4 Considerations for Teaching “Body Positive Yoga”

This past November 2016, I had the honor to curate, host, and present at the very first ever Yoga and Body Confidence Conference. (The next one is scheduled! August 24-27 at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health! CLICK HERE to read all about it.)

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time, and crystallizing my own philosophies throughout my teaching career. And, as the creator and host of the Adore Your Body Telesummit, I maintain that to arrive at an understanding of what it means to be “body positive” it’s important to hear many, various and varied perspectives.

After listening to the voices of the contributors, I realized that there are four main elements you as a teacher must grapple with, and make a decision about how you will handle. They are:

  1. To Touch or Not to Touch—the Quagmire of Assisting Versus Adjusting.
  2. Props: Use them, or Don’t?
  3. Alignment : Shouldn’t the body just “know” what to do? If we “trust the body” then isn’t alignment innately confining? Who am I, the teacher, to tell you how to align your body?
  4. Watch Your Language: How You Say What You Say…

But, even before exploring these in more detail, I think that it is worth considering if your if your views align with your lineage, or diverge from them, and why.

My yoga education has taken place within two incredible wombs—Forrest Yoga, and yoga in New York City. I’ve been fortunate to have top-notch schooling, both through Forrest Yoga and through being in the city where we have the best of everything. No—I’m not biased. It’s really true. 😉 Frankly, I’m shocked when yogis come from other places and don’t try to take as many classes as they can while they’re here. And, the more I look into it, the more I discover that my own views align strongly with my lineage, Forrest Yoga, which I consider to be incredibly body positive, except in one main way, which is the fault of ALL yoga, I think. Yoga culture is fat phobic.

That vast failing aside, for many, many reasons, I believe Forrest Yoga to be one of the most body positive lineages in existence today. You may disagree, and likely it’s around one of these main points below. I’m very happy to discuss, BUT, I challenge you to look at the ways that your own system, or lineage failed you in some regard (every lineage will inevitably fail you, by the way), and if that is why you’ve developed the stance you have around one of these four points.

O.K. let’s go!

  1. To Touch or Not to Touch—the quagmire of Assisting Versus Adjusting.

Some teachers believe resolutely that “corrections” given through touch are not body positive. Why? First, is assumes that the teacher has the right to touch another person’s body—it’s about ownership, consent, and power. Second, some people may not like you to touch them in the places that we as yoga teachers often touch, such as ribs, bellys, thighs, arms. Third, as student’s desire to be touched may change from day-to-day, and it may be difficult to communicate without ongoing conversation or simple systems of consent, such as consent cards placed at the front of the mat. Even the idea of “adjusting” suggests that there was something that needed to be fixed in the first place. Finally, if you experience body shame, you really might not want someone touching, without warning, the places you feel crappy about.

While I understand and respect these concerns, I have different ideas, strongly influenced by practical matters of teaching and by experiential knowledge of HOW people can heal body shame in yoga, built on 18 years of my own experience, and 10 years of teaching, including 8 years under the close tutelage of Ana Forrest, a survivor of deep, physical, emotional, and mental trauma.

First—the pragmatics. After 10 years of teaching, I’ve come to see and understand two fundamental truths. One—not everyone will understand your words or your visual demos. Some people will ONLY, EVER understand what you mean if you touch them, and guide them with your hands, helping (assisting), not adjusting, them in the asana. As a teacher, it is my deep, heartfelt desire to include everyone in the experience as best as possible. When I see people who just don’t seem to get it—no matter how I describe it differently, no matter how many times I show them—it’s an indicator that human is a pure kinesthetic learner. They are rare. Often people come in combos, like kinesthetic/visual or aural/visual. You will identify a pure kinesthetic from their flailing efforts, often with eyes closed.

Now, imagine for a moment that you went to a yoga class, and you were blind and deaf. How would you get along? This is a rough approximate of the kinesthetic learner. That person will give it their best go, trying hard to translate your words and demos into something felt in the body, and they will fail every time.

