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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

Once I've attended to their physical safety, I work on setting the right tone spiritually. I try to weave in the philosophy of yoga into the class. I especially focus on teaching ahimsa, or non-violence. I point out that our entire life experience can be reflected on the mat. If students want to understand what violence is, all they need to do is witness and observe their inner dialog during their practice. Once they've heard it, I ask them to shift into the realm of ahimsa and find, on a personal, intimate level, the idea of ahimsa directed to themselves. I ask them not to compare themselves to other people, but simply to find their edge with enthusiasm, relaxation, and a lack of force. This way they can visit their edge without jumping over it—as teachers, it's our job to help them peek but not jump.

Of course, encouraging the class means dealing with students at different levels of ability. I try to start with a reasonable modification of the posture I'm teaching, and then I invite students who "just can't get enough" to try a few more advanced options. I work to communicate what's crucial in the foundation of the posture, and then allow them to explore while honoring their edge. I ask them not to force their bodies to be as they were in the past, and then remind them that if they can't perform a more advanced state of any posture, they can still be a happy and healthy person. Patanjali says that our practice should be steady and joyful, so they should to be wary of extreme, forceful situations. Are they being steady and joyful, or are they just freaking out?

I invite my students to see their practice as a form of prayer and a form of dance—a celebration of all they've been handed, a reminder of the blessings they've received. Their practice is a chance to blossom or open up, if and when they want to. I invite them to find this opening with simple suggestions like setting their intention or bringing their hands together into prayer position to express devotion and gratitude. I try not to be too dogmatic, but encourage them to feel free to explore themselves and explore their connection to the entire universe.

At the end of class, I ask them to pause for a moment of reflection. In that moment, they can thank themselves for being in class and honor someone in their lives who is suffering physically or emotionally. If they can send some love and support to that person, they can begin to understand the devotional aspects of the practice. It's a safe way to help them stretch their conception of yoga as simply a physical experience.

It's a gift to be a teacher—we're in the service industry really. When we forget that, we've lost perspective. We're there to serve our students by providing information and creating a safe environment for them to use that information to explore and grow. If we keep that in mind, we can create an experience that's good both for our students and ourselves.

Finally, remember that your students are dealing with deep stuff: their fears and internal demons. We really have no idea what their personal issues are. As teachers, we must simply be prepared to breathe, support them, and keep their spirits lifted so they can vanquish the demons and embrace their highest selves.

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