When yoga teacher Sadie Nardini first started practicing yoga, she regularly excused herself when her teacher led the students into Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand). "I'd sneak out and stay in the hallway until I heard them moving on to something else," she says. "I did this for three years before one day my instructor called me on it. I admitted I was terrified of being upside down—I didn't trust my arm strength, and the head-down position made me feel dizzy and weird." She went on to learn the pose, and now says she incorporates at least one fear-inducing pose into every class she teaches.
For many students, poses such as Handstand, Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance), Bakasana (Crane Pose), and Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose) are so scary they're tempted to just skip them, even though doing so might not serve them in the long run.
There's something about the fear of plummeting head first into a hardwood floor that snaps you straight into the present moment. "You can pretty easily space out in Triangle or Warrior 2," says San Francisco yoga teacher Jason Crandell, "but it's highly unlikely that your mind is going to be elsewhere when you're doing something that challenges you to face a fear."
The experience of the present moment is only one reason to teach poses that might bring up fear for your students. "There's no way to overcome fear than to consciously confront it and learn to stand strong in the face of this challenging sensation. Then we are able to hold our center in the midst of scary situations we encounter both on and off the mat," Nardini explains. Fear, however, is an emotion that must be handled with care or it could have the opposite effect—reinforcing exactly what students' expect. So how do you make sure they have a good experience with the poses that scare them?
Know Your Students.
Before you can help your student tackle a scary pose, you have to know them well. "It is very important to first know your students," says Nancy Alder, a yoga teacher in Hartford, Connecticut. "If they are not ready for advanced, challenging, or scary poses then they shouldn't be taught to do them." Spend time building a relationship based on trust, respect, and understanding. Know your students' physical, mental, and emotional boundaries and you'll be a lot more capable of guiding them.
Acknowledge the Fear.
If you see that one of your students has a fearful reaction to a pose, acknowledge their fear and let them know it's OK. "Fear is a normal, natural, healthy thing," says Crandell. "You should encourage your students not to feel guilty about the fact that they have fear but to acknowledge and accept it."
Make It Optional.
If your student doesn't feel safe and comfortable trying a particular pose, don't insist on it. A bad experience with the pose will only reinforce the fear. Plus, sometimes just by giving students the option, they feel safer and will be more interested in attempting the pose, Crandell notes.
Build Up to It.
It might be tempting to encourage your student to just face her fear head on and go right into a pose that scares her—especially if you know that she can handle the physical challenge. But taking it slow and teaching all the necessary (and less scary) skills to ease her into the pose first might be a better approach. "This is a more sure route toward the attainment of the asana," says Nardini. Honoring those steps, rather than rushing them into a pose, may help them remain "humble enough to back off in order to go deeper."
Give a Bite-Sized Taste.
When you do get your student into a pose that scares her, keep her there just long enough to give her a feel for the asana—don't let her linger too long. You want her to feel accomplished, but you don't want to give her enough time to think about it, and potentially freak out, says Crandell. Leave her with a good experience so she'll be more likely to want to build on it during the next class.
Support, Support, Support.
In order to help a student overcome her fear of a pose, you have to be an expert at assisting students who aren't fearful of that pose. When a student is scared, she'll flail as she kicks into Handstand, for example. As the teacher, you have to be able to handle that or the student's experience won't be a good one. Support your students physically, emotionally, and mentally by creating a safe environment for curious exploration.
When a student overcomes her fear, she'll feel more confidence when she meets her next challenge—whether it's on the yoga mat or in her life. Or, as Alder puts it, recalling how she felt when she conquered her first scary pose Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow): "I was completely unable to sleep that night because I was so jazzed and proud of myself for overcoming my fear and of my body for not breaking! I felt invincible!"
Erica Rodefer is a writer and yoga teacher living in Charleston, South Carolina. Check out her blog, SpoiledYogi.com.