The Psychologically Sound Yoga Classroom Part 3: Safety and Choice.

As we enter this year, let's pick up the thread we had started at the end of 2017, exploring the 12 Principles of the Psychologically Sound Yoga Classroom. 

I ask you consider Safety and Choice as fundamental features to your classes if they are to be "Psychologically Sound". 

Here is why. 

You really can't do much else, learn or engage in a challenge, let alone relax if you do not feel safe. Our brains are wired to assess safety in any given situation and experience. If we deem a lack of safety either consciously or unconsciously, the need for safety remains paramount and forces us to enact defenses to create a sense of safety even if temporary. Even after an event has passed, It can leave the nervous system stuck in patterns of hyper or hypo arousal.

Both a sense of safety and actual safety are foundational to facilitating our basic needs and therefore any other task. If you are on high-alert internally or externally, it is difficult to focus, directions may seem confusing, things can become overwhelming more quickly. 

We live in a world that seems increasingly unsafe in many ways. Some people coming to practice yoga have not had places of safety in their lives. Or are in current situations that are tugging at ties of safety. Some of you as teachers have had to find solace and sanctuary. some of you are learning how to repattern your own nervous systems and find solid ground within. Some of you are teaching in places and situations where the students have zero safety or where there is obvious lack of safety in the environment. 

If you want your students to learn and grow--if you want to learn and grow-- Safety is needed to do so.

I am not talking about creating a utopian environment for your students where they are safe from all triggers and harm. That is impossible and will drive you nuts. In fact, this attitude has in some ways become a shadow within the trauma-sensitive call to action for yoga teachers. Being trauma-sensitive and aware in your classes has in some ways become a drive to protect our students at all costs and often the cost is ourselves. A feeling of entrapment and fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. What I am suggesting is that trauma sensitivity is not the creation of utopian, triggerless environments without mistakes. But rather, an environment where the majority of basic concerns are met and when arousal and triggers occur they are faced, dealt with and repaired as best as possible.

Those of you who are parents know that there is a longing to protect your children from all of life's harms. But you also know that learning to fall and get up builds grit, resilience, and grace. So that is my call to action--to create a safe environment to fall and fail. To get ruffled and find center again. That's training for real life.

So Safety as a "Psychologically Sound" teaching principle is about creating a contained and boundaried environment for experimentation and sometimes repair. 

Safety ranges from the most basic elements, like are the props at risk of falling over on a student's head, and is the floor safe to walk on barefoot? To more broad cultural pieces like an election, world event, natural disaster etc. Safety can be alerting students to protocols and norms so they can be more at ease in the space and group. Safety can be creating a sanctuary in a concrete mess.

Safety also includes a mindset on your part that your students come from different situations and their lives are dynamic and thus the experience of safety can rise and fall. 

The practices of yoga and meditation are intended to provide a sense of inner safety in an ever-changing world. Though we can't change world events once they occur. Though we live in times of great uncertainty (and I believe every generation faces its iteration of this). Though we can't change events of the past that left marks of trauma within, we can reconstruct our relationship to these events and feelings through cultivating a sense of inner resource, ground, and belonging.

As yoga teachers, we have a distinct advantage in reminding and facilitating the direct experience of inner safety. Helping students return to the pulse of their heartbeat and the rise and fall of their breath. Facilitating an inner inquiry into pleasure, power, impulse, strength and rest. Encouraging students to find their own limits and praising not just those who go to the edge but those who stay really contained and close to their center. Providing a place to come and laugh and cry, to be shy and boisterous. 

All of these facilitate Safety. 

Once we have the basic spatial and environmental safety pieces in place we can venture into the land of cultivating inner safety more consistently. Here are some considerations.  

Be clear in your directions. Tell your students the "why" of directions. And give them pros and cons. Be clear about your own biases and opinions.

Contained, boundaried and clear environments yield healthy pressure to against which to push, experiment and make choices to gain feedback.

 Provide and privilege Choice. 

The last one is critical friends. Choice is what gets ripped away from you when you experience trauma. And thus Choice is a huge mitigating factor in healing trauma. Choice is also critical to becoming more skillful as an adult. When too many options are presented it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. And when no choices are given, unnecessary force and power-over come into play in the classroom. 

Being clear and direct does not negate your opportunity to provide and lead with Choice as paramount.

