Community Yoga: guidelines for supporting students through change and challenges
It’s a great privilege to hold a space of respite for those in crisis in our communities in these times of such change and challenge. Our lifestyle, kriyas and meditations offer a wide range of tools for exactly this. Yet, it can feel like a daunting task, best left to the expert – after all, us humans are fragile as much as we are strong: we don’t want to bash in where angels would fear to tread. Yet there is much we can give even from the beginning, and it would be sad to not do so. Don’t underestimate your presence, your ability to listen, to tune in and simply hold a space that is welcoming and inclusive. It is so needed. There are many wandering this Earth lost and forgotten right now, who will be so privileged to meet your light, which in turn can do the simple job of reflecting their own light back at them. In this way, humbling, knowing that what is held comes from the divinity which is greater than us, but invites us to play our part nonetheless.
As you know, your KRI Level One Teacher Training trained you to teach those with a reasonable level of health. Yoga Therapy training is one of the next steps to explore if you feel inspired to skillfully work with students through more specific conditions. This more specialized path gives you further techniques to work with Kundalini Yoga as a healing modality. That being said, all kinds of students come to general classes, with different levels of physical and mental health. These few guidelines are offered here as an introduction to a vast modality. My prayer is that it will give you a few more basic parameters to explore as well as some sensitivity to knowing when you have reached the limits of your qualification. It is also necessary to remind a student with a medical condition to work with their doctor as well as other appropriate specialists. You are not responsible for their overall healthcare management, they are.
Before a Session
Your morning practice is already preparing you to hold the space. Then, what a difference it makes to arrive without rushing, to give time to sense the shift in atmosphere between home and where you’re going. It will give you time to tune in and a pre-sense of what is needed for the session to come.
Tune In: the Magic of Adi Mantra
Our lineage is one of Guru Ram Das, of making the impossible possible. Yet, we don’t have to “do” the miracle or know how they will express themselves. It is already a life changing victory for many to attend one class of yoga each week.
We are souls having a human experience, not pathologies. Let’s remember to talk to and from our divinity not only focusing on what is wrong with us.
It is natural that students, feeling refreshed and relaxed from an experience in your class may feel that you are just the right person to confide in about things that are troubling them. Be careful about what you’re getting yourself into. We are yoga teachers, and not necessarily trained therapists or counselors. In the first instance, simply encourage a new attendee to return to class. And if you feel drawn to offering some level of yogic counseling, then receiving training and supervision for this role is appropriate.
Crying can be a normal cleansing process. It’s not necessarily about anything other than that, like sweat, going to the toilet and tears. Sometimes in a Kriya there is crying. So rather than drawing undue attention to it, encourage students to breathe through any sensations arising and not add unnecessary story to it. It’s not our job to dash over with a tissue box – real or metaphorically. Naturally, this is different from an experience of repeated or regular episodes that require further self-reflections.
Another area of caution is regards nutritional advice. Don’t encourage students to do extreme practices that they may not be ready for. What works for a beginner student or someone in crisis may be very different to what is working for you. Be careful about universalising. A gentle cleanse, such as including more greens in the diet and seeking out healthier sweet substitutes for white sugar is a great place to start. The general rule is not to just take a “bad” habit away, but replace them with a more uplifting practice which is non the less doable. Again, if you feel drawn to share tips in this field, then take it as an opportunity to embark on ayurvedic nutrition training.
Avoid using words like “just breathe” or “just relax” instead share tools and techniques that are enabling. If a student could “just… anything”, they would. Avoid long silences if someone is in distress. Your words are there to guide them to learning alternatives to negative self-talk.
Some may come to class super enthusiastic and wanting a lot of your time and energy and then they will be gone again shortly afterwards. Bless students by offering space for them to settle in without jumping to make too many suggestions right from the start.
Equally we are here to be of service. We live in a world where many are hypnotised to believe they “don’t have enough time”. Is it not one of the most healing experiences when someone truly makes time to be with you without rushing off and away?
Sometimes your caring instinct can also go overboard. Encourage self-initiation and pro-activity by using a useful rule: if a student can do something for themselves, then this is enabling and empowering. Share tools and offer space for practice, then step back. If you find you’re filling all your time with other people, make sure you schedule in time for yourself too.
Your personal experience
It may feel tempting to commiserate and share tales of similar troubles when students discuss problems. It would be wise to tune into when and where and what is appropriate to share, with the intention of this being of service to the student and not for your own relief and release. Please make sure you give yourself time and space for this outside of class.
When to say no
It’s ok to say no to certain behaviour(s), but make clear you are not saying rejecting the person. This may mean that you say “today (name) it’s looking like it’s best to go home and rest, but we look forward to sharing with you again next week if you are able to not drink before class”. Yet do be aware of how this is done without focusing public attention on one person. It is easy for us humans to feel singled out unduly.
Be careful about how you give out your phone number and what the expectations are. Be respectful of the limitations of what you are able to offer and when. Ask yourself whether it really serves a student to have you on tap or put in the effort to see you the following week in class. It builds their coping muscles to work through issues for themselves.
Build your checklist of contra-indications
Don’t assume that students will have the body awareness of what they can manage, especially if they are unwell. For example, choose a Kriya that is appropriate for the setting. If participants are mainly chair bound, it naturally follows you wouldn’t pick a set that is too aerobic and that involves mainly standing postures.
It’s essential to building an understanding of possible contra-indications to a variety of conditions.
No Breath of Fire, Rebirthing Kriyas, extreme/ complex/ advanced Pranayama with a group that you don’t yet know well or with someone who is fragile. These practices are stimulating of the Kundalini and so can be too much for someone with a weakened nervous system or who is on medication for a physical or psychiatric condition. Do remind students to take responsibility for their health by checking in with their doctor as to how much physical exercise is wise for them.
Miracle bend and some inversions may be a no-go for high or low blood pressure. Make sure someone can steady themselves if they get dizzy or just rest that posture out, focusing on the breath with visualizations.
No pressure or strain on the belly during pregnancy, nor balancing or inversions (especially for beginner students who don’t know their body well).
Stretch pose, or any pose lying on the stomach, such as bow pose can be an issue. You can ask yourself: When would pressure on the navel point be a problem? What helps high and low blood pressure? What doesn’t? No-go’s for pregnancy? For acute back injury and pain? What is great for menopause? Women’s monthly cycles? What is calming? What is energizing? What is appropriate for beginners? Intermediate and advanced students? Some of these are essential for us all to know, others may become your particular area of interest.
Vigor and Vitality
At the same time you don’t want your classes to become so risk averse that nobody is breaking into a sweat or pushing their limits. It’s our job as Teachers to encourage students to safely and realistically extend themselves into their potential. And yes, there is a fine art to getting the balance between excursion and not overdoing it right.
There is always going to be a variety of students in your class. Watch how easy it is to give excessive time to some whose needs shout loudest and not to others who are quieter or may not be as likeable to our personal preferences too.
At times a student may become upset, reactive, frustrated and accuse you of all manner of things. We hold a neutral space that is nonetheless sensitive and heartful. Consider the other’s dignity and integrity as well as your own, whether or not they are doing so for themselves. Behind an angry outburst, there is a gift, especially, at the least, for us to model not adding fire to it.
Some classes can be interrupted frequently especially in a hospital or rehab setting. You provide the continuity. Tune in. Warm up, Kriya, relaxation, meditation and closure. Keep the session flowing. Invite reflections for the end of class and any disruptions to be taken outside.
You are not there to meet someone’s unrealistic fantasies or expectations of what a yoga teacher will be for them. You don’t have to answer, be the answer or know the answer to every or any question a student may ask. If a student is enthusiastically throwing a multitude of questions at you or asks you something that you feel is not for that moment, or that class, you can simply say something like “That sounds like a question for further self-reflection. It is also a bit of a different topic than the focus for our session today. How about some research around the subject this week. See what this gives you. We can look at it further after class one day.
Prescription drugs and drugs in general
It is not our place to support or encourage a student to stop or start medication or necessarily even discuss such matters with them in a general class setting. Yet it is necessary to be clear that recreational drugs and alcohol don’t mix with the practice. If someone is under the influence it is not appropriate that they join class until it is out of their system.
It’s rarely a problem for someone to join a sadhana or a class just lying down or in a chair. This is quite different from “I will just watch” which would not be appropriate for the rest of the class.
As with other areas of expertise, learn from those who have some skill in this fine art before you share it. The Gong is not appropriate for those with already compromised, weak or still establishing nervous systems and wobbly magnetic fields such as someone in extreme crisis, young children or pregnant women.
Endings and transitions
Be attentive to the time you give to each part of the session so that there is sufficient for relaxation and endings and transitions back into the “outside” world. Homework is a way for a student to build their home practice. Give details of where they can find the Kriyas and meditations they did in your class and perhaps offer a few 1 – 3 minute possibilities for beginners to explore further at home. Remind students to receive and release a long deep breath with Sat on the in and Naam on the out each time their mind say “I don’t have time for yoga”.
Give time for yourself after class.
There is a point where the class is over. Breathe in and breathe out and let go of students’ wants and needs. These are not “your students”. They are students. It is our job to offer what we are able and then move on. You will develop your own ritual, such as splashing your face and hands with water and going for a walk, to move on to the rest of your day.
Pre-forgiveness for yourself and others.
Re-align and risk forgiving yourself if you feel there is a way you could have delivered the class better. Instead of beating your self up over what you should have done differently, use your energy to take note of how to shift the session to make it even better next time.
Ongoing learning in Sangat with your Teacher(s).
One way you do this is by giving regular time for your own ongoing practice. Just as you offer a space for others to do their work, ensure you give yourself the same opportunity. Keep learning about your own mind, body and spirit through your own ongoing training. This will inevitably benefit your students too.
May these few pointers serve you in some way to serve the community around you. Remember that community yoga is not just a class but being part of building community. It may be that you feel drawn to helping out in a local garden project or homeless shelter with cooking and cleaning or any other of your skills. This volunteering, this seva, is also part of our yoga practice.
May the long time sun shine upon you and all love surround you. May the pure light within you guide your way on.
Jagat Joti Kaur