Holding Space: The Yoga Teacher's Roll
Much of my work as a yoga teacher involves the act of holding space. One would think that a yoga teacher would spend more time creating sequences, studying up on poses, anatomy, or other tangibles like that. The way I see it, the bedrock of a yoga class is how well the teacher can hold space for the students. Without that, you have a group fitness class---nothing wrong with that---but not a yoga class. What does "holding space" mean, though?
Coming to a yoga class is different from an exercise class. Yoga means union. The path of yoga is to unify---sun and moon, dark and light, masculine and feminine, body and breath, mind and body, self and Self...to integrate and assimilate the disparate parts of ourselves. You never get it done, and you can't get it wrong. It is a continual process. How do you even teach such a thing? Mostly, you don't "teach" it. You be it.
This is the tricky part of teaching yoga classes. Presence is key. A teacher has to be 100% present in a grounded and centered way. Obviously no one accomplishes this perfectly, but this is what we as teachers are aiming for. Much of this work is done by the teacher off the mat. For me, this preparation involves whatever it takes to feel that union with Source---I try to spend as much time there as possible. Whether that is walking in nature, making art, being with my family or animals, doing asana, meditating...whatever it takes for as long as possible. Whatever it takes to quiet my mind and to reside in that quiet and clear space. That way when I show up for class to teach, I'm prepared. Obviously, I don't live in a bubble. My life can be pretty chaotic with a menagerie of animals and a family. It is this contrast, and how I navigate the contrast, that makes the practice, shall we say....interesting.
Why do people come to a yoga class vs. a gym or instead of just doing yoga on You Tube? They are looking for someone to hold a space for them to engage in this process of practicing this state of union amidst the contrast of life. The one hour class is a structured container for this process to occur. Every part of the class. Every word spoken, action taken, and even casual interaction, is to help the student reach this goal.
While much of holding space is about that intangible "presence" that the teacher needs to cultivate in herself, there are also other more tangible parts. Here are some: The use of language and voice. Speaking in a somewhat slower and more soothing tone of voice than our casual voices helps the students' thoughts to slow down. Leaving lots of silent spaces. Making sure that when we do talk, it is for a reason, not just to fill space. Doing our best to either cushion the sounds and distractions from the external world, or when unavoidable, helping the student to practice with it. Using words that connote positive things to elevate the students minds. I'll say "root into the earth" rather than "plant your feet on the mat" for example. "Float your arms down to your sides" rather than "bring your arms down" etc. Guiding the students minds inward to the internal space, and gently away from the cares of the world. Helping the students to detach from visual and auditory stimuli through closing the eyes and creating an inner focus. This can also be done by guiding the students to feel what is going on inside of the body---from the obvious to the subtle. From the large obvious movements, to the micro movements, to the very subtle flow of energy. From the gross to the subtle layers of being. And most importantly, reminding the students to breathe. Breathe. Find the breath. And breathe some more. Breathe slowly, smoothly, consciously. Feel where the breath goes. Feel it leave the body. Feel the pause in between. Breathe fully and in union with movement. Just breathe.
And finally, there is asana. The choice of the poses---which poses to focus on and which to leave out. I prefer grounding poses done in a slow and fluid way. I do provide challenge to students, but this isn't my focus. I learned that growing in yoga comes through reducing intensity with more experience in the practice. Reducing the intensity allows you to relax and better perceive how to guide your practice to produce a genuine sense of peace.
I do give a lot of options in my classes. People can chill-ax in child's pose or flow through "vinyasas." They can work on a simpler pose, or I'll help them with an arm balance--- once in awhile. If they already have a headstand or handstand practice, they are free to do it during the inversion period of class. But mostly, people do easier inversions like supported shoulder stand or supported bridge pose. I don't teach headstand or handstand in group classes. And due to my vertigo issues, I don't even practice them myself anymore. The most important thing about asana in my class is to keep the focus on the internal. Even all of the alignment cues I give---those are there to help the student know how to be in the pose safely, but more important, they are there to get the student out of the monkey mind and into the body. They are there to get you out of that "divided" state of being where your mind is racing one way, and your body is doing another thing, and into union. Into yoga.
Different teachers have different styles, but I believe at the core of it all is the very important act of working on ourselves primarily. Of living the union we are teaching. And from that centered and grounded place, holding the space for students to work on the same.