I have seen teachers lead in a way that is bossy, overpowering and fosters situations where students feel like they must obey, do not have a choice, or can't access their healthy no. I have also seen teachers lead in very direct ways within a context that everything happening in the room is a choice. There is a deep encouragement and fostering of the felt experience of healthy willpower and right use of Yes and No. 

I try to do the latter. I encourage you all to as well. 

You see, Safety and Choice go hand in hand. Healthy directives and boundaries can yield the ability to make decisions that are right for each of us. Even if it is not the same choice someone else would have made. It fosters independence and differentiation. 

I am not suggesting you allow your students to do anything they want. It is not a free for all. In fact, if you did allow that, I would wager that sense of safety would go down in your class. When you cultivate safety through clarity, boundaries, understanding, and warmth you can provide the whole class as a choice. They did choose to show up after all. 

I encourage you all to look at all the ways you can provide Choice in your classes, especially if the ask is at all triggering. For example, for more advanced poses, give options. Experiment with invitational language and direct language, tracking the impact it has. Ask students to commit to their own presence and inner inquiry. Stop taking it personally if someone does not do your direction. 

Also, do a safety assessment. Scan the environment in which you teach. Assess your cultural climate. Inquire about what's happening in the neighborhood.

The Psychologically Sound Yoga Classroom is infused with a sense of Safety and provides access to Choice. We all need those in our lives for health and balance. 

To all the good work we can do for eachother....
Onward my friends.

Unconditional Positive Regard.

Most of my life I believed I was bad at math. I excelled at things like art and creative projects. I excelled at discussion and writing of ideas. I made people laugh. But math, no math was not for me. Algebra was confusing and I could never understand why if Nancy has 8 apples on the train leaving at 9am, and Susie has 4 pears in the car leaving at 10am and running adjacent to the train, how they were to magically have a pound of blueberries to give to Carl at the bus stop at 6pm. and what was the qoutiant I was finding again? 

Teaching me math must have been deeply frustrating for my teachers. The amount of patience and understanding they had to have just for me to earn a C was immense. But somewhere in the space created between my challenge in understanding and their frustration in teaching, they stopped seeing me as who I was and became focused on the task. I learned I must be bad and stupid if I couldn't do the math. I can't tell you how many times I came home crying or feeling totally ashamed that I couldn't do the thing they were asking. I even had one teacher tell me I was stupid at math. And my parents paid top dollar for that education. 

Now, as luck would have it I got a math teacher in high school who, to this day, is one of the best teachers of any subject matter I have ever had. What makes her special is that she was able to sit in the frustration and fury with me as I painfully made my attempts to learn math at the high school level. She sat with me for hours after school some days and helped me understand my own problem-solving skills and where the errors were. She never saw my worth connected to the outcomes of class. She always maintained her presence with the young girl across from her. I'm sure she got frustrated, but I never felt stupid learning from her. She managed to maintain what we call Unconditional Positive Regard with me, and as a result, I actually learned and grew. Her teachings have made a lasting impact two decades later. 

It may sound rather obvious, but one of the most Psychologically Sound ways you can build and teach your classes is to provide your students with reverence and respect. One of the most healing things you can do is hold a space of what we call Unconditional Positive Regard. Without this lens, a lot falls flat and you can become embroiled in unconscious games and patterns of will. 

Unconditional Positive Regard is a concept in clinical work referencing the way the clinician respects and honors both their client and themselves. It is this positive regard for the Other that potentiates relational healing and healing around one's sense of self and being.

Ultimately it is the fertile soil for growth, development and any healing. It is the essential space we all long to gestate in, be birthed through, and the arms of holding and nourishment that lends all the rest. As children and young adults, we encounter an unsavory and unfair world and we learn that not all spaces are safe. We learn to feel the disdain of others and sadly, set up barriers to prevent that pain. We also lose sight of the goodness in others especially as we face our adulthood, raise our families, do our work and look at the realities of the Other part of our countries party lines. 

Now, don't misconstrue this. This perspective doesn't condone evil actions of any kind, and it doesn't demand idiot-compassion and forgiveness. 

It actually asks us to see how disappointed we can be in another person's behavior and the harsh reckoning and in some cases irreconcilable differences that emerge when abuse and love get entangled. Sometimes, in holding our selves in Unconditional Positive Regard we gather the resources and courage to leave the abusive relationship or family. Or to say, "No, not this." Or to start over. Or to forgive the other person so that we can be set free from the bondage of resentment. 