Should you withhold touch from that person, they will go on failing. And you, the teacher, will be allowing it. Are you O.K. with that?

Two, touch is the language of the body. Even if your skills of aural and visual comprehension translate brilliantly into a felt experience, IT IS NO SUBSTITUTE. Listen to me again. Touch is the language of the body. Not words. Not English, or whatever your native tongue may be. Not visuals. So, if you want to communicate with the body, on its own terms, touch is the way to go.

Our society it starved for good, clean, healthy touch. My teacher, Ana Forrest instructs us around touch thus: touch your people as if they are the Beloved. Not a lover—but a deep sacred mystery, which you will never fully understand. Touch with a reverence for that deep, divine mystery beneath your hands. Respect.

Just last weekend, I lead an event here in NYC with four other Forrest Yoga teachers. At the end of the event, which had over 70 people in attendance, we had a closing circle to hear what were the most impactful aspects of the urban yoga retreat. Overwhelmingly people marveled at the quality of the assists, the care of the assists. One young woman commented on an assist she received, recalling how someone touched her hand. That’s all—touched her hand—and the care that came through that touch brought her to tears and touched her heart in a unforgettable way.

Listen up. This is what can happen when you touch right. A person could come to your retreat, and the MOST MEMORABLE experience of the whole event could be ONE MOMENTARY TOUCH TO THE HAND. I urge you, please consider why you would not want to show your people that you care enough to touch them with the dignity and concern that is the right of every human being? Is it because someone hurt you through touch? Well, fuck them. If you really want to set things right around that, don’t ban touch from your life: learn how to touch people in a good way. Don’t’ let some asshole who hurt you ROB YOU of this human need—to give and receive quality, caring, non-sexualized touch.

Is it because you didn’t learn how in your teacher training? Well—O.K. then—but realize that you only got like 1/3 of a TT because this is essential training. Now seek out the best teachers you can, who give amazing assists, and never, never, NEVER push, pull, or shame through touch.

Is it because you feel insecure in your own ability to give quality assists? See the paragraph above.

See, even the language around this is key. “Adjustment” is the wrong idea. Assist means to help. Assists are co-created. Assists go at the rate and depth of the person in the pose. Assists are inherently respectful. The body knows by the attitude of the touch what is the intent behind the touch. I swear to you. If you believe in body positivity, you MUST believe that the body knows. It remembers. And, the path to repair will always be through the primary language. If you were hurt through touch, inevitably, you must go back into that wound and heal through touch…

This is not a suggestion that I or any other teacher “knows” what will be healing. But, to abdicate even trying to help because to suggest I might “know” something about another human is somehow “playing God” is also not a solution I’m comfortable with. NOT actually teaching, while saying you are teaching, is an unacceptable solution to the complexities of this issue. It’s a cop out. We’re better than that.

  1. Props: Use them, or Don’t?

O.K. people. I’m as pretty geeky when it comes to yoga. And, as you can hopefully see from the diatribe I wrote up above, I think a lot about the complexities of teaching yoga, and for instance why a person doesn’t want to be touched, and working with that desire. But, honestly, this particular debate about props has me completely baffled. YOU ARE NOT A LOOSER IF YOU USE A PROP! What the hell. What kind of ignorant person would teach that?

Arms, legs, and torso come in all different lengths, sizes, and proportional relationships. I’m flexible. I can touch the floor easily, but in certain poses the relationship between my arms, legs, and torso distorts the integrity of the pose shape. I need blocks. This does not in any way reflect on my achievement or value as a human or a teacher. It’s just a reality—my legs are longer than my arms, proportionally speaking. No amount of not-using-props is going to change that.

I speculate that the idea to withhold props might be founded on the principle that the human is an innately bad thing, and must be taught to be good. A “good” body “fits” into the posture. A “bad” body doesn’t and needs to just “keep trying” until it figures out how to be “good.” Ugh.

