As I write this, a cloud of thick smoke hangs heavy over the city of San Francisco due to recent fires. The sky is tinted an apocalyptic pink and the normally bustling streets have just a few bold souls hurrying along to the next shelter, air masks covering half their face.
Schools and many businesses are closed due to toxic air quality and as I sit here preparing for this morning’s class, I am not only planning my sequence, but how I will—or won’t—bring up what’s happening outside. Do I address it head on? Do I speak about it generally? Do I avoid talking about it altogether?
In our yoga community, negativity can be seen as, well, negative. Yoga teachers often avoid talking about the awful things happening globally in favor of encouraging students to focus on their own personal healing. Yoga class, retreats, studios, and meditation halls have become refuges from outer violence and uncertainty—a vacuum in which everything feels safe and alright. But things are not safe and alright. The country is divided. Planet earth is bleeding fires and crying floods. Just a few weeks ago, a shooter entered a yoga studio and killed two people.
As the world is changing, the teaching landscape is changing, too.
Yogis are looking to their practice and teachers for guidance and while I whole-heartedly agree that our classes should be safe-havens from the madness of the outside world, I have also grown to believe that these are the best places to learn how to handle that madness. Our classes are fertile training ground for showing students how strong they are and how strong we are as a community. How do we help people heal both personally and globally in challenging times?
I believe yoga teachers can use the outside world as teachable moments, without having to address specific traumas or political upset head on. Here are 8 ways to do just that:
Speak globally, versus specifically.
It is possible to help students face struggles without going too deep into personal traumas. Use general words and speak to the internal effects versus the external turmoil. While the outside causes may vary, human responses are similar. We have all experienced sadness, hopelessness, anger, grief, and frustration, just as we have all experienced happiness, joy, elation, and surprise.
Bay Area-based yoga teacher Nikki Estrada, told me she steers clear of specific comments in classes that could potentially be polarizing and instead, addresses our challenging times more generally. “I’ll say things like, ‘We are so bombarded right now with all kinds of negativity and intensity and the yoga studio is a space to turn it off, go within, and fill our cups,’” she says. Using the words “negativity” and “intensity” versus a specific example allows students to interpret as it pertains to them, she says. “It is a delicate dance to acknowledge the collective challenge, but not dwell on it.”
Emphasize the power of healing as a group.
People learn by example, and group responses can be contagious. Think of the concepts of “mass hysteria or “group think.” Just as complaining together can heighten a group’s annoyance, breathing together can also calm the group down.
“If something is going on that is affecting virtually everyone in your room—meaning not just certain political or religious persuasions—and you are authentically feeling it yourself, it may be nice to set the tone gently as the students come in, creating space for their feelings and need for connection,” says Annie Carpenter, founder of SmartFLOW yoga. For example, on the morning of 9/11, Annie had her students make a circle, facing in so they could really sense the connection and support of community.
See also Connecting with Community
When in doubt, teach breathing.
We may have different viewpoints, different politics, and different bodies, but something that connects every single human being on this planet is the breath. “The best way to help your student is to help them breathe deeper,” says Jeanne Heileman, founder of Tantra Flow Yoga. “Breath is the link from the physical body to the mind. When we change the way we breathe, we change the way our mind is activating. Thus, you don’t have to say anything.”
Estrada agrees: “The most powerful tool I share with my students during challenging times is to focus on and regulate their breath,” she says. “Steady breathing leads to a steady mind and a steady yogi.”
Use asana to teach students about how they cope with challenge.
How we do one thing is how we do everything—and looking at how we approach challenge on the mat is a mirror for how we deal with it off the mat. For example, balance poses are a great place for people to face fear together without triggering specific experiences. Think about Tree Pose (Vrksasana). Standing on one leg has little to do with the lessons we are imparting, but it can show students how they respond when they’re scared. When the class explores this type of edge as a group, people are likely to tap into the kind of courage they’re seeking during hard times.
Yoga teacher Jeanne Heileman designed her entire 300-hour teacher training around this concept. “During times of fear and insecurity, teach postures connected to the Root Chakra,” she says. “These include long holds in Standing Poses. Guide your students to connect to the earth, and to feel how it is holding and supporting them.”
Empower students by showing them what they can change: their thoughts.
Practicing in an uncomfortable setting is the best place to learn resilience. To wit: The recent California fires provided a real-time opportunity for students to learn that while they may not be able to change their external circumstances, they can change their reaction to them. Helpless despair, enraged frustration, and acceptance are all choices—our choices. We can manage our experience through the power of our response. When our response is something harder to contain, like inconsolable grief, we can still change how we think about ourselves, practicing being kinder and more patient.
Political unrest, bombings, shootings, fires, and abuse are tremendously upsetting events. Other than trauma-specialists and therapists, many yoga teachers are not trained to help our students unpack that kind of trauma. How we can help is by holding space. By doing this, we’re not trying to fix or understand another’s trauma; we’re simply being present with someone and their pain.
Carpenter, who taught during the recent Northern California fires, says she held space in her classes by leading long, slow, flows that encouraged students to move more mindfully and hold poses longer, using lots of props for support. She also finished these classes with supported Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) and Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana). “I traded some of the specificity I usually use in my instructions for words that encouraged grounding and support,” she says. “There was also more silence, and more gentle hands-on adjustments.”
Help your students see how they are more similar than they are different.
Another powerful way to help people heal as a collective is how we begin and close our classes. Beginning and/or ending class by chanting Om is a way to link people together. Om is the omnipresent universal sound—the buzz of the world around us, the singing of the planets from space, the whoosh of the waves crashing against the shore, the breath of your neighbor. By repeating Om, we connect into this greater experience, harmonizing with the whole planet.
Encourage your students to share the benefits of their practice with the world.
While yoga may be an inside job, it has great external reverberations. The better we feel, the kinder we are. And that goodness pays itself forward. “The more we change on the inside, the more we have a positive impact on the outside,” says Estrada.
Carpenter often ends her classes by inviting students to offer the “goodness” of their practice back out into the world, closing with the words: “May we be grateful for the many blessings in our lives. And may all the blessings we receive be of benefit to all beings everywhere.”
As wellness professionals, we have the important task of grooming a spiritual army—to prepare people for the battle of uncertainty that is life. If we get caught up in the “me” of the healing, we risk losing sight of the “we.” And we heal most together.
About the Author
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher in San Francisco. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com.