What follows is the 1st excerpt from my ebook Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind: A Modern Yoga Philosophy Infused with Somatic Psychology & Neuroscience, available May 28th, 2013 through Amazon.com This is a text for yoga students, teachers, and teacher trainers. Find out more here. The 2nd excerpt “Yoga & the 3 Principles of Transformational Neuroplasticity” can be found here.
When we enter the yoga room, we are enacting sacred space.
We define sacred space as “a time and place set aside for inner work.” This is a place for people to open up, to unwind, to connect, to heal and grow, grieve and celebrate, focus and relax.
As a teacher it is our responsibility to establish the container of sacred space. This does not require any pretentiousness or faux-profound seriousness; rather it is about authentic leadership that invites people to “drop in.”
To start, you may consider creating your own sacred space at home, whether it is with candles and music in the bathtub, or creating your meditation area with cushion, altar etc…Think of it as setting up the conditions in which you can effect a positive state change.
As yoga teachers, we set up the conditions for positive state changes for groups of people, but there are many ways of creating and holding sacred space.
The ancient Greeks had a structure they called the temenos: a four walled enclosure with no roof. The warriors would come in off the battlefield and remove their armor to lie down on their backs and open their hearts again to the sky. All cultures have had temples, churches, kivas, stupas, shrine rooms—spaces set aside for ritual activity and communal practice. Perhaps the most basic of these is the tribal fire circle or the shaman’s cave.
The common thread of sacred space has less to do with any specific cultural belief system or methodology and more to do with the setting aside of a time and place in a way that creates a container for an individual or community to enter states of contemplation, catharsis, celebration, experiential learning, healing and growth.
Those who facilitate and “hold” such spaces for others are variously called teachers, healers, shamans, therapists, guides or bodyworkers. Though the roles are similar in all these guises, differences in belief system, methodology, power structure and training makes a huge difference in terms of the intention and effect of the space being held.
A friend of ours who trains river guides to take groups on rafting adventures down the Colorado River has his own trinity he uses for creating group cohesion and resilience: Acknowledge, Unite and Motivate. We found it fun that this non-yogi has an acronym that spells A-U-M.
Acknowledge, Unite, Motivate.
We acknowledge people in the room before starting (and once we have started) by noticing new people, injuries, returning students, commenting on the weather or taking a moment to learn names or ask briefly about that new baby, new job or recently healed ankle.
We also “acknowledge” throughout the class by addressing what is happening in the room. Talking about the heat and sweat in Summer time, or about the room slowly warming up on Winter mornings. We acknowledge people’s hard work and improvement and also acknowledge people’s bodily needs by going over and offering alternate poses or adjustments.
When the room gets noisy or someone gets emotional or a sequence has been particularly difficult we acknowledge what has just happened and contextualize it.
For example: “Wow, it just got noisy in here as people did lion’s breath, let’s take a moment to get grounded again, especially if that was overwhelming for you.”
Or “Sometimes when we practice deeply, emotions come up to the surface. That is happening in the room right now. Notice how you respond to this. Does it make you want to fix the person, does it give you permission to feel your feelings, or maybe it scares you? Without judgment, see if you can just be curious about your reaction to the emotions of others.”
Or “Everyone rest for a moment and take a big breath in and out. That was hard work! We’re all going to develop more stable healthy shoulders by strengthening those muscles…”
“Acknowledging” in this sense is related both to the neuroscience of mirror neurons and also to the psychological concept of “mirroring.” These will be covered in more detail later on.
“Acknowledging” is the doorway into “Uniting,” because each time you acknowledge people and their experience it brings the group together. Each time you name the various things people may be experiencing, it creates space for them to feel included. Each time you address what is going on in the room, people feel you are holding the space and they can let go into it. Unity is created not by forcing everyone to be the same, which of course is impossible —but by inviting them to be themselves within the context of a shared experience.
One way to create Unity is to point out our similarities, our common humanity and shared intentions, and the fact that everyone has both challenges and gifts. We can also explicitly point out how by coming together to move and breathe, focus and open-up, we support one another in doing this deeply personal transformational practice.
“Motivating” has to do with inspiring people to want to do the work. Whether it is talking about how abdominal exercises are going to make the whole body stronger and the low back more stable, or it is making the link between staying present with the whole range of emotions and sensations on the mat, and therefore being more able to stay present and be effective at work or compassionate in relationship, we motivate our students by suggesting the benefits of the practice.
Motivation also feeds back into creating more unity and an acknowledgment of our shared human condition, common goals and challenges. When a group feels effectively acknowledged, united and motivated, the energy in the room will be cohesive, fluid and ready for anything. It’s beautiful!
We can also invoke sacred space by naming the room as being dedicated to inner work, as being a sanctuary set apart from everyday life. We can invite people to picture a circle around the room, or just to notice the ritual associations with taking off their shoes, rolling out their mat and sitting in meditation posture.
None of this requires any particular belief system or pretension, and it can be described in a way that welcomes everyone very naturally.
We can use music, poetry and the opening meditation and breathing instructions as a way to establish sacred space too. It’s a shared brain state.
I like these lines from Rumi:
My love floats through the air like music….
We are three.
One stops at the threshold and bows,
One lifts the sacred cup and we see wine flames play over her face,
One turns to any cold onlookers and says
—this dance is the joy of existence…