September 3, 2020

The COVID Yoga Teaching Style that should really Stick Around.

This is a story about coming back.

When the shelter-in-place order hit in response to COVID-19, I, like my colleagues, took my teaching online.

I kicked myself for not having maintained a stronger email list and social media presence. I had always vowed to not become one of “those teachers” who sells their offerings at the end of every class and is constantly posting pictures of themselves performing advanced yoga poses haloed by light atop massive crags jutting up from the ocean.

But I took my paltry, half-assed email list, and sent out an invitation to gather online and practice.

Becca responded.

“Who are you, and how did you get my email?”

So that’s what I get for not maintaining our relationship with a newsletter or some such.

I loved her response. It said in no uncertain terms, “This is my email account, my space, and you should have a good reason for contacting me here.”  She could have simply deleted the email, but this gave me a chance to reintroduce myself; we reconnected and smiled and laughed.

I was so happy that Becca came back to practice.

In my experience teaching Becca, I had noticed that there were several poses and transitions that did not work well for her; she consistently spoke up and asked questions.

Becca challenged me to find ways to adapt the physical practice to be accessible and useful.

As a teacher, I am deeply fulfilled by this sort of dialogue. It breaks my heart when I hear people say that yoga isn’t for them because they are not flexible, or that they tried a class and hurt themselves.

The beautiful thing about yoga is that it lives and breathes with us in the same way that a relationship between two individuals becomes its own entity. I view yoga in the same way. It grows and adapts with us as we engage in the practice.

But just like any relationship, both parties must commit to understanding and supporting the other to grow.

This is what Becca did. She came back to class over and over, dedicating her time and effort to yoga. She consistently inquired further into how the practice could serve her.

I try not to politicize my yoga. I do feel it’s important to have an opinion and take a stand for what you believe in. But in the arena of politics, I often feel woefully uninformed, and so prefer to listen rather than speak. I try not to push my opinion or try to change the beliefs of my students, but I do speak to the emotion that I witness playing out before and inside of me.

Rather than cringe from the shadow, I prefer to acknowledge pain, death, and suffering—the things we’d often rather ignore because they can be so uncomfortable.

When we look into the face of our own fears and doubts and allow ourselves to see the hidden patterns and habits which drive so much of our decision-making moment to moment, we stand a chance of pausing and making a new choice based on intention.

About two months into quarantine in a yoga class with Becca, we had moved into a sequence of holding poses for longer periods to build stamina and resilience. I was speaking to the challenges I was encountering in my own heart and what I was witnessing in my students’ faces and movements. I do not demonstrate as a teacher in class, rather I observe my students so that I can respond to what is happening within them and hold a space of healing.

I saw Becca approach her computer, and she turned off her video feed. Immediately, I knew something was going on. A moment later I got a private chat message from her: “I haven’t cried since this whole thing started and everything is coming up right now and I need to go.”

My heart swelled for her. I knew that feeling of everything falling apart at once. I wanted to stop everything and call her on the phone. But I knew it was not my job to fix anything for her. Also, there was a class full of students who I could not abandon. I messaged her back: “I would like it very much if you came back. even if it’s just to hold child’s pose for the rest of the class.”

A short time later, her video feed turned back on. She rejoined the class and finished practice. I could not have been prouder that she found the strength to come back to the mat. I felt so connected with her in that moment.

I know how much courage and strength it can take to let ourselves cry. To bring the tears and the pain and the emotion to the mat and let it move through your body as you move through the poses. It’s messy. Maybe we’d rather the world around us see us as strong and capable and invincible. Or maybe the tears feel overwhelming—like they’ll never stop. This is deep somatic work. This is what yoga is here for!

Even if we are not aware of it, we hold trauma and emotion in our bodies, and yoga can bring it up to the surface as we breathe and move our bodies to release that pain and trauma. In those moments of vulnerability, it is tempting to run away and to turn to our vices and numb out. Yoga invites us to turn toward the difficulty, to inquire: Why am having this experience? How am I reacting? Is this who I want to be? How can I show up more fully and authentically for myself, my tribe, my family, my community?

Becca and I shared an amazing moment of connection because she had the courage to come back.

It was a moment I might have missed were I not devoting my attention to the screen and my students.

This is why I love teaching in a style where I observe my classes and interact directly with students.

I sincerely hope this style catches on during these times of deep change and shift in the world, and as it is my hope that more teachers choose to observe their students rather than demonstrate. It raises students’ accountability to know that someone is witnessing their actions. It allows teachers to be aware of their students, respond to what is actually happening in their breath and bodies, and offer individual attention.

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