I taught my first kid’s yoga class last week, at the school where my mom works. “Just around 30 kids, Julie,” she said. “Grade 7. They can’t wait to meet you. You’ll love it.” I have never taught yoga to kids before, and I wasn’t sure I would love it, but I owe my mom a few favors, so I agreed.
Along with the Grade 7 teacher and 30-some kids, I filed into the gymnasium where I was greeted by a huge floor and small dusty blue mats. The kids immediately started shouting that they wanted to do handstands and “Pink Flamingo” pose, which I pretended to have heard of.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own authority, and with 30 rambunctious kids looking at me, I needed to find it fast—before they literally started climbing the walls. Thomas Moore, in his recent column, writes:
“The word author comes from the Latin for ‘increasing’ or ‘growing.’ An author creates something new. In the best of worlds we are each the author of our own lives. But it often feels as though someone in a position of authority is taking over the task and writing our story for us.”
Authority has a negative connotation in our culture, partly because everything we do is structured on hierarchies. Everyone’s got a boss, whether it’s your literal boss, your partner, your school principal (or your kids’ school principal), or, if you own your own business like I do, everyone is your boss. Many of us never feel like the ones with power.
Appropriate boundaries and leadership, though, are vital. Authority doesn’t have to mean dictatorship. Boundaries are helpful for us like they are for a river: without banks, the river would be a puddle.
I grew up with a dad and brother who were excellent at arguing intellectual points, and I sometimes joke that I got a masters degree for the sole purpose of coming home and winning an argument with them over the dinner table. I did come back with more information, but I also learned something about how to hold myself up when I felt like I wasn’t being heard.
Now, I am in a position of authority in several ways: I am a yoga teacher, yoga studio owner, and a workshop facilitator. Even when I am performing poetry on stage, for those few minutes, the energy of the room is in my hands, and I can either hold it or drop it; people will either listen or they won’t. I also still argue with my dad and brother, though it’s much more fun now that I occasionally win.
Possibly the most important thing I’ve had to learn is that I have a right to speak my mind and to make my own decisions. I’ve learned that power comes from my body first, whether I am facing a difficult conversation or 30 kids who want to do handstands and Pink Flamingoes.
A simple trick to finding that inner authority, especially if you are nervous, is to lift your pelvic floor. This automatically lifts your chest and give your voice a little extra boom (as I told a fellow poet once before she went up to perform on a big stage: Speak from your vagina!). Avoid excess movements of your hands and especially your feet, which leak energy like a creek sneaking away from your river. Grounded feet help you listen while staying connected to what you want to say, rather than carrying you off into the other ideas (handstands!) happening in the room.
After I had instructed the kids into savasana, I walked around the circle with my hands behind my back like a prison guard. I noticed two boys whispering to each other, so I went and stood near them with my pelvic floor and chest lifted. It wasn’t that I was trying to punish them: I wanted them to have a chance to shut up and experience what may be the most vulnerable pose in yoga: savasana. My authority created the safe container for them to have an experience of their own bodies.
Authority has meant cruelty and dictatorship, but it can also mean the keeping of sacred boundaries. We do need leaders, and sometimes that leader is you. So the next time you are trying to lead 30 kids through a yoga class for the first time, or having a conversation where you are not feeling heard, ground into your feet, lift your pelvic floor and chest, wait, and then speak your mind. You may discover your own authority was lying in wait all the time, and your conversation is about to get a lot more interesting.