Group classes are the way that most people are introduced to yoga. In an ideal world, everyone would have a personal practice guided by a skilled yoga teacher who would design a sequence specifically for that individual.
But this is not economically feasible for the majority of the yoga students.
And, as teachers, we are left with the
burden delight of the Open Level class, where once in a blue moon no one is injured and everyone is basically on the same level. Hurray!
But this situation is rare, as you teachers know. On a difficult day there’s a beginner, an advanced practitioner, a person with carpal tunnel, a person with a herniated disc, two pregnant ladies in different trimesters, and a man carrying an extra 150 pounds.
Oh, geez. Now what?
I believe that some decisions about how you teach your class you must make in advance to be prepared for this sort of scenario. If it is our mission to make yoga accessible to any and all people, then we must actually teach in a way that truly represents that mission, down to the very way that we teach the smallest possible movement or breath.
Here are my top 3 considerations to look at, scaled from “big picture” to “minutia.
1. Do you teach a method that is contraindicated for certain injuries, conditions, or body types?
In addition to Forrest Yoga, I also teach a style I call “Forrest Inspired Vinyasa.” While we don’t spend as much time doing down dogs and vinyasas as in a more traditional vinyasa class, we still spend much more time doing those things than we ever would in a Forrest Yoga class.
And, whenever a person comes in with a wrist injury, I wilt inside a little bit. This particular class style is most likely going to be problematic for their injury. BUT. This reality is something I know, and can prepare for. And, I make it a point to think through these things, in advance.
There are certain things that I’m less prepared for, like the student with an eye disorder who could not put her head below her heart. Ever. We made all kinds of modifications for her, but in truth, the class style itself was a poor fit for her condition. Think about it for a moment: what do you do in a vinyasa class with a person who can NEVER put their head under their heart. What kind of poses does that exclude?
How about the larger bodied person, who will probably never step their foot forward from a down dog to a lunge? How would it feel to you to be constantly reminded of a limitation, every time you moved through a vinyasa? Certain people have more tolerance for those kinds of aggravations than others, while others might more easily get discouraged and give up. It’s hard to know who you’re dealing with exactly when you meet people for the first time in an Open Level class.
Because of my extensive training in Forrest Yoga and ongoing apprenticeship with Ana Forrest, I’m better prepared than most teachers to handle these sorts of complications. I have ideas at the outset about what to do (I have a contingency plan), and I know how to trouble-shoot on the fly without disrupting the flow of the class.
But at its foundation, there are some problems with my class style itself. And these are issues that I need to be aware of. These are issues that WE, collectively, as yoga teachers, need to be aware of.
Think about other styles of yoga that have certain contraindications. What do you come up with?
2. Do you teach a set sequence, or do you teach a sequence that varies?
Personally, I have chosen to teach a sequence that varies.
Here’s why: suppose you teach a set sequence that is heavy on forward bends and hamstring openings, and in class have a person with sciatica, another with a hamstring injury, and a third with a herniated disc.
All of these injuries are contra-indicated for forward bends. I don’t believe that it is morally or ethically responsible to allow these people into your class and teach it, knowing full well that the poses and the sequence are injurious to those people. But, you’ve painted yourself into a corner if you only know how to teach one sequence, or one kind of set of postures.
And yet, this kind of thing happens all the time.
3. Are you constantly expanding your understanding of injuries and other people’s bodies?
It takes a lot of effort to educate yourself about injuries you’ve not experienced and body types that are not like yours.
If it’s not your gig, then it is ethically upright and honestly transparent to acknowledge that your class is not suitable for people with certain types of injuries, or that it may be difficult for people who are carrying extra weight.
As I’ve mentioned above, a problem I have with Vinyasa—a practice I do, and love—is that it is very difficult on the hands and wrists, and for people who have and wrist issues (that’s like everyone who works at a computer) can frankly be injurious. As yoga teachers, we may not really be aware of this so much, because WE spend our days very differently than 90% of the population.
Or imagine if you weighed an extra 150 pounds: how do you think your hands might respond to all of the repetitive motions with additional pressure on the hands and wrists?
Stepping a leg forward from a down dog to a lunge can be tremendously difficult for a person who is carrying even as little as 30 extra pounds. Like, for instance, a pregnant woman.
So how can you educate yourself? Here are four ways to get started.
1. Get curious. Start to really look at your students and see how they are struggling, and then imagine what that might feel like. Then, look for solutions.
2. Consider the experience in your own body. Imagine if you had a hamstring injury. Catalogue all of the poses that you wouldn’t be able to do while you injury rested, for a YEAR. What would be good alternative poses, or modification ideas? What if you had a belly that “got in the way?” What couldn’t you do? What would be some good ideas for modifications.
As you start to gain a library of options, be ready to offer them up in class, either in the moment, or before the pose. Saying things out loud like “if you are hamstring injured, do this modification/pose instead” creates an atmosphere of accommodation and a culture of compassion where students begin to understand even if they are not currently injured that you are paying attention and will work with them.
3. Talk to your colleagues about what THEY do when they encounter a certain kind of injury or body obstacle. What are some of their tricks when a person can’t step forward because of a round belly, or when someone comes to class with a disc injury? Keep everything in your toolbox. You never know when it might be useful.
4. Take trainings that educate about these kinds of concerns. I am running a 100-hour training this February at PURE Yoga in NYC, where we will go over in detail¬ the kinds of modifications you can use, and actual healing techniques you can employ to help people, whether in private practice, or in group classes.
With regards to larger bodies, there are a handful of people who run trainings to help educate in this regard. But, you could also look locally to see if there is any one person teaching or a studio where they specialize in classes for larger bodies, and then inquire about the most appropriate way to learn and engage. I advise approaching this situation with as much diplomacy as if you were asking to sit in on a private healing session—creating space for people with larger bodies to practice may well be a sacred circle in which they don’t actually want participants whose bodies and lives exist outside that sphere.
I believe wholeheartedly that thinking about the experiences of other people important undertaking for yoga teachers, because in order to teach compassion and kindness, we need to widen our circle of empathy beyond our own personal experiences. The bodhisattva loves all people, and love means that you have a unique understanding of how people suffer. When you understand HOW they suffer, only then can you remove his or her suffering. It is not enough just to love. When you love generally, sometimes you actually increase a person’s suffering. Intention to help is not enough. The METHODS we use and their efficacy are equally, if not MORE important. Love is made of an energy called understanding. To understand, we must look deeply and care enough to learn about the students in front of us. Only then can we help to remove their suffering.