But I wax poetic here, let me return to the classroom.

When you are held in the context Unconditional Positive Regard, your personhood is distinct from your actions. You can be deeply good and have made mistakes. You can have intrinsic worth and be messy. So, Unconditional Positive Regard is a perspective that aks the person in the seat of teacher/leader to hold those in their classes and under their tutelage with a kind of Light and reverence. The students or clients goodness is not attached to if you are annoyed by them. They are entitled to respect, reverence and the benefit of the doubt. Even if they do not do what you say in class. Even if they look angry or bored. Even if they seem confused.

Practically speaking, what Unconditional Positive Regard means for you and your students is that you honor where they are in the moment. You surrender the need to fix them or heal them. Positive regard means believing in someones potential and respecting their past so you can honor and accept their present. You are no longer the expert over them, but a person in relation to them that helps new experiences and learning emerge. You are fostering the context for learning to happen not through demands of facts, but through the presence of personhood.

Committing to hold students under the light of Unconditional Positive Regard is also a commitment to inclusion. When we offer this kind of high regard, we are taking the risk to look at our unconscious biases of race, gender, orientation, size, age, political views etc.. I might even go so far as to suggest that practicing Unconditional Positive Regard for self and Other as you work through these biases in practice, might be a deep skill set to building inclusivity.

Furthermore, when we attempt to hold this vision of Unconditional Positive Regard for students, we are also accepting that there may be certain tricky instances where a threshold is crossed and we can no longer hold them in that light we respect. In these times, it might ultimately be unethical to continue work with them since at some level they too deserve that spacious honoring of intrinsic goodness. Refer them to a colleague who has the bandwidth to hold that loving and present space if you cannot.

I am not talking about refusing to teach someone based on race, gender, ethnicity etc.. I think we all agree that's discrimination.

I am asking you to investigate your threshold. At what point does someones "misconduct" in your eyes limit your capacity to work with them. An example might be, you are working with a student who divulges information that they once sexually abused someone. What would you do? How triggered would you be? You would likely face fear, rage, and anger. Would this all cloud your capacity to hold them in a teachable light? If so, I would suggest not only seeking counsel on the issue but referring them to someone who you know who could be a better fit.

Essentially the threshold to this is: At what point does Unconditional Positive Regard become Conditional Positive Regard. 

These are honestly, the kinds of really hard questions I want us all to wake up to as teachers and leaders. And these are what deeply investigating the center and the fray of what it means to lead with Unconditional Positive Regard. 

What a gift, to acknowledge your own boundaries and hold yourself in high regard while also acknowledging the Others intrinsic value. 

Unconditional Positive Regard also asks us to trust the students and trust ourselves. If trust is broken and the regard is tainted we either repair or refer. With this kind of lens in place, you can let go of shame, blame and guilt towards yourself and towards the Other. If your demo didn't work. You are still good. If you the student fell, you aren't terrible. If the student isn't understanding, it is not their fault. Do not be fooled and allured into the traps of this ego phenomena. The student is still worthy of Unconditional Positive Regard and so are you. 

All learning comes out of this place. Without this high regard for the Other we lose sight of why this yoga matters in the first place. We lose sight of the growing edges of our own vulnerable desire. And when we are pushed so far to our capacity that this birthright of human decency and regard falls between us, let us commit to repairing or referring.

As well-meaning teachers, we sometimes stay when we should often let the student go or find them someone better equipped. We stay in schools and styles or with teachers who have lost integrity for us. You may never get an apology from the teacher who betrayed you. But you may find solace in holding yourself in Positive Regard. So much so you take a stand or change teachers.

Our students deserve our positive regard and our teachers deserve our positive regard. Let that human need be a guide to your teaching and relating. 

Because yoga is about being deeply radical and practical.

Human decency and Unconditional Positive Regard ask us to embark on that journey of the radical and practical. 

Go for it. 

Fill your classes with this Light. Watch how it changes your interactions with students. Track closely when it gets lost in your sensory awareness. 

Let us align towards the Good. And be fierce about it all. 

The world needs our Unconditional Positive Regard. 

I see you and believe in you.

The Psychologically Sound Yoga Classroom. PART 1: On Congