I discovered a problem. It’s ok to not know the answer, but still look at them! You will learn so much about the human body and the practice of yoga through constant observation of your students. And your mind won’t wander. Plus, who knows, maybe their minds won’t wander either. Pretty soon, you will all feel this inner connectivity through your ability to be with one another in the moment, which some hippies may call “holding space.”
Accept: Acceptance is an underlying theme in most religious texts, and Eastern Philosophy is not excluded. In the Yoga Sutras on Patanjali we are taught about santosha, or contentment, which I think of as acceptance. Often in yoga classes we ask our students to accept where their body is today in their practice. But how often do we accept our students and where they are? Where their form and alignment is? Where their flexibility and their strength is? Where their mind and their spirit is? Of all, acceptance can be the most challenging, but is the most important when it comes to holding the space. In teacher training you are taught ideal alignment in every pose. And in any good training program, you are also taught that ideal alignment is impossible for many bodies and far from reach for many others. Let’s assume you know how to see relative alignment for various body types. But do you know how to see progression? Can you accept a modification and not wish for your student to someday create a pose more similar to the ideal alignment you learned in training? Even harder still, can you see the human being in front of you and can you accept their progression along their spiritual path? Have you ever heard before, “practice acceptance?” Acceptance is a practice, just like the practice of yoga or the practice of being in the moment, and it requires repetition. The more you practice acceptance in other areas of your life, the easier it gets to practice acceptance while teaching yoga. And if you’ve ever been around an accepting person, you don’t need me to tell you their value. Especially while you are practicing yoga, progressing through your poses and your mind stuff, and feeling exposed, it is wonderful to have an accepting teacher be your guide. Work towards acceptance as you teach, and even you will feel the difference in the practice space.
So how can you apply this information? What is an example of using this list to hold space in your next yoga class? Try meditating while your students are in savasana versus looking through texts on your cell phone. Try breathing with your students through the sun salutations versus making mental plans of what you’ll teach next. Try seeing their body where it is when giving a physical adjustment versus where you think it should be. Try being just as vulnerable when teaching as your students practicing versus being closed off and absent.
There is a reason that students recognize teachers who can hold space while they practice, and there is a reason why students tend to gravitate towards those teachers and their classes. It isn’t a lofty idea out of reach; you can hold space in our own yoga classroom with a little practice and a little effort.
Wishing you well in your teaching efforts and yoga classes ahead. Namaste!