I just spent a mind-blowing two days learning from Matthew Remski (writer, therapist, ayurvedic practitioner, yoga teacher, yoga philosopher). Along with my besties Lisa (Brute Yogi), Anne-Marie (Crossfittin’ Yogi), and a handful of other yoga teachers, studio directors, and yoga students, we talked about a great many things, but mostly about yoga philosophy and better practices for teaching asana. It was an incredible weekend of true Socratic-method, co-created knowledge and learning.
What drew me to travel to Maryland to learn from Matthew was his “What Are We Actually Doing In Asana” (WAWADIA) project, a qualitative research project (and now, book) which seeks to elevate the discussion around injuries in modern postural yoga. I have been intrigued, excited, and hopeful about this project from the time I heard about it, and have devoured every bit of writing Matthew has put out about the subject. I encourage you to read his working thesis, discover some excellent articles, stories, and interviews centered around the conversation about injuries in yoga, and download the prospectus to the WAWADIA book.
What are we actually doing in asana?
- victim-blaming after a yoga injury and whitewashing yoga as a “perfect practice” (it must have been something you did wrong, it’s not the yoga’s fault)
- injuring oneself through ego or ambition (pushing too far)
- the lack of biomechanical and anatomical education in yoga teacher training programs
- the culture of yoga and how it might set us up for injury with concepts like pain as sacrifice, the strife to attain a perfect pose (and thus gain a perfect inner peace)
- the teacher at the front of the room, encouraging you to “keep opening your body”, push deeper into the pose, and maybe even yanking you into an overbearing, invasive, or unsafe adjustment
- the fact that yoga is presented as “therapeutic” without scientific rigor backing up most of those claims
- the common story that when people get a yoga injury, often they are told that practicing more yoga will help them get better, or if they had just breathed more virtuously, practiced without ego, listened to the teacher, or “listened to their body”, then they wouldn’t have gotten hurt (because the practice is perfect)
- the incredibly varied category of sensations known as “pain” and each person’s own unique relationship to that pain
- the lack of real feedback methods for most classes and the fact that when people get hurt, usually they just never come back (leading many teachers to claim that they’ve never injured a student)
- the universal, pervasive view that yoga is “good for you, body, mind, and soul”
- and on and on
“I feel like telling everyone just to lie down!”
At one point, a teacher spoke up and basically said, “So, we can’t know what’s going on in people’s bodies, they might come to us already damaged, we might teach them muscle and breath and body awareness and tell them not to push past their limits, and we might teach the safest, most low-pressure class, and they still might hurt themselves. I feel like just telling everyone to lie down!”
I heard the fear and anxiety in her voice, and I heard similar statements or questions from other teachers that attended. I also felt a very real desire from those teachers to make their studios and classes a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment where students could grow, learn, and safely gain body awareness through asana. I also felt fear and doubt, because of the fact that none of us can say with absolute certainty, “A student has never been injured under my instruction.”
Since the conversation, I have been thinking deeply about the ways that I try to keep my students safe when they’re in my classes. In this post, I’d like to talk about some ideas to mitigate risks and make asana classes a safe, welcoming, low-pressure, judgment-free environment where people can be in their bodies, nourish their bodies, connect with their breath, and reduce suffering. These ideas make sense to me, are right for the way that I teach, and they further my mission in teaching asana.
I can only speak to my experience practicing and teaching Hatha yoga. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I don’t claim that these techniques will work for everyone, but I hope that this post will further the dialogue about how to keep students safer in our asana classes. I hope in some small way, this post might help foster discussions between students, teachers, and yoga studio owners about how we can do our best to practice ahimsa through our teaching and facilitation.
Feel free to borrow, steal, or remix any of this if it would be appropriate for the environment in which you teach. I am certain that I borrowed, stole, and remixed much of it from the many teachers (asana and otherwise) who have influenced me (thank you).
Saying ‘Listen to your body’ is not enough
How many times have we heard a teacher say this at the beginning of a class? “Don’t push beyond your limits. Listen to your body.”
