Teaching yoga… what do you think?

Woman on the ground doing yoga

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I have conversations every now and then about teaching classes that leave me reflecting about how I lead my classes. Recently I’ve noted that I’ve built in a couple of philosophies that I didn’t consciously realize I had. And since it turns out not everyone agrees, I’m interested in hearing what people think.

The first piece is one that I think is present in movement classes in a way that it’s not in, say, a meditation class. I feel most people have some type of discomfort about their bodies—varying degrees and sorts but still discomfort. And it always seems to me that a lot of people feel a bit self-conscious about coming into a movement class and having other people not only seeing their bodies but moving their bodies around in unfamiliar ways and wondering if they’re “doing it right” or looking dumb. Those who take lots of exercise or yoga classes reach some place where they’re used to it but still I often feel that I’m holding something delicate in my hands and that, even though nothing is said, I can see an anxiety to be seen kindly, to not be pointed out or made to feel foolish.

So I try very hard to correct via instructions to the group rather than aiming corrections to a particular person, to make little adjustments to a majority if I move around the class rather than correcting one and always to be encouraging to the whole group about how pleased I am that they’re doing well and keeping the movements within their comfort ranges. I don’t know if it helps, but I feel like people breathe a little easier by the time they’ve had a couple of classes because I work hard at letting everyone move without feeling I’m going to direct the entire attention of the class at them or belittle their efforts. Most of my teaching friends work on a similar basis but I have run into some who feel that correcting and challenging is part of the job and call out to people by name or single one person out to adjust.

The other piece is about making hands-on corrections. Until a recent conversation left me perplexed about it I hadn’t looked at ethical standards about it since yoga teacher training in 1988. I’ve always had a policy to tell my group on the first day of class that I sometimes make hands-on corrections but that if anyone doesn’t want to be touched they can just tell me as I go around that they don’t want me to. There are also a couple of corrections I learned from my teacher that I consider to be potentially sensitive so I tell them the first time I do those what I’m about to do and that if anyone is uncomfortable I’ll skip that person. For me, if I’ve asked a student whether she wants to be touched and she’s said no that’s the end no matter how deeply I feel that she could really use the correction. Sometimes I can tell that a student is not that happy about being touched even if they haven’t said “no” and I generally try to keep it to a minimum after that.

After another (non-movement) teaching friend recently seemed surprised that touching isn’t just assumed to be part of the deal in yoga I look around at some ethics codes to see if I just remembered wrong in thinking you’re not just supposed to go around putting your hands on people.  I found that the advice is variable but seems to always include that at the least you should inform your class that you sometimes touch and give people the chance to opt out. Some feel you should even have them sign a waiver form. Some teachers avoid touch altogether rather than face any legal questions about inappropriate touch.

I know a lot of my regular blog readers practice yoga or some other exercise and some of you are even teachers so I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on these teaching questions and how you prefer to be treated. 


12 thoughts on “Teaching yoga… what do you think?

  1. I totally appreciate touching, and I see it as only a natural part of the yoga experience. But, that’s me. As for corrections, I too, want to be flawless in what I do, but, I donät want everyone to know that I’m not perfect. Just being honest. However, I usually have my eyes closed and I’m focusing on breathing, movement, sat nam, so I have no idea what is happening with other people. My yoga instructor does as you, she moves around and almost silently helps someone who may be having problems with a position. She came to me quietly one evening, and told me to lift my shoulders, and then drop them. Relax, Liz, she whispered as she touched my shoulders… That one act of corrections/advice now makes me aware every day, all day long, to learn to relax my shoulders and de-stress my body.

    Sounds like I would enjoy your class. 🙂

    • Yes, I think eventually most people realize that everyone is paying attention to their own practice. I find it funny that the ones who are obviously hiding in the back of the room are actually the only ones who can see that much of what everyone else is doing… My experience was like yours — the corrections my teacher made helped me feel the difference between being off in a posture and being in good form and twenty-five+ years later I can still call those adjustments to mind. But I’m also aware sometimes in class that some people are too disturbed by touch to notice Thanks for the thoughtful response.

  2. I love the empathy you practice while teaching yoga. Would love to take one of your classes one day. I appreciate when I get hands on adjustments in a yoga class. It is one of the reasons that I go to a class rather than practice on my own. Sometimes we have a mental block that does not allow our bodies to understand what the instructor is saying. A simple adjustment can really make a huge difference. It is a shame that we live in a society where we need to get signed waivers for everything.
    What I am trying to say is that I hope you continue to give hands on help, but I also hope you don’t encounter any problems. Sounds like your empathy should keep you safe. “Sometimes I can tell that a student is not that happy about being touched even if they haven’t said “no” and I generally try to keep it to a minimum after that.”

    • I liked the adjustments too though I’ve realized as a teacher there’s a lot I can do with words to correct — it’s still feedback a class gives that you can’t get from a DVD or on your own–but some of the most meaningful changes for me came from feeling the before and after difference a hands-on adjustment made. I appreciate your thoughtful response.

  3. Leigh, I would love to attend one of your classes! 🙂 I so appreciate how you are so sensitive to the needs and feelings of your students. You’re a rare breed, indeed! 🙂

    I remember a time when I was attending a yoga class in Manila several months ago. The teacher was “assisting” me. Forcing is actually more like it. 😦

    I’m sure you already know that more than anyone else, it is the individual who knows their body the most. I already told the teacher, no, it’s hurting. And yet, she still continued pushing me, in the guise of assisting, with the desire to help me get more into the pose. She probably was so used to seeing me doing the poses effortlessly because I am in fact quite flexible. But every practice is different, and every day, our body feels different. As I’m sure, you also already know.

    So Leigh, I particularly have no issues with being touched during a movement class, especially yoga. But yes, I’d prefer that the teacher asks permission or gives me a warning — either at the beginning of the class or immediately before touching my body or adjusting my pose. Once, I was so in the moment, in the zone, and into my pose, focusing and concentrating, almost feeling like I was the only one in the room. I got startled when I suddenly felt a hand land in my body. It threw me and my energy off, and even felt like it shocked my system and energy field. And it’s not an ego thing because I really prefer and like to be adjusted and corrected. It’s just that perhaps, that’s also partly because I’m a highly sensitive person and what “normally” works for others may be a bit too much for me. 🙂

    Thank you so much for this post! I sure wish all the teachers and facilitators have the same level of sensitivity, approach and dedication as you do. 🙂

    Much blessings and Namaste…♥♥♥Nadine Marie♥♥♥

    • Ooh, I never like to hear “force” and yoga teacher/class put together… I so appreciate your thoughtful comments. I’m interested that so far I’m not hearing from the “don’t touch me” camp — I know they’re out there! I’m with you in liking –up to a point–the adjustments but I live in a place where I have a pretty good percentage of students who are clearly not that comfortable with it. Thanks for the input.

Please add your thoughts; love a good discussion!

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