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Creating a Safe Space

You can sequence a class perfectly. You can communicate about every posture. You can give textbook-perfect adjustments. But none of that will matter unless you figure out how to make your student feel safe to explore, experiment, and grow.

By Rusty Wells

As teachers, we want our students to have the best possible experience in the studio. Giving them that means finding a balance between challenging them and keeping them safe. That balance begins with you.

I try to set the right mood in the room from the very beginning. I have a portable altar I bring in to remind my students that the point of the practice is service and devotion. I start with fairly bright lighting at the start of class to energize them, but it gets fairly mellow by the end. I want to lead them through rigor and intensity of the class into a more peaceful, internal place, eventually winding down into the quiet of Savasana (Corpse Pose).

Once the mood in the room has been established, the most important issue is physical safety. As the teacher, it's your job to watch out for danger signs in the studio. I start by scanning for the weakest link. I listen to the sound of the breath first. If the breath sounds wrong, the students need to back off immediately. The breath is the guide; the whole practice is a breathing exercise. Once the breath sounds right, I check my students' feet and move upward, looking for any alignment danger signs. I go to the students who need the most help and practice with them for a moment to show them what I'm asking. The feet, knees, and hips are most important, and aligning them is the first step; when you adjust them, the posture comes into bloom.

It's important not only to watch students in their postures, but also to monitor how they move in and out of the postures. When they burst into or collapse out of a posture, they invite injuries. I encourage them to honor each phase of the posture evenly, and emphasize that entering and exiting the postures is as important as being in them.

I also encourage my students to develop their own intuition. They need to listen to their inner teacher and take personal responsibility for their own safety. If something feels wrong, it is wrong. I ask them to be genuine and ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing. Are they simply listening to their egos? Can they instead go somewhere appropriate, not simply where they desire to be?

Next, I pay careful attention to the language I am using. I try to avoid metaphors and flowery words, and instead be concise and clear. When I broke my foot and couldn't demonstrate in class, I learned how important language can be for teaching. Now I try to steer clear of imprecise language and rid my speech of any unnecessary words. In yoga our goal is union—finding a connection between the teacher and the student—so using alienating language is harmful and can create injury. Students need to get what you're saying. I use mantras that I repeat over and over again, like "be patient," "back off," and "don't overstretch." Remember that it's ok to change your mind and correct yourself midstream; it's good for your students to see your humanity.

When my students don't seem to be responding to my instructions, I always try to remember that most of them are really doing the best they can. Maybe they aren't in the perfect position, but they're trying in relation to what their bodies can do. On the other hand, if most of the class seems to be not getting it, I recognize that I need to change my approach as a teacher.

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