3 Things Yoga Teachers Must Stop Doing. Right Now. ~ Daniel Flynn

Via Daniel Flynn
on Sep 27, 2014
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I’ve been teaching yoga for about 10 years now, and have also been an Executive Director of a non-profit that brings yoga to marginalized youth.

I’ve taught in a variety of settings ranging from public classes in yoga studios to classes for youth affected by the traumas of homelessness, PTSD, addiction and abuse. It has been my work with yoga students affected by trauma that has really changed my teaching style and challenged many of the assumptions I was making when teaching.

I felt compelled to write this article after attending a yoga festival where many of the yoga teachers routinely broke these basic trauma-informed practices.

Below is a list of basic trauma-informed practices to consider in your teaching. Please be mindful of these areas so that you’ll be creating a physically and emotionally safe container in which your students can find their way in their practice.

Three things to consider stopping in your teaching:

Stop touching without permission: Always check before you touch a student. Don’t assume your students want to be touched and/or adjusted. Early on in my classes I have students on their backs or bellies and ask them to raise a hand if they don’t want any adjustments. This gives them some privacy when answering. Touch can be amazingly healing, you just have to check first. If you forget to check in at the beginning you can always ask, “Can I help or are you good?” as you approach a student.

Stop choosing for students: How often do we say “Now close your eyes and feel the pose” or, “Let’s close our eyes and sit together for a moment.” You want to give as much choice as possible, especially if you don’t know your students well. Saying, “You can close your eyes or have eyes open” or, “Explore with eyes open or closed,” gives choice back to your students. Trauma is often defined as the experience of not having choice. Assume that all students have been affected by some amount of trauma. You want to help all students cultivate their ability to choose. Also, please watch out for this statement that I hear many teachers say: “You can close your eyes if you feel comfortable.” This is shaming language toward someone who’d rather keep their eyes open.

Stop defining how a pose should feel: I hear over and over from teachers how students should feel in poses such as “Rest in down-dog,” “Relax in child’s pose,” or “Doesn’t that feel good?” You have no idea what a pose feels like for your students. You only know for yourself. Down-dog is often only relaxing after a few years of practice. Child’s pose can feel very vulnerable to a student who’s experienced sexual violence. Don’t define the subjective experience for others. It’s your job to offer suggestions to help people ground, relax, and get stable, it’s not your job to tell them how it should feelwhile doing it.

 

I hope these tips are as helpful for you as they have been for me. Remember that you hold the container of safety in the yoga room. Within that safe container is the invitation and space for students to to grow, to ground, and to make bolder and bolder choices.

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Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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About Daniel Flynn

Daniel Flynn is a yoga teacher, health activist, musician, and comedian.  You can find his humorous take on yoga here. Also check him out as Tom Shakti, Eye-Gazing Guru, in the comedic mockumentary New Age Girls.

Comments

39 Responses to “3 Things Yoga Teachers Must Stop Doing. Right Now. ~ Daniel Flynn”

  1. LAD says:

    Wow. Great insights and guidance. Thank you.

  2. swati says:

    Thanks for sharing. Vital reminders- for all teachers really!

  3. James says:

    What I enjoy most about Bikram Yoga is none of the above is ever said Daniel.

  4. Joe Sparks says:

    Hi Daniel, I enjoyed reading your post. It makes a lot of sense. In my experience just about everyone has been traumatized in one way or another, if you understand how class societies operate. Most of us are shut down and function on top of a lot of fear. Knowing this I try to create a space with no pressure to do anything if you do not want to. We all come to learn and learning involves making mistakes. The only hands on we do is self massage during class. In my perspective for yoga teachers to be a resource for others they need to have resource for themselves. Also, we need to stop performing poses and start practicing self-care. We need to stop competing and start caring for ourselves and others.

  5. @FlynnYoga says:

    Amen Joe! Thanks for the comments!

  6. @FlynnYoga says:

    You are welcome, thank you for reading.

  7. @FlynnYoga says:

    Yes, trying to remind myself every time I teach. It is a process.

  8. @FlynnYoga says:

    Thats great James. Thanks for your input. Cheers!

  9. @FlynnYoga says:

    Writing this article was partially sparked when the New Age Girls crew filmed this last episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DB3lYL-CYyA

  10. Ute says:

    Very very nice advice. Thanks!

  11. fellow yoga teacher says:

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!

  12. zafu says:

    If someone doesn't want to be touched (in both senses) maybe they shouldn't do yoga. Asking before touching seems to be a non-issue here in Europe. I've never heard a teacher ask nor a student complain.

