Three little words can have the power to create both excitement and dread in the hearts of your students. They come the moment you smile and announce, "Find a partner!"
I was oblivious to some students' horror at hearing these words until I asked a group of students how yoga teachers unintentionally create stress in the classroom. To my surprise, they told me that partnering was a number-one cause of stress. They complained about getting hurt, losing the flow of the practice, and not wanting to touch or be touched by a stranger. "When the teacher says to partner up, I just cringe," one teacher-in-training shared. "Working with a stranger makes me very uncomfortable, and more self-critical. It brings up the inner judge that I try to put away in my yoga practice."
In my own yoga practice, I've found that partnering can be a profoundly moving experience. I've tried to bring that into my classroom with partner exercises such as hands-on breath awareness and assisted forward bends. But at the same time, even I feel a twinge of resistance when I'm in a workshop and the teacher says, "Partner up." Maybe it's a post-traumatic stress reaction from the workshop where an overly enthusiastic partner yanked me to standing from Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). Whatever the reason, as a teacher, I feel a conflict between my partner-yoga idealism and the wide range of actual student experience.
How do you know when to ask your students to partner and when to let them go it alone? Following a few simple guidelines might help your students to maximize the rewards and minimize the risks of partner yoga.
Keep Students in the Student Role
Many partner exercises ask students to assist each other in poses. Many senior teachers agree that it's not a good idea to turn yoga students into yoga teachers.
"It's hard enough to keep trained yoga teachers from hurting students," says Leslie Kaminoff, author of Yoga Anatomy and founder of the Breathing Project yoga studio in New York City. Having untrained students assist other students increases the risk of injury.
Asking students to support each other in inversions in the middle of the room is perhaps the biggest safety offender, says Nick Beem, a Kripalu yoga teacher in Evanston, Illinois. "It's so easy to mess this up and leave your partner vulnerable," he says. "You could spend time really teaching the assist, but I don't think my students come to class to learn assisting. And it's a skill that can't be quickly taught."
Practicing Ahimsa in Partner Yoga
One rule of thumb is to encourage your students to opt out of any pose they don't feel comfortable doing, says Susanne Murtha, director of the Yoga in the Adirondacks studio in Bakers Mills, NY. Communication is key. When she teaches partner work, she repeatedly reminds her students to talk with their partners. It's also a good idea to let the partner with any limitation or less range of motion sets the boundary for the pose, she says.
Desiree Rumbaugh, an Anusara Yoga teacher who guides partner exercises in the workshops she teaches worldwide, suggests keeping to simple, minimally invasive exercises for beginning students.. "Save the more complicated techniques for workshops or classes with seasoned students. And demonstrate partner work very clearly to avoid mishaps."
No matter what kind of partner-work you teach, keep in mind that the risk extends beyond physical safety—many students and teachers are concerned about the emotional aspect of touching and being touched. "The kind of vulnerability people experience in yoga class is not to be taken lightly." Kaminoff says. "Touching other people is a skill that needs to be approached with consciousness."
The Power of Connection
With all these risks, why teach partner exercises at all? For many teachers, the community-building benefit outweighs the challenges involved with partner-work.
"We are not a touch culture, yet we desperately need to connect with others," says Alanna Kaivalya, an advanced certified Jivamukti Yoga instructor from New York City, says, I find that partner work can get people out of their own heads and into feeling compassion for their fellow yogis."
This is consistent with the philosophy of Anusara Yoga. "One of our main goals is to build community and learn how to care for and help others," says Rumbaugh. "Our lives are so isolated these days. Partner work offers opportunities to establish trust with others."
Yet according to my own informal research, the number one student complaint about partner exercises is being forced to work with others. In the recent salon.com article "Why I Hate Partner Yoga," Catherine Price writes, "When I go to yoga, it's because I crave solitude. I do not want to think about other people...I want to be left alone."
It's a reasonable request, says Kaminoff. "If I was going in expecting a 'normal' class and I was suddenly asked to do partner work, I'd be upset."
However, many teachers see the "leave me alone" perspective as incompatible with the broader aims of yoga practice. "Not wanting to engage with others is the antithesis of what we try to create in yoga," Kaivalya says. "We are trying to get people to see past 'otherness' to find the Oneness. If you're not willing to connect with someone else in yoga, then you're missing a great opportunity for compassionate transformation."
Relax Into Discomfort
Some teachers even view the resistance and discomfort that arise during partner yoga as an important part of the practice—much like learning to relax at the edge of resistance in a deep stretch.
A little discomfort is a necessary part of learning how to apply yoga to everyday life, says Kaivalya "If we constantly stay in our comfort zone, alone on our own mat, it's going to be difficult to find the tools to stay present when we're suddenly face to face with someone who challenges us."
Some teachers, like Beem, are skeptical about how well this lesson comes across to students. "This could be a teaching moment, as in 'Notice how your mind reacts to trusting someone else with your weight.' But that's a hard sell for beginners or students who are new to your class." Before taking this approach, set a strong foundation of compassionate awareness and self-inquiry through more traditional yoga practices of asana and meditation.
To Teach or Not to Teach?
In the end, the decision of whether and how to include partner yoga depends on your teaching goals and the willingness of your students. As Leslie Kaminoff says, "Partner yoga can be all of the things people claim it can be. It all comes down to context and consent."