Saturday, August 04, 2018

Encouraging Yoga Students to Engage

authentic engagement
By Kathryn Boland

Do your students ask you questions, give you feedback, and share any physical or other concerns they may have in regards to practice? Do you wish they did that more often and/or in more depth, and wonder how you can encourage them to do so? Students know themselves - body, mind, and spirit - better than we instructors ever could. Yet they don’t always know what to do with that knowledge. 

Our knowledge of practice with their insight on themselves can come together to lead to their best practice. Yet students don’t always consult us. Modern Western cultural traditions can put yoga instructors on a pedestal of authority, who are to be listened to and not questioned - rather than to engage and collaborate with. 

This can go to the point of us asking individual students if something feels all right, and they can answer that it does when they are actually feeling pain. We should of course take students at their word, but also use other signs and tools to get to the root of their experience - so we can best serve them from there. So, how can we guide students towards that truthful, authentic engagement? 

The first way in which we can do that is more of a practical one - class structure and the common cues (to whole classes) that we offer at different points in class. For instance, certain questions are important to include in a class opening - if anyone is injured or has a more chronic anatomical issue, if anyone is relatively new to yoga (first to fifth class), and if anyone might be pregnant (but anyone a good deal along, with a very evident “baby bump”, should be directed towards a prenatal class). 

You can ask these questions when all students have their heads down (such as in Child’s Pose), or with closed eyes during a seated start - so that no students will feel self-conscious about revealing these things in front of other students. A bit later on, in the first resting pose after more active asana and flow, you can remind students that they can come to such a resting pose at any point during class when they might feel they need it. 

To end class, you can offer students the opportunity to take versions of more restful poses (such as supine twists and gentle hip openers, including Lizard Pose and Figure-4) that work best for them. Throughout class you can remind them to take what they need for themselves, in such ways.

A fun way to allow students to make their practices their own is to - if the class duration is long enough - include a “free flow” section. In these sections, students can hold and flow through poses that feel best for them, partly guided by upbeat music. This has an additional benefit of training students in, and building their confidence for, building their own home practices. 

Yet this method is likely not best to include in classes specified as beginner classes, wherein students will most likely need more guidance (for safety and benefits of poses) and confidence to flow on their own. With more experienced students, however, you can assure them of their capability to flow by their own intuition - and trust that they can really do so. 

These steps truly do begin to show, or reinforce for, students that they have agency in your class. With that agency, they can feel empowered to collaborate with you to help create their best possible practice. That collaboration can be indirect, such as them making modifications to the poses and flows you offer them. 

It can be direct, such as direct conversation or non-verbal working together (such as through gentle hands-on assists, with permission understood through other ways). To bring forth something even more specific, I would like to describe a particular method of a favorite teacher of mine. What specifically strikes me about her teaching is her use of questions - sometimes verging on a Socratic method. 

In her classes, this use of questions makes me feel as if I’m truly learning. She asks students about their experiences, and to reflect in certain ways - such as if one side felt different from another. This may put students in a place wherein they feel challenged, or perhaps even uncomfortable; it’s certainly not conventional for yoga instructors (at least the ones I’ve learned from). 

Yet the advantage of leading students to be more reflective, and truly more engaged in class through that deeper thinking, is certainly all the worth it - in my humble opinion. In addition, her kind and assuming - very much non-intimidating - demeanor likely balances out any of that discomfort. That addresses another significant aspect of teaching that determines students’ levels of willingness to engage as students - the energy the teacher brings. 

Confidence (in both self and students), positivity, non-judgement, and supportiveness can put students in a place wherein they’re more likely to engage - being accepted, supported, guided but not ordered, and in a place where they can reach for their highest selves.  

© Copyright – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

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Friday, August 03, 2018

Holding Space Through Yoga During Tense Times

modern culture
By Kathryn Boland 

Do you hear students talking about the news? Do they seem tense, tenser than usual? Does it seem like they’re coming to yoga to find tension release from all the craziness? No matter what side of the political divide people fall, we all feel - and likely internalize - the enormous amount of partisanship and tribal fighting currently happening in America. 

There are also existential threats that (at least should) transcend partisanship - such as the interference of autocratic Russia in democratic politics and the nuclear threat of North Korea. The news also seems unrelenting - new revelations, new rulings, new leaks, new “tweets”, new controversies coming out by the hour. The advent of widespread social media use, and subsequent sharing of news over social media, is inarguably a lot for the human system to handle - arguably more than we were designed to take in. 

Add on increasing responsibilities at work, with family and friends, with other miscellaneous obligations, and it can certainly be - at the very least - far more than we’re used to handling. “Mindfulness” is a term that’s spread through modern culture far beyond yoga. Yet it can understandably feel out of reach for many people, caught up in all those stimuli as they may be. Some may still come to yoga for a great workout or other physical health benefits, or perhaps to be in community. 

Yet, and I want to emphasize that I don’t know this, I wouldn't be surprised to hear proof that more people than ever are coming to yoga for a place of calm amidst a socioemotional, sociopolitical storm. I hear the need for that respite far and wide - in media, on the street, on public transit lines. It seems a natural progression that yoga practitioners - more or less regular people out there in the world - are looking to practice to satisfy this need for calm. Should this need change our teaching? 

I would only say that, as teachers, we should do our best to serve the needs that we observe. Perhaps teaching as we always teach  will do that. We can, however, be more intentional than ever about holding space. One way that we can do this is to stay fully focused on yoga and avoid conversation on controversial socio-political topics in yoga spaces. 

In my view, we can engage if students bring up such topics, and we can’t frame or prohibit their speech - being clients and autonomous adults. If studio owners might want to set in place some sort of disincentive for such speech in their spaces, that’s perhaps another discussion. What we can do is perhaps shift conversations away from these matters. 

We can do what we can to help preserve yoga spaces as neutral, peaceful, and sacred space away from all the external commotion. That offers people a place to go to escape it. There are plenty of other spaces for valuable discourse, activism, organizing, and learning. In having a calm, centered demeanor as a teacher, we can be part of that holding space. 

A concrete example of benefiting from this holding of space was when I recently took a Hands-on Restorative Assisting Training. We learned about important concepts in safety, consent, principles of empowering touch, the nature of trauma, and trigger symptoms. No one brought up the news. I didn’t look at my phone. As (admittedly) a staunch Progressive, a small piece of the back of my mind was likely still concerned about the direction of the Supreme Court (given recent news) and what it will propel in this country. 
Yet that piece was silent quite quickly. I felt held and supported in this space of learning and sharing. In a community of like-minded individuals, all supporting one another and growing together, any external threats that I'd been empathically perceiving (as a person of relative privilege) didn’t have to matter. This seems like a context that any yoga class could become, with the teacher effectively holding space for this communal support and growth. 

At the same time, yoga is in the world, and should act like it. In addition, seva - or selfless service - is a yoga practice. There are ways we can beneficially engage in current events, taking into consideration the studio community and local community. An example of this was a benefit class at a studio where I teach, for RAICES - a legal defense fund for immigrants. 

While I wasn't available to attend the class, promotional materials and discussion about the event seemed focus on compassion and connection - very much yogic values - rather than any political specifics. The class was also a values statement from the studio. In the Progressive community surrounding the studio, and within the studio itself, this statement would seem to be well-received. 

This might not be the case in communities with a different worldview. All of that aside, the class offered space for people distressed about current events (again, in the worldview of these external and internal communities) and to feel as if they were doing something to help. At the same time, the studio practiced seva by offering this space. There’s no right or wrong way to do that, only effective or less effective for any given context. I’m sending peace in your efforts to hold space in these tense times. 

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