I was in my basement office when my son came down to say that a bomb went off at the Boston Marathon. Then he returned to say that he just saw a man without legs.
I was getting ready to teach in a few hours, after dinner, homework, laundry and now apparently this, a horrific traumatizing event in my living room.
Parents have to keep it together for their children, although truthfully he was dealing with it better than I was. Yoga can make you ultra-sensitive to the injustices of the world. I know a student who gave up yoga because she found herself crying at the sight of meat.
Yoga teachers, in turn, have to keep it together for their students. No matter what is happening in the world, many of us have a class to teach. However, it’s pretty hard to come back from seeing a murdered eight-year-old with a smile on your face. Playful yoga inversions? Not so much. Heart openers? I’ll pass. Open our hips to feel free? It all sounds bogus to me. What you really want to do is let out a primal scream.
But of course, you do not walk into a room of hurting students and scream. Not if you want to stay employed. And besides, they feel just as terrible as you do.
So how do you offer inspiration in times like these?
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was famous for saying, “Yoga not easy.” And neither is teaching it. Believe me, just like yoga, teaching is a practice too.
The short answer is you do the best you can.
Unfortunately, I have had some experience in this. On the morning of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was riding my exercise bicycle and watching the television. When the news bulletin came on, every fiber in my body said “turn it off,” but you don’t, do you? You watch and then the tears come.
After I made sure my family in Connecticut was okay, I was still crying hysterically when I arrived at the studio to teach. Then the students arrived, some in tears, and everyone hoped I had a yoga cure. I did not.
I led a set sequence from Ashtanga because it seemed like putting one foot in front of the other was about all we could do. Right foot forward. Left foot forward. Utkasana. And slowly the breath arrived. At the end we huddled in a circle and Om’d.
Columbine, 9/11, Sandy Hook, the Aurora Movie Theater, the Boston Marathon; it doesn’t end. And somewhere there is a yoga teacher scheduled to get up in front of the room, paste a smile on their face and lead everyone to the promised land of presence, peace and positivity.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is, as Pema Chodron says, “Simply be present with your own shifting energies and with the unpredictability of life as it unfolds.”
If you are teaching in times of tragedy, I might suggest the following:
- >>Skip the theme. If you are upset, do not attempt to theme your yoga class. Every class needs asana and breath, but the theme is optional. Finding presence is enough.
- >>Ignore the elephant. Everyone knows it’s there, but you do not have to mention it. You can start the class with Child’s Pose. Only mention the traumatic event it if you feel you can make it uplifting or enlightening. If you say, “Innocent children were killed this morning,” your class will not recover. But if you say, “In light of today’s events, I’d like to offer this class to the support of families everywhere,” you have a chance to turn it to good. Of course, I will still be crying in the back of your room.
- >>If you theme, go small. Try a ‘One Word Theme,’ such as ‘Courage,’ or ‘Faith.’ Even just a simple word repeated a few times will inspire your students.
- >>Do not fake it. If you don’t feel “love” then don’t say it because you think it’s the yogic thing to do. Students can smell a fake and it makes them shut down. Suggesting that we should love everyone including murderers is fine, but not if you don’t truly mean it.
- >>Be real, but don’t open a vein. Do not bleed out on your students. They have their own messes to deal with and they don’t need yours. You must be able to offer: Insight, Experience and Inspiration. Otherwise, have a cup of shut up and get on with the yoga.
- >>Remember your mission. Remember why you decided to teach yoga, and stick to it. If you can offer your students a safe place to experience their own authentic reactions, then this is possibly the best reason to teach in times of crisis. Allowing students permission to be present, even if it is painful, and stillness to absorb the meaning of the moment, is truly the gift of yoga.
This article was excerpted from the book, Theme Weaver: Connect the Power of Inspiration to Teaching Yoga (Wildhorse Ventures, 2013) For more information on how to inspire students, follow Michelle Marchildon, The Yogi Muse on Facebook.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta