Attending a yoga class is a fundamentally vulnerable thing to do.
I think about my body a lot; not only as a yoga teacher, but also as a woman. As I have expressed on this blog before, I think yoga is a potentially revolutionary practice because it gives you back something that people have been trying to tell you doesn’t belong to you for way too long: your body.
My body and I spent a long time living as enemies. I ignored her, I mistreated her, I filled her with toxins, I gave her away, I starved her so she’d get so small I thought she’d disappear.
The physical awareness of yoga, among many other things, helped me see the way I was treating myself and begin getting to know myself better. I realized that there is no “me” separate from my body—we are one and the same.
I thought about this when I was walking down the street with my earphones in (listening to Eric Stoneberg, of course) and a guy with a clipboard yelled to me, “Come on, unplug and talk to me!”
It occurred to me that this person has no idea what it’s like to walk around in a woman’s body. I wear sunglasses and earphones and bring reading material on buses because, yes, I admit it, I am trying to avoid being harassed by strangers. It only sometimes works. As a woman, I have deep layers of built-in fear of rape and sexual assault. It’s just true. Regardless of the statistical chance that this could actually happen, whether to me or to the guy telling me to “unplug,” that fear is a fundamental part of walking my body in public, and though I can’t speak for him, it’s probably not a fundamental part of him walking his.
Regardless of gender, many of us live with memories of trauma, violation, and/or the imprint of a culture that tells us our bodies are not our own. With all that fear inside, thinking about walking into a room where bendy, scantily clad young women are sweating and getting hands-on attention from a single authority figure could look less like a healing space and more like a minefield.
When a teacher is sensitive and able to create a safe space for the students, yoga classes can be incredibly healing. Sometimes, thought, you end up in a “boot-camp” environment where anyone who is not keeping up is pointed out and forced to keep going, sometimes to the point of injury. Some teachers point out every mistake a beginner is making, adjusting him or her every five seconds, making that student think “I was right! I’m terrible at yoga. I never should have come here.” I once had a teacher who asked everyone to choose a person to dedicate their practice to, and then forced us to tell the group who it was and why. I absolutely hate it when classes include those touchy-feely moments where you have to look everyone in the eye and tell them what kind of pie you could be if you could be a pie. It’s just getting up in my private business. It’s a secret what kind of pie I would want to be, okay?
Sometimes I need an intimate yoga practice: just me, myself, and I. I want to be in the space the teacher holds, process my emotions through my body, feel feelings, and conjure up an image of a safe little bubble that is just impossible to manufacture when I am on the street wishing I were invisible to people with clipboards telling me I need to “unplug.”
Yoga teachers, I think, must acknowledge what delicate surgery they are performing. Creating a space where someone can have an intimate experience of their body is really challenging. Compassionate, consensual touch can be an very powerful healing tool, but if the student doesn’t feel safe, it can trigger a cascade of trauma memories. The ability to open up in a yoga class requires some strong boundaries, and the yoga teachers are the guardians of those boundaries.
Whether you can see it or not, everyone’s got pain, and as yoga teachers, it’s our responsibility to acknowledge the courage it takes to show up, and to hold space for our students and ourselves. Then we can all heal on our own terms.