Note: This is a compilation of things I’ve wanted to say to studio teachers since I started practicing… um… 13 years ago. They are not necessarily current issues I’m experiencing and — even for the ones that are current — not necessarily issues where I’m seeking input on how to handle them. Additionally, this is definitely not personally directed at yoga teachers I know solely online, on account of I have never taken actual classes with them.
Dear yoga teachers,
I’m not sure how much pedagogy training you have (it probably varies from person to person), but in my education methods classes in college, there was a predominant mantra of, “I am the deciding element in my classroom.” I share it with you now because I’m pretty sure it’s equally true for yoga teachers. Each one of you is the deciding element in your class, your studio.
When I go to class, and the teacher is awesome, then my whole experience is awesome. Even when I’m having honest difficulty with a pose. Even when I’m bringing a metric assload of outside life baggage onto my mat with me. There is still a… something in that class that I can’t currently tap into on my own.
Unfortunately, not all yoga teachers are awesome.
Some of you have goals for and ideas about yoga that are incompatible with mine. While I’m not disputing that you can be awesome in a different sphere, this letter is not to you.
Some teachers, on the other hand, have the desire and potential to be the kind of awesome I am thinking about. Only, their tendency is to be really great at approaching yoga from their own frame of reference but to be at something of a loss when it comes to helping different bodies and different people address their own difficulties.
In that context, things awesome teachers and studios have done for me:
- Make me feel welcome. — If you’re a studio, have a variety of class types available, some information for first-timers (to yoga or just to your studio) on your website, and, you know, something that says people are welcome. If you’re an individual teacher, greet new students like you’re glad to see them, and if it’s their first time to the studio, maybe give them a little bit of an introduction. For real, saying, “Yes, take the props you need,” or, “That door goes to the bathroom,” can make a big difference. If you don’t think so, you have never found yourself in a blanket-less malasana trying to hold in a poop.
- If I’m not welcome, let me know beforehand. — I get it. Not every class is suitable for a student who’s new to yoga or who’s recovering from an injury or who’s just not that into a sparkly woo-filled practice. If that is the case, please state it plainly in the class description using language I can understand. That way, I will not be perturbed when I show up to a “mixed level” class to find that it actually contains only one level — which, by the way, is not mine.
- Don’t wait until the second side to show modifications. — If I can do the first version of the pose you demonstrate — which, incidentally, is probably a version you’re comfortable with — this is less of a big deal to me. But if I can’t — and if you don’t show me another way — then I’m struggling along for the first round of a pose thinking to myself, “I can’t do this. The fuck is this shit? I hate yoga, I hate my body, and I hate you.” And yes, that is truly what goes through my mind when I feel I have no options in a pose. Trying a select amount of variations on the first side lets me pick one that feels the most accessible to me right away, and then I can use it on the second side.
- Do the “easy” variations first. — This sort of goes along with the one above. But if you provide a more vigorous option first, I’m going to take it, at least at first — because at that moment, it was the only pose offered. When I try it, I might discover that it isn’t for me, but I might have already hurt myself in the process. Additionally — although I recognize that my ego is my own responsibility — it’s harder, especially publicly, to come out of a “harder” pose and into an “easier” one. It’s much more approachable to stay in the “easy” variation if I know I’m working close to my edge.
- Learn some modifications for larger bodies. — Even if you don’t think “that” kind of yoga — whatever “that” kind of yoga means — trust me, you do. You teach a version of yoga where it’s good to know how to accommodate fat people. Because there are a lot of us, especially in “yoga terms,” where ideas about bodies tend to skew toward the thinner end of the bell curve. Judging from the times I’ve been offered modifications that don’t come close to meeting my needs, I think a lot of yoga teacher trainings — and therefore a fair number of experienced, well-meaning, and open-minded yoga teachers — don’t really know what to do with me. There are modifications for strength, flexibility, current or prior injury, pregnancy — but these are not always the same modifications big people need. For people interested in heading in that learning direction, Body Positive Yoga and Curvy Yoga are both good resources.
- Teach us how to use the props. — I don’t just mean, “You can use a prop to modify X,” or even, “You can modify Y by using a block.” Rather, I mean, “This is how you might use a strap to modify Z.” Because to someone unfamiliar with them? Yoga props look like alien space babies, and it’s hard to have any idea of what to do. I don’t mean that it’s necessary to teach every modification each time — But as a general guideline, if you’re introducing a pose that’s likely newer to a good chunk of your students, offering a concrete suggestion can be more helpful than just, “Use props.”
- Ask before touching. — This body is mine; it does not cease to be mine simply because I enter your yoga class or studio. Unless I’m in a situation where self-injury is imminent (e.g., I’m about to topple forward from forearm stand), please ask before physically touching me to adjust or correct. I’m not sure about the stats for people with chronic pain, but something like 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; something like 1 in 4 will be on the receiving end of domestic abuse. While everybody deserves to have their bodily autonomy respected, some of us have specific, concrete reasons for jumping out of our skin when it’s not. And with that prevalence, it’s not at all unlikely that at least one student in any given class might react that way. Give us the chance to okay — or not — each touch.
I know, I know. I just made a long ass list. It’s probably a lot of stuff to keep in mind. That said, some of the stuff, like class descriptions, is a one-off. Some are “sometimes” things — as in, even if you do them only sometimes, we’re still a lot better off than when teachers don’t do them at all. And the ones that are “always” — the ones that are non-negotiable — are so because they stem from a place of being a decent human being. I feel like that can’t be so very much to ask.