What the heck is that supposed to mean? Of course you know you’ve stripped a screw once you’ve turned it a quarter turn past “too tight” but then the damage is done. Students who are new to asana might be completely new to reading their body signals, understanding sensation, and differentiating between the myriad of sensations our body can throw at us. Not to mention that tearing your labrum won’t hurt because cartilage isn’t innervated – it won’t start to hurt until there is referred pain in nearby muscles that are tracking around the injury, or bones are knocking against bones because the cartilage has collapsed.
What is pain?
A quick reading of some of the stories in the WAWADIA project will reveal a completely fragmented definition of “pain” amongst yoga teachers and students. Never mind landing on what pain means to folks experientially. Do any of these sound familiar?
All pain is bad. Pain can be your friend. Pain means you’re processing emotional baggage. Pain in the knee? Open the hips. Pain is your body working through something. No pain no gain. If you feel pain, push through it, something wonderful is waiting on the other side.
We also each have different relationships to pain. Women have a different relationship to pain than men. Women who have given birth have a different relationship to it than other women. Think about these people’s relationship to pain: People who are survivors of childhood or domestic abuse. Masochists. Athletes or professional dancers/musicians.
I once walked around on a broken tibia & malleolus for six weeks because I thought it would eventually get better, and I needed to suck it up and not be lazy and also I didn’t have health insurance. What is my own relationship to pain? How are my abilities to sublimate and ignore my body’s signals so well-honed that I didn’t just pony up the $100 to go get an X-ray and finally go to PT? That ankle will never be the same. And I’m a yoga teacher and have a pretty well-tuned sense of proprioception and bodily awareness (you might disagree after reading this paragraph).
My point is that listen to your body is not enough. We can teach our students to start to attune to sensation, but we need to put more words to it. We need to talk about the breath and describe sensations and emotions, good and bad (more on that below). Mindful awareness can help cultivate this skill, but ultimately, we can never know what’s going on in another body. We barely can identify what’s going on in our own, most days.
Talk to your students about their injuries before class
“Do you have any injuries I need to know about?” is a question that most of us have heard when we’ve taken a class. But in my experience, unless a person is recovering from surgery or has recently broken a bone, I have rarely gotten an answer to that question.
However, when I follow up with a second question, “How are your knees, ankles, wrists, back, neck?” I almost always get more information. “I mean, my knees are fine, except I can’t really be on my hands and knees” is a pretty common one (and changes my idea about teaching cat/cow and hand/knee balances at the beginning of class. I’ll find another warmup.).
When you ask for more information, folks also start to understand that it’s okay to talk about their bodies, and it’s okay that their bodies aren’t in perfect working order. This is empowering and creates a culture of permission – it’s okay to practice with the imperfect, injured, or broken body that they have today.
Set the expectation for a low-pressure, judgment-free environment at the beginning of class
As asana teachers, our most powerful tool is our words. In my classes, I spend a great deal of time talking. Setting up expectations, talking about safety, and creating an environment of permission. I probably talk more than other teachers, and I am self conscious about this sometimes. But in a conversation with Lisa yesterday, she pointed out that my goal is not to get students to some advanced pose or see how many postures we can get through, but to create a certain type of environment to foster personal growth. She is so right. My goal is for my “yoga lab” to be a place where students feel empowered in the body they have today. I want to help create students who practice on that edge between effort and ease, who reduce suffering, who let go of ego and cultivate “the witness”, and who feel safe to be in their bodies without judgment.
I also believe that this environment can help keep students safer by reducing competition and judgment, discouraging ego and striving, and giving permission to work where they are today. At the beginning of every class, I say something to the following effect:
“I have two rules in my classes. The first rule is no suffering. One of our goals in yoga is to reduce suffering, and we’re going to start here, on our mats, for the next hour. That means we pay attention to the physical sensations in our bodies, and we watch for good ones and bad ones. Let’s talk about what those are, and what the sensations mean. Good sensations: feeling a muscle stretch or work, shaking, trembling, sweating, or the heart rate quickening – those are sensations that for most of us are okay, and a symbol that we’re building strength or doing work.
“In contrast here are the bad sensations: stabbing pain, throbbing pain, aching pain, burning pain, tingling, pressure in the face or throat, the breath getting away from us – gasping, shortness of breath. These are signals that we need to back off or try something else. Only you are in your body, and only you know what sensations you’re feeling. If you feel one of the bad sensations, I ask that you back off the pose, try another variation that will be offered, or wave at me and we’ll try something different. There is no “one magical pose” in yoga – there are lots of other ways to get the same benefits of any pose that we try. You will not be disrupting the class or hurting my feelings if a pose doesn’t work for you. So – rule 1: no suffering. Everyone got that?
