As a yoga instructor, you don't hesitate to offer physical adjustments when one of your students is experiencing pain. But how often do you suggest modifications for students who are uncomfortable with the spiritual atmosphere of your class?
Julia Cato, a yoga student who is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary of New York specializing in interfaith work, says spirituality is an aspect of class that is worth putting under scrutiny. "Yoga is about the unification of mind, body, and spirit," she says. "Your job as a teacher [should be] to create a welcoming environment that allows for that process in each of your students."
But how is it possible to create a harmonious space when students are coming to the mat with roots in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or no spiritual tradition whatsoever?
Reveal Your Intentions
Susan Bordenkircher, a yoga instructor and the author of Yoga for Christians, says it's helpful to address the issue before a student steps foot in the studio.
"One of the most important ways instructors [can] eliminate uncomfortable feelings . . . is to be very honest and upfront with their students about the intention for each class," says Bordenkircher. "That way, students can make an informed decision before attending."
For example, if the primary nature of class is fitness-driven or spiritual, that should be mentioned in the class description, says Bordenkircher, just as you would note a beginning- or advanced-level class.
Know Where You Stand
Creating a welcoming atmosphere also demands an awareness of how your own spiritual convictions impact your teaching style.
"As a teacher, you must be secure in your own beliefs and understand how they interact with your practice," explains Reverend Ann Gillespie, a yoga instructor and associate rector for worship and pastoral care at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Only then can you enable that process in your students.
For Bordenkircher, that meant creating an entirely new series of classes and DVDs called Outstretched in Worship. Soon after she started teaching at her local YMCA, she discovered an unexpected link between yoga and Christianity. "It was enhancing my Christian spirituality," she says, "not taking me away from it."
To help share that experience with other Christians, Bordenkircher began leading classes with a Christ-centered approach at her church. Today she incorporates Bible verses as mantras, mats stamped with crosses, and prayer-focused music into her unique teaching style.
Bridge the Gaps
While Bordenkircher's approach works well for her students, it isn't necessarily appropriate for yoga classes geared toward a secular audience. But you don't have to opt for a neutral class that's devoid of depth.
"There are ways to connect religion and yoga if you choose to," says Gillespie. "But you don't have to."
One of the methods Gillespie has used that enables students to access spirituality in her classes is to simply bring awareness to the breath. "Breath is the [common] bridge between the inner and outer worlds," she says.
Too often, though, first-time students get lost in class routines that are meant to enhance the spiritual atmosphere. Tatiana Forero Puerta, a yoga student at Integral Yoga Institute in New York City, remembers the first time she heard a Sanskrit chant in class. "I remember feeling kind of left out," she says. "It would have been nice to understand what they were saying."
Improve Your Spiritual Sensitivity
Sometimes students will experience uncomfortable feelings in class that are beyond your control. But the following suggestions can help you create an open space where students are free to explore.
- Identify newcomers. Ask if it is anyone's first time to your class. Puerta says she appreciates this question from her instructors just as much as the opportunity to voice concerns about injuries or physical limitations.
- Speak in English. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali advises, "The repetition of Om should be made with an understanding of its meaning" (I.28). Consider offering handouts with Sanskrit and English translations of chants.
- Cultivate an environment of acceptance. Cato recommends displaying a multifaith calendar to mark important religious events from a variety of traditions.
- Provide a way out. Tell students that if at any point they feel uncomfortable, they are welcome to sit quietly or leave class without being judged. "A Jewish student could say a prayer to Yahweh instead of participating in a chant," Cato says.
- Be available after class. Let students know you are free to listen and to address any concerns.
Melissa Garvey is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. You can visit her blog at Yoga Pulse to learn more about her thoughts on yoga and life.