From ads featuring thin, toned bodies to studios selling $100-plus mats and accessories, Western yoga culture projects a level of eliteness counter intuitive to the practice itself. More than once, I’ve walked away from classes frustrated by the egos I felt in the room (and frustrated by my inability to let go of that frustration). As teachers, it’s our job to sense and react to class dynamics. There will be students whose physiques and abilities noticeably differ from their classmates, and they’re more likely to leave class feeling yoga isn’t for them.
If you consider the following suggestions, you’ll give more students the opportunity to experience yoga in its truest form — union, with themselves and others.
Focus less on aesthetics: The external benefits of a consistent practice, which in some bodies looks like toned muscles and a trimmer waistline, can be motivating. Emphasizing weight loss, however, can be distracting, and even painful. Students dealing with body image issues might already find it difficult to do physical activity in such close quarters with folks who don't look or move like them. Add to that the “Push harder for a flat stomach!” talk, and some students’ chance at peace of mind is kaput. Unless you’re teaching “Buff Body Yoga,” the practice isn't just about physical fitness. Facilitate the clearing and strengthening of minds and bodies, rather than concentrating on appearance.
Encourage contentment: In Ashtanga Yoga, one of the five niyamas, or observances, is santosha, or contentment: accepting yourself and what you have as enough. Yoga can be a frustrating practice when you notice classmates bending their bodies deep into postures unfamiliar to yours. It can be even more discouraging when you walk into class already feeling you aren't enough. Remind students it’s not a competition. Assure them what they have is just right. Foster an appreciation for growth — and where they’re at right now.
Address the person, not the gender: Gendered cues come up fairly often. I’ve taken many classes where teachers warn men a posture might be difficult for them, or suggest menstruating women refrain from inversions. The thing is, not all men have the same genitalia or reproductive organs as other men. Same goes for women. Rather than assuming all women menstruate, or that some men don’t, address students as a whole: “Those of you who are menstruating can modify with feet up the wall.” For those to whom it matters, the small change in wording can be huge.
Ask before making adjustments: This is usually a given, but it’s worth a reminder. Some students may not want to be touched, especially when they're not expecting it. Trauma, and any physical and emotional experiences, can linger in our bones, muscles, and memories. When your students are in vulnerable positions, touch can be deeply upsetting. Ask before class if anyone would rather not be adjusted. As always, be sensitive to the needs of each set of students. Your classes might consistently draw confident yogis hungry for a good sweat, but it’s an intelligent instructor who can teach to the masses and modify when necessary. Making classes a safer space creates an opportunity not just for a wider variety of students to deepen their practice, but also for you to expand and share your knowledge and compassion.