“Rule number two is no judgment. We have people in this room who have been practicing yoga for more than ten years, and people who are here for the very first time. Your practice is your own. If you look next to you and see someone bending further, stretching higher, or taking what you perceive to be a more “advanced” variation of something, your mind may start playing a dangerous game. You may say to yourself, ‘I should be able to do that. I used to be able to move that way. I used to be thinner or younger. My practice sucks. I’ll never get there.’ And so on. The minute you do that, you’re out of your body, and into your head, and the comparisons you’re making are stealing your joy away. You are also causing yourself mental pain and breaking rule #1 which is no suffering. Our goal for the next hour is to connect with our own bodies, feel our own breath, do our own variations of these postures, and take home our own unique benefits from this practice. Rule 2 – no judgment. Everyone agree?”
Soon after class starts I also state (usually in the first difficult pose like hand/knee balance or downward dog):
“There are no medals given out at the end of class for doing every pose or for holding a pose the longest. If you want to take a break, take a break. Come down to hands and knees, take child’s pose, sit down, lie down, or leave to go to the bathroom. If your breath gets away from you and you want to take a break, do it. I will offer variations for every pose that we do. All of them will get you the benefits of the pose, and no one variation is better than another. If one isn’t working for you, try another. If you try a pose and weird emotions come up or you get frustrated and want to skip it, that’s fine. Skip it. Do it next time or do it never. Your practice is your own.”
Reconsider giving hands-on assists and adjustments
Offering hands-on assists and adjustments to our students – whether we should be touching people at all, who’s qualified to touch, how we should touch, and when it’s dangerous to touch – is a hotly contested topic within the yoga community. Let’s be honest, depending on our teacher training program, the amount of time we spend learning adjustments can be vastly different, from spending a mere couple hours on it to requiring new teachers to shadow, assist, or mentor other experienced teachers for a time.
Many massage therapists are required to go through upwards of 1000 hours of training before they’re allowed to put their hands on someone. As yoga teachers (especially 200-hour TT graduates), I don’t think it’s unfair to ask if we are qualified to touch people at all – especially with no regulation whatsoever around our understanding of individual anatomy, physiology, body reading, movement assessment, or apprenticeship in physical adjustments.
I’m not suggesting that every asana teacher should stop adjusting their students. Many hands on adjustments are helpful, nurturing, and clarifying, and many students find comfort and better body awareness through physical touch. However, I propose that as teachers, we stop and think before we physically touch. Before I touch my students, I try to offer verbal cues to correct alignment. Let the palm face the floor. Bend deeply through the knees and draw the hips back. And so on. It forces me to be clearer in my instruction and work on my verbal communication skills as a teacher.
If we still want to touch, we can ask ourselves a few questions. Do I have consent to touch? Is this adjustment helpful? Is it necessary? Is it nurturing?
Create a culture of consent around touch
If you are going to offer hands-on adjustments, I believe that it is unethical to do so without obtaining consent. A recent article by Kathryn Budig about how you should feel when your yoga instructor corrects you places the burden of giving or withdrawing consent for touch on the student (come to your teacher before class and tell them not to touch you). Another popular technique for obtaining consent is asking students to raise their hand if they prefer not to be touched.
Unless you are in a profession (massage therapist, physical therapist, priest, doctor, chiropractor) where you are given license to touch, then I am of the opinion that the ethical burden is on you as the teacher to obtain consent. Every single time.
Why obtain consent?
First, it empowers the student to keep their asana practice in their own hands. There is a difference between walking over to a student and adjusting the rotation of their arm in parsvakonasana versus approaching them and asking, “Is it alright if I help your arm become more comfortable in this pose with a hands-on adjustment?” Allowing the student the permission to say “no thank you” or simply adjust their own arm at your verbal cues empowers them to remain in control of their own practice and their own body.