  13. Erik Lovendahl says:

    Hi Daniel… Greetings from Eugene! Your insightful article reminded me of our time together at the Street Yoga workshop.Your insights are timely as I will be teaching in a local middle school for the next few weeks. Creating that container of trust and safety is critical; it would be a shame to lose a population that could possibly benefit from this practice the most… Thanks again for the reminder!

  14. Tom Gillette says:

    There are some lovely points here in this article (asking permission to touch, not telling students how they feel or where they feel sensation in a pose) all very good and valid. But your second point about the language of opening or closing the eyes in yoga and meditation has other ramifications. There is some irony here that I dont think you get ……you declare that "yoga teachers must stop" telling people to close their eyes, shaming them and instead give students as much choice as possible. I am all for giving lots of permission in yoga classes and that is not my point. But didnt you just take away choice from yoga teachers? Yes there are high percentages of traumatized people in the world, and yoga teachers need to be sensitive to their listening, (that is a good point) but if all instruction is geared 100% of the time to do whatever the student wants at anytime, then a muddled mess happens.

    There are many great meditation masters who kindly request that students keep the eyes open (Vajrayana) and some that request that students keep their eyes closed (Vipassana). The third approach is "give your students as much choice as possible….do anything you want approach" that you are suggesting; that a teacher must stop being instructive. There are reasons for keeping eyes open or closed in yoga and meditation. Both are valid and very different ways of working with very very different results. Eyes open, Traatak and Drishti are powerful traditional practices that yield certain results. Eyes closed meditation is a different powerful method enables one to come into contact with the vast reality presenting itself inside. Both are valid ways of working and a teacher has every right to instruct students according to the method that she is offering at that moment. By erring on the side of being overly permissive, you have taken away a teacher's choice to instruct in the way that she has found to be valuable. I am not a big fan of your anything goes method and then you say "You must do it this way teachers!" I feel so shamed….. I hope you can laugh with me and find the humor here.

  15. @FlynnYoga says:

    Hey Zafu, thanks for reaching out. Some of the students I teach have been through trauma (sexual violence for one) and before they started practicing they were very dissociated from their physical bodies, aka "freeze" mode in the way we fight, flight, or freeze in reaction to traumatic experiences. Yoga has been a safe way to come back to listening to and trusting the body. The next steps for them has been listening and trusting other people. It's a process for sure.

  16. Alarra says:

    Beautifully concise and meaningful advice Daniel. This will inform me in my facilitating efforts greatly.

  17. @FlynnYoga says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I totally get the benefits of certain technique be they eyes opened or closed, good point.

    This article was partially inspired by my work with teen boys in lockdown. They have people telling them what to do all day, the last thing they need is another person not giving them choice. So I do….which paradoxically often leads them into choices that are more appropriate to whatever asana, pranayama, or meditation we are doing.

    I've been teaching for a bunch of years and there hasn't been a muddled mess yet. So do it my way or it's the highway!

    And this article was all inspired by this inappropriate yoga teacher I saw on youtube. I don't know where these guys come from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DB3lYL-CYyA

    Thanks Tom!

  18. Thx for the guidance Daniel! I've been wondering why students often become upset when I adjust them and I think asking them first will help. I generally don't ask first because I'm afraid they'll say no and I really want to adjust them. And typically only get to do it a few times before the instructor tells me to either return to my mat or makes me leave the room. I just like adjusting people, it's the only time I ever get to touch women that are this hot! Any other tips that might help me get to touch more hot yoga goddesses?

  19. @FlynnYoga says:

    Mr Blake,

    I suggest wearing speedos…there a great ice breaker for everyone. Tell me how it goes for you.

    -df

  20. @FlynnYoga says:

    And sweet baby Jesus and Shiva…I never could do the correct "there".

  21. Alexa says:

    Thank you for writing this. As someone who has experienced physical abuse I dislike people touching me; especially people I don't know and especially without warning. It took me over 2 years to build up the courage to go to a yoga class instead of practicing at home with a DVD and that was partly because I knew yoga teachers offer physical adjustments or assists. I took an ashtanga class with an experienced teacher and was yanked and shoved about the place with little warning, he insisted we practice in the middle of the room and would often come up behind his students and adjust them when he was out of their eyeline. Needless to say I left the class anxious and upset.

    I have now found another teacher who seems to understand, without me having to say very much, how I feel. He saves me a mat in the corner of the room so I can keep my back to the wall and always makes sure I can see him approach me before he gets very close. He offers an adjustment non-verbally (which saves embaressment in front of other students) and is respectul when I shake my head and patient when I nod. Learning to trust people is difficult and it's even more difficult when people take this trust for granted. I am lucky to have found a teacher who doesn't take my trust for granted.

