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Teaching Through Tough Times – Yoga and Grief

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Amy Ippoliti, a senior certified Anusara Yoga teacher based in Boulder, Colorado, felt vulnerable and fragile as she attempted to pull herself together to teach in New York City following September 11, 2001.

“Despite my own grief, I tried to acknowledge the pain everyone felt and uplift them in the face of such madness,” she says.

At the end of the day when she returned to her apartment, Ippoliti would fall onto the floor and cry. The experience helped her learn to integrate grieving with teaching. “The more I experience the full spectrum of life, the easier it gets to hold the polarity of despair along with the ecstatic moments,” she says.

See also A Stress Busting Sequence

Whether it’s the experience of a death, divorce, or health complication, everyone has to deal with a crisis at sometime. There’s no way a yoga teacher can escape the challenge of teaching during difficult times. How can you use your suffering to fuel your teachings? How can your own life challenges inspire your students to face theirs? And is it ever appropriate to throw your hands up, step out of your role as a teacher, and just take care of yourself?

Life Happens

Personal challenges brought Kalimaya Girasek, a Kripalu Yoga teacher based in Florida, to the yoga mat first as a student and later as a teacher. As a result of surgery, Girasek had suffered a stroke, and, in turn, multiple physical difficulties. In addition, she broke her leg twice within two years. She has also struggled with bouts of depression and the inevitable forces of aging.

Nevertheless, her desire to teach continues. “I teach others that yoga is a way to live,” she says. “We use the yoga mat to practice on and take our thoughts and beliefs into the world so that we may touch others.”

For some, hardship is not a sporadic event but a way of life. This is the case for Matthew Sanford, a yoga teacher and founder of the nonprofit Mind Body Solutions, author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, and paraplegic as the result of a car accident 29 years ago. Paralyzed from the chest down, Sanford teaches weekly classes to both “abled” and disabled students.

No stranger to pain, Sanford has learned how to manage it skillfully, both in his life and in his teachings.

“When I’m in pain, I emphasize the nourishing aspects of the poses rather than the challenges that they present,” says Sanford. “A balanced, nourishing response to pain is something everyone needs to practice.”

In addition to the challenges of his paralysis, Sanford has faced the loss in utero of one of his twin sons. “For me, personal hardship has led me to step more deeply into my life’s work,” he says.

When we open up to view difficulty as the keystone for transformation, we allow every experience in our lives to be an opportunity to practice and experience yoga.

Challenge as Opportunity

“Yoga actually is the process of skillfully turning challenges, failures, hurts, and mistakes into opportunities,” Ippoliti says. “As bad as it was is how good it can be.”.

Ippoliti has felt that in times of sadness, she was in such pain in order to gain insight into how to soothe someone else in need.

“The challenges I lived through fuel my fire to teach others to apply yoga to their lives. I let each of the betrayals, the hurts, the losses, and the crimes light me on fire, and then I set every yoga mat in the room on fire.”

Weave Your Challenges into Your Teaching

Once you have been able to see the lesson in your challenge, you can begin to integrate these lessons into your classes.

For Girasek, this means encouraging each student to meet his or her own needs and to acknowledge the perfection of their present experience.

She speaks openly of her circumstances, limitations, and the modifications that she needs in order to experience her body and mind fully. This inspires her students to share their own needs either with the class, if they feel comfortable, or silently to themselves.

“I bring forth my disabilities as a tool to move forward, to experiment, to develop creative solutions, and to develop strength and power,” Girasek says. Sometimes this means using the wall to demonstrate balancing poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose) or having a partner help her up into Sirsasana (Headstand).

Weaving the lessons you have learned from your struggles into a class theme can also help create a sense of community in your class. Ippoliti finds this to be particularly effective.

“Sharing how I am using yoga to get through a crisis has helped me teach with more passion, spirit, and vigor,” she says, “and this has been far more compelling than hiding or trying to merely cover up what is really going on.”

Maintain Boundaries and Ask for Help

While sharing your humanity through the stories of your struggles can connect you with your students, there is a fine line between sharing just enough and sharing too much.

Sanford believes it is only appropriate to share brief glimpses into his personal life, as he wants his students to focus on their yoga, not on his private details.

“When I do share,” he says, “I emphasize the stabilizing role that yoga can play when one is living through difficulty. I share the way that yoga helps me through adversity in hopes that they might find similar strength.”

In general, share only after you have reached some objective clarity and awareness of your struggle. “Otherwise, you are sharing something you have not figured out how to cope with yet, and the students will naturally want to help, take care of you, and offer solutions,” Ippoliti says. “This crosses a boundary.”

When you are still finding ways to cope, remember to reach out to friends, colleagues, teachers, or mentors for support and guidance. Just because you are a teacher and a role model doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for help from others. Don’t be afraid to reveal your own uncertainty and vulnerability during dark times.

Sanford learned to ask for help through trial and error.

“When I began teaching yoga, the ego’s desire to perform well and the fear of my physical disabilities and limitations caused me to teach from a place of uncertainty and unsteadiness,” he says. “I have come to accept the fear I experience when I need to ask others for assistance.”

Take Refuge

In addition to seeking help from others, remember to take refuge in your practice. For some this could mean becoming more devoted to your time on the mat or meditation cushion. For others, it could mean taking some time off from your practice, and possibly your teaching, in order to recover.

“My advice to teachers undergoing challenges is to trust their practice and remember that it is sacred and cannot be touched by events of their lives,” says Sanford.

However, if you determine that what you need is to take a rest, trust that and don’t beat yourself up for it.

“Interruptions to one’s practice or teaching are not necessarily bad things,” assures Sanford. “They are opportunities to realize that yoga never leaves you. Yoga waits. Returning from a hiatus also allows you to start fresh, to revisit old ground and discover new things. Often it has been briefly starting over that has made me love yoga all the more.”

Tips for Teaching During Tough Times

In the face of trauma, even the most seasoned teachers can feel unsure of how to move forward. Ippoliti offers the followingtips to keep in mind while teaching during your most difficult times:

  • If you have lost a loved one, dedicate the class to their specific virtues and acknowledge how every life leaves blessings behind for us all to bathe in. Use the opportunity to explore the idea of living fully now and guide students to consider the powerful legacy they might also want to leave behind.
  • If you have been betrayed, consider how yoga philosophy and deeper self-awareness could have been applied to prevent the betrayal, and teach your class the virtues of truth, friendship, integrity, and making life-affirming choices.
  • If you are going through a crisis, teach that the only constant in life is change, and that from crisis always comes opportunity.
  • Take time in private to cry, grieve, and feel your experience fully.
  • Make very sure you have an outlet for anger, disappointment, and hurt so that your students never have to be your therapists. Reach out to peers, counselors, and your teachers for support.

Throughout, no matter how you are feeling inside, resist wishing your experience away. Trust that by feeling it deeply and sharing it honestly with others greater openness, happiness, and freedom await you. When this happens, there is no division between practicing yoga and living your life.

“Yoga and life cannot be separated—they exist simultaneously,” Sanford says. “Teaching and practicing through difficult times is part of grounding this realization.”

Sara Avant Stover is a freelance writer and yoga instructor based in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches both locally and internationally, through both blissful and tough times. Visit her website