It also signals to the student that their body is their own, and that they have agency in other areas of their life to consent or withdraw consent around touch. This is a new concept for many people, and I have had more than one student tell me, weeping, at a later time, that no one had ever asked before if they could touch them, they just reached out and grabbed or touched. That when I asked their permission, it made them realize that they could set those boundaries around touch with others in their lives.
Many of us have issues around touch – because of trauma, because we are having a crappy day and don’t want to be touched, because we’re on our periods and want to kill everything, because it triggers unpleasant memories, because we are in pain. No matter the reason, gaining consent before touch keeps everyone safer.
Ideas for obtaining consent
Two ideas I like for obtaining consent for each adjustment are:
Asking, every single time. I use this one in my own classes. Just because I touched a student at the beginning of class doesn’t mean they want to be touched near the end. Again, it is about agency. Ask the student, “May I offer you a hands-on adjustment to help you find length in your spine?” And if they say, “I’m not sure,” or if they pause and don’t answer, then just step away.
Consent cards. I first heard about these being used at Kula Annex in Toronto, which created a positive space initiative to make their community an anti-racist, fat/trans/queer positive yoga studio. The cards say YES on one side and NO THANKS on the other side, and are handed out at the beginning of class. Each student places a card at the top corner of their mat. At any time throughout class, consent for touch can be given or withdrawn depending on the student’s mood or comfort level.
Empower students to explore their own unique asana practice
A common refrain when someone is injured in yoga goes something like this: You were listening to your ego. You must have not listened to the teacher. But how were you breathing? Was your femur grounded? You must have been pushing past your ability. It’s not the yoga’s fault, it’s your fault.
This attitude is victim-blaming, it whitewashes yoga as a perfect practice for every person, and really doesn’t take into consideration any number of factors about student ability, strength, unique anatomy, teacher experience, student experience, the condition the student showed up in, and more. When I hear a knee-jerk reaction of “if you get hurt, it’s your fault, not yoga’s fault” I immediately think, this person must be trying to make a lot of money from teaching yoga.
One factor we can’t control is a student’s ego. If they choose to willfully move toward pain, try to show off, compete with others, and reside in their ego, that is their stuff. Not my circus, not my monkeys. But I believe that there are ways I can make my classroom an environment where those things have no place. Where they seem silly, or where they don’t even need to be brought up because they just don’t fit.
Teach to who is in the room, not whatever sequence you had planned
Last week I spent time before a class working up a sequence that I was really excited about. When I got to class I had a pregnant woman, a woman who can’t be on her hands and knees, and a woman recovering from a shoulder injury. The sequence wasn’t going to be safe for them, for a variety of reasons. So I threw it out and taught something else. Yes, this is hard to do. Yes, I am just getting comfortable after 3 years of teaching with this sort of on-the-fly sequencing. But I really do care about making my classroom inclusive of all bodies and keeping students safe. According to my mission, I will be a failure as an asana teacher if a student leaves frustrated and never comes back because they got hurt or something didn’t work for their body.
Learn modifications or variations on postures
I have practiced yoga for 10 years and have always been in a fat body during that time. I went to many, many classes where I was frustrated, forced myself into poses/shapes, squeezed, stumbled and crunched myself up because teachers had no idea what to do with me. I realize that most asana teachers have never had a fat-bodied person in their class. I realize that most teacher training programs don’t teach us what to do with larger students. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I actually understood that for someone who hasn’t lived in a fat body, they just don’t understand what the hell is going on with us or why we can’t step the damn foot forward from down dog into a lunge (most of the time, belly is hitting thigh).
Part of what Annie and I are doing with the Yoga Without Exception project is creating a resource for large-bodied asana students so that they can learn to safely modify poses for their unique bodies, and then go to whatever class they want. Larger-bodied students shouldn’t be relegated to the “curvy” or “plus size” or even “gentle” classes – fat bodies are strong bodies, and our money is worth the same mat space as anyone else.
Should the burden be on students to know how to keep themselves safe? No. Is the reality right now in yoga that they might have to do just that? Yes. There are many of us out there in non-conforming bodies who are doing awesome work around making yoga more inclusive, and I think the scene will be completely different in 5 or 10 years.
As a teacher, I implore you to learn modifications and study alignment. Never stop learning. Learn what props are for and use them. Google it or talk to another teacher who might know – there are hundreds of videos and blog posts out there modifying everything from gomukhasana to surya namaskara. And it’s not just fat bodies that need modifications to stay safely aligned. People with injuries, folks in muscular bodies, athletes of all stripes with their tight muscles in different places, old bodies, bodies recovering from surgery, bodies with prosthetics in a number of places, and on and on – all of them can benefit from having lots of entry points to a pose.
Don’t glorify the “full expression of the pose”
If we were in person I’d put full expression of the pose in scare quotes. I don’t use this phrase in my classes. I offer variations on a pose, and folks get to pick what they work on. I get a lot of students in larger bodies, and none of them (me included) are ever going to be able to do the thigh-wrappy-tuck-your-foot thing in garudasana. Does this mean we don’t practice garudasana? Heck no! When I introduce a pose, it goes something like this:
“Next we’re going to work on garudasana. There are a lot of places to work here, and all of them are going to be hard work, so try one of them, and judge where it falls on the balance of effort and ease that we talked about. If it feels easy, perhaps try another. If it feels like hard work, then maybe work there, or pick another variation. Remember, no prizes are given out for picking whichever you think is the hardest or most advanced variation. Okay, let’s all go to the wall and start breaking down this pose…”
Don’t pick the bendy student to demonstrate
I think it’s a terrible idea to pick naturally bendy students to demonstrate things. In fact I don’t ask students to demonstrate unless I physically cannot do a pose because of my fat body (the thigh wrappy thing in garudasana is a common one, or shooting the tricep past the bent leg in Maricyasana C). Picking a bendy student to throw themselves into Natarajasana for whatever short-sighted, unbelievable reasons asana teachers do this is misleading at best and injurious at worst. It singles out the bendy student (what if the hypermobility that makes it easy for them to take this pose has caused them injury in the past or they just don’t want to be the ‘special’ one?), it glorifies a certain form or shape, it implies that this is the goal that should be reached for the rest of the students, and it also implies that this is a shape that is healthy (or even possible) for any student in the class (including the student who is demonstrating). All of these things create an environment where students will be more prone to strive for a shape instead of attuning to their own unique asana practice that works for their bodies.
Create channels for regular feedback
Most of us at the end of class give students permission to stick around and ask questions or speak with us. But we have kids to get home to, a dog to let out, a class is coming in, and students might not feel comfortable speaking to us where others can hear. The many, many stories Matthew Remski has collected where students were injured in class (through adjustments, or just through the “final straw” where something in their body gave out) but then did not tell the teacher are staggering. And these were not shrinking violets who were just too wimpy to speak their truth. Many of these folks were professional dancers, professors, yoga teachers themselves. Unless the feedback channels are created as part of a student’s onboarding to the studio, many students will not feel comfortable even giving constructive feedback, much less telling a teacher they got hurt in class.
One way I try to mitigate this is by periodic anonymous feedback. Every few weeks I send out an anonymous survey to the students who have been in my classes. Specific questions around safety and injury are included. You can see the actual survey questions I use here. Surveymonkey is a free tool that lets you create surveys, and you probably collect emails when students register at your studio.
Is this a perfect system? Of course not. If a student actually reports being injured, I wouldn’t even know who they were (if they chose to remain anonymous). However, this gives me information I need to improve my teaching and change my actions. If you have better ideas around feedback, please tell me in the comments. I would love to improve this part of my teaching.
Form relationships with your students, to the best of your ability
I know we are busy. I know making a living or even good part time money at teaching is difficult if not impossible. But to the best of our ability, I believe we should try to create rapport with our students. Talk to them, email them, text them, check in with them and let them know you care about their lives. If you are teaching asana, you are in relationship to your students whether you hit the road the second class is over, or whether you know their kids’ names. The latter will probably make it easier for them to be honest with you about what’s going on in their bodies, and especially if they are moving toward injury.
What ideas do you have for fostering safer asana classes?
I would love comments from students and teachers about how you think we can make asana classes a place where we reduce suffering and injury. If you have feedback about any of these methods, I’d love to hear it. I don’t have any pride of ownership over anything in this post. This is an area where I want to improve, and I think we as a profession and a culture need to let go of ego and admit we don’t have all the answers.
Please, share your ideas, thoughts, questions, and concerns here. Thank you!