    I love my practice, it's been an incredibly healing journey for me and I am embarking on a YTT later this month so I can share that experience with others. It's easy to say that people shouldn't go to a class if they aren't prepared to be adjusted, as someone has in the comments above, but yoga is supposed to be for everyone.

  22. Kendra says:

    Excellent points! Thank you! This is why I did 10 years of yoga on my own, by myself.

  23. @FlynnYoga says:

    Thank you Alexa so much for sharing your story. Maybe you'll turn this into a blog to share with the rest of the EJ community. I'm sure many would feel empowered by your story. Some addition resources to consider if you wanted to get into working with populations affected by trauma would be Hala Khouri's trainings (she's in LA and is amazing) and the Trauma Center (East Coast) with David Emerson…He wrote a great book called "Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga", there's also Street Yoga in Seattle and Living Yoga in Portland. Also Bessel van der Kolk just came out with a new book. He's one of the biggies in the world of somatic practices for trauma healing. Best of luck to you!

  24. tiniertina says:

    I had to switch to a fusion style (a few classes in Yogea Artflow Yoga–heavy on the woo – maybe that's an indicator?), ultimately;

    I suspect Kundalini yoga is also an excellent choice if you hardly to not at all want to be touched.

    I've my reasons, which are many. I've totally LET THEM GO, BUT AM LEFT WITH MY PREFERENCES …

    That the style of yoga I wound up in temporarily, is not yet popular is all the better; I do yoga primarily at home anyhow. to prevent adjustments from ever happening to me again. Still, without it being too slow, or sleepytime (by that I mean restorative or gentle in nature). If I ever get to the point I could be taking live classes again (financially); I think I will try Kundalini again (after decades).

  25. tiniertina says:

    That video is pretty triggering to me. Too many staredowns by yoga teachers who want to create "this-is-not-a"-cults, in my experience in the big city …

  26. Jane says:

    So if someone has gone through a trauma that makes being touched uncomfortable for them they just shouldn't do yoga all together?? That seems a bit silly . . . .

  27. Maria says:

    OMG, that’s so true. I’ve been giving classes to underprivileged kids this summer and it was really hard for me to understand some reactions. Times knows better, so i started my sessions talking about what yoga was about. It’s amazing how many barriers you can take down just by doing that. They feel they have a voice there.

  28. Rosie says:

    I understand,and thankyou for helping me as a new yoga teacher not create a pitfall for myself. I have been certified for Connected Warriors,which offers yoga to vets with emphasis on trauma sensitive language. But it's a good reminder,because many coming for yoga come with pain. Good article,thankyou.

  29. KKC says:

    Hands off totally…don't ask either. It's inappropriate and can hurt your student. Yoga is a discipline…direction is most important. As far as feelings and sensations…communicate that if you know…of course you will have to be practicing otherwise you won't be able to tell them how it feels…power will happen within once there is a better understanding. Too many choices is confusing. Be a guide to better health and understanding…wishy washy is just that.

  30. Gaby M.G. says:

    Thank you for this article. I've been asked to leave classes after I asked the teacher not to touch me. They say: "If you don't like being touched, then why do come here?". I know I have some contact issues to solve, but that is going to take some time… in the mean time, I'd like to do yoga. 🙂

  31. @FlynnYoga says:

    Sorry to hear about that experience Gaby. Totally bummer. Some people are not aware that others actually have preferences different than their own.

  32. @FlynnYoga says:

    Yes Rosie and good for you for studying trauma-informed practices!

  33. @FlynnYoga says:

    Great insights Maria!

  34. @FlynnYoga says:

    Hi Everyone, here's the latest from me. Not on yoga but on accountability:
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/06/how-to-hav

  35. Kim Gorman says:

    This is terrific! Thank you for writing it. My friend and I talk about these things often. She hates being touched, and we're tired of yoga teachers babbling on and on, telling us how we should feel.

  36. ecogayle says:

    Excellent points, Daniel and something for all teachers to think about and absorb into their teaching techniques. Thank you. I definitely do my best to give verbal cues that help my students adjust their alignment on their own. But I am guilty of adjusting with out asking permission. Although I already knew what you said to be true, I will inform my teaching by being much more aware. Thanks again for the reminder.

  37. Frances says:

    Add: Don't forget that the class is for the students not the teacher. I've been to classes where the teacher just goes off on her own practice as if we weren't there. Do your own thing on your own time – Not mine. Also, never do anything to intimidate your students, like trying to force them into a pose that they are uncomfortable with.

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