There’s a competing view. The human is an innately good and perfect thing. Right now. With arms, and legs, and round bellies, and backs that don’t bend, and wrists that hurt, and necks that don’t turn, and elbows that were broken, and, and, and, and. We’re all broken and good. Perfectly imperfect. This “innately good” idea is a much more hopeful view of the world. Personally I’d rather hold this view, wouldn’t you?

I’ve been taught that above all my job is to get my people out of suffering. One way to do that is to use a prop. A block is a wonderful thing—it makes arms longer. It elevates seats. A strap makes arms longer too. Guess what—you arm is not going to get any longer than it is now (unless you’re a child), and that principle “keep trying” can be a lesson in repeated failure. And that sucks. The essence of karma yoga is action—helpful action. If you see something that you can do to help, DO IT. Stop teaching people that their bodies are not O.K. as they are. Help them, and if props help, use them for Shiva’s sake!

  1. Alignment : Shouldn’t the body just “know” what to do? If we “trust the body” then isn’t alignment innately confining? Who am I, the teacher, to tell you how to align your body?

No. No, no, no, no, NO. Part of teaching yoga is teaching people HOW to feel, how to “do” the poses. Re-introducing them, rehabilitating them to the idea that feeling is good, and O.K., and provides necessary information. Physical action is the way we accomplish this. Asana. Students seek out teachers because they know something that the student doesn’t. It is your job to TEACH. Yoga is a method for coming into relationship with the body, and that includes these things called ASANA. Therefore you must engage with the body, not ignore it.

To teach asana well you MUST have these skills (at the very least):

  1. Being able to do the poses you are teaching. This is a basic requirement. Do Not teach things that you are not able to do, or are not ON YOUR WAY to doing, at the very least. For instance—I am on my way to free balancing a handstand. I teach about that process, even if I’m not “there” YET.
  2. Succinctly and successfully being able to describe how to safely and easefully get in and out of a pose.
  3. Understanding how to sequence a class from beginning to end in a physiologically friendly way.
  4. Have and use the tools to help people who are struggling in their bodies feel successful at the level they are at. These tools are skillful modifications, thoughtful speech, and compassionate assists.
  5. Be prepared to address bodies with injuries and illnesses in helpful ways. Do not ignore these people. They have bodies too, and they deserve to be SEEN. Illness and injury—the land of the sick—can be a disheartening and isolated place, where you feel betrayed by the body. Know what poses are contraindicated for specific conditions, and offer up alternatives. Make these people welcome in a class for a modality (yoga) that purports to work all kinds of health and wellness magic.

If you don’t want to actually teach alignment principles in asana, but you still want to teach body positivity, then please, STOP TEACHING ASANA, and teach some other aspect of yoga to help people come into relationship with their bodies. I believe whole-heartedly that if you don’t actually teach people to feel their bodies with the context of asana alignment, you are perpetuating disregard for the body itself.

4. Watch Your Language

As yoga teachers, we’re in a funny position. What IS yoga? Is it fitness? Is it spirituality? Maybe teaching a fitness-y kind of yoga really is your jam. And, I think that there is a certain kind of body positivity that is real and honest that talks about wanting to “get fit.” But, all-too-often it is a masquerade, and underneath it all there is a certain kind of self-loathing. Just be aware of where you are, as a teacher, and as a practitioner, and get honest about that. It will show up in what you say, as a teacher, and as a practitioner. For a while I found myself slipping up into all kinds of old habits, making yoga—a sanctuary I myself had claimed—into my place of exercise and weight loss. It’s tricky. You gotta observe yourself.

I think that it should go without saying that when in a position of influence, as you are as a yoga teacher, you should pay close attention to what you say. Here are some recommendations of certain things to root out of your language, if you want to make people of all body types feel comfortable in your class and stop perpetuating the cycle of body hatred.

  • Don’t talk about feeling fat > DO talk about emotions that are uncomfortable and how they sometimes manifest as critiques of the body
  • Don’t’ assume that everyone thinks that a hetero-normative body is attractive > DO talk about the difference between a cultural beauty standard and a self-defined idea of beauty
  • Don’t talk about “getting a yoga body” > DO talk about self-definition and empowerment around health, and health at all sizes
  • Don’t talk about dieting or cleansing after holidays > DO talk about digestive health and eating to support steady emotional and physical states
  • Don’t ever, EVER, EVER talk about “getting ready for swimsuit season” > DO talk about feeling comfortable in the body, no matter WHAT size, shape, age, or ability to currently possesses.
  • Don’t talk about your diet > DO talk about eating to support the best health of your body, mind, and spirit.

O.K. So that covers one area of language.

Another is more specific. HOW do you teach the poses. Is there an “end goal” for the poses; an ideal? Some people feel like they are “failing” if they have to modify a posture. Some people take offense if you use the words “down-level” or “up level” as if “down” is somehow better than “up.”

I’ve got one main thing to say here. It’s all in the delivery.

If you spend much of your teaching time setting up the idea that practitioners will be best served by working at their own level, and that one is not better than another, then hopefully no one will feel “less than” when you offer modifications. And hopefully no one will feel less than when you offer options to move onto the next stage in the pose. “Advanced” is not to be found in the depth of the posture. Advanced is a state of mind—steady, easeful. Sound familiar?

But if you frame asana as if the “full expression of the pose” (whatever that is) is some enlightened ideal that only very special people will attain—well then it’s easy to see how “down” and “up” now have relative goodness and value and one is better than the other.

If you still feel like “modification” and “up-level” and “down-level” are words you’d rather not use, then perhaps try “stages.” Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3. Like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Caterpillar = Stage 1. Chrysalis = Stage 2. Butterfly = Stage 3. Nothing better or worse, just different. (Of course you’ll have to stretch the analogy for poses that have more than 3 stages!)

Don’t just ignore this. People have different capabilities, and that’s O.K. Some people need to be challenged, like a horse needs to run or an eagle needs to fly. Feed their spirit: give them the “up-level!”

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Teaching yoga is infinitely more complicated than I really ever imagined it would be at the outset. There’s all of these details and considerations of your experience, of other people’s experience. Being “good at yoga” isn’t enough to be a good teacher. You have to also: 1. develop the skill of teaching, 2. know the topic of yoga inside and out, 3. be curious about other people. Like, deeply curious.

The whole agreement might be more than you bargained for. Sometimes I feel that way. But, I cannot imagine many other playgrounds for the study of personal development.

My aim with this article is not to overwhelm you, but rather to give you the categories that you need to consider if you want to accomplish the goal you set out to: teaching body positive yoga. No one ever told me what was involved. So, it is my desire, as a teacher, to help my people along their paths by offering clarification, guideposts, and places for you to think and make your own decisions about what you are doing in your teaching. The most important part, I think, is that you continue to develop self-awareness, and make conscious choices about what you are doing, and why. No one has to approve of, or agree with what you are doing. Just you. And if you’ve clearly thought about the what and the why–well, now you are acting with integrity.

Many blessings to you. Please reach out to let me know if there is any way that I can be of service to you on your path.

with love,

Erica

p.s. if you would like to study with me more, I have rolling Advanced Study Modules happening 1x/month. Check my website HERE to see what’s happening next. I would love the opportunity to work with you.

2 thoughts on “4 Considerations for Teaching “Body Positive Yoga”

  • June 20, 2017 at 8:14 am
    Permalink

    Erica,
    I just have read the article. You inspire me to translate this article in korean publish it in Yoga Journal Korea.
    I laughed, empathize, agreed in everything you wrote here. My deepest respect as a yoga teacher.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • November 15, 2017 at 5:38 pm
      Permalink

      I would LOVE for you to translate this article!!! Let’s talk! xoxoxo

      Reply

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