Leafing through student feedback forms for a yoga teacher-training course I taught, I read these words: “I didn’t like this class, the teacher was scary.”
I knew I could be forthright, but I didn’t think anybody would actually be scared of me. I mentioned it to friends and colleagues who gently told me that I could come across as, well, a bit strident. I started to think carefully about how I communicate. As a yoga teacher, it’s my job to help students reach their full potential and that isn’t going to happen by scaring them.
It was time to get serious about Satya. Satya is one of the five Yamas, guidelines for living a good life from the ancient sage, Patanjali. Often translated as “truthfulness,” master teacher TKV Desikachar describes it as “right communication.”
Now for me, that’s much more challenging than plain old truthfulness—I’ve never had a problem with telling it like it is. But right communication is about dealing with others fairly and kindly, sparing feelings as well as speaking the truth. For me, it was about being less scary.
A fellow yoga teacher told me about a technique called Non-Violent Communication (NVC). NVC reasons that we all share the same basic human needs and that once we acknowledge those needs, we can communicate effectively and authentically. I started by trying out the NVC formula on my children.
Eddie (aged 5): I hate you mummy (I’ve just told him he can’t bring a huge, wet, filthy stick into the car).
Me: I understand you need to make your own decisions. Well, I need to keep the car nice or Daddy will go mad. Would you be willing to put down the muddy stick and then you can choose a story to listen to on the way home?
Eddie: I’m not going home, I hate you.
NVC is supposed to work well with children, so I tried again with Ruby (aged 8).
Me: Ruby, please let your brother have a go on the trampoline.
Ruby: No, he’s annoying. Me: I hear that you’re enjoying playing on your own. I need to make Eddie stop screaming at the top of his lungs. Would you be willing to let Eddie have a turn and then we can do something special together after dinner?
Ruby: Eddie, I’ll let you on the trampoline if you give me your all your candy forever, as long as you live.
While NVC is a great tool, I found it hard to stick to the formula (and reverted to my old ways of communicating as soon as it didn’t work). So I started to pay attention to the times when my communication tipped over from compassionate to scary. I realized that my most abrasive moments occurred when I felt most vulnerable—being scary was a defence mechanism.
Now, owning up to my own vulnerability was a whole lot more confronting than simply being “nice,” but this observation opened up a new way of thinking about “right communication.” It’s not what you say, it’s the emotional state you’re experiencing when you say it.
I headed for my yoga mat and challenged myself to do a pose that I found confronting. I held the pose and noticed how I felt– irritable, anxious, vulnerable. But rather than act on those feelings and move to another pose, I stuck with it and discovered a little gap between doing the pose and reacting to it.
Finding that gap removed the emotional charge, a powerful reflex that is triggered by feelings of anxiety, fear or vulnerability. When I acknowledged those feelings, it diffused the charge and allowed me to hold the pose calmly, even when it felt physically uncomfortable.
I took my observations off the mat and discovered that I could find the gap between my feelings and how I reacted to them in lots of situations, allowing me to communicate from a calm and balanced place.
The irony is that when I owned up to feelings of vulnerability, I felt stronger and more connected. I’m not scaring yoga students any more and this week, I even caught my kids playing nicely together on the trampoline.
Satya must be contagious.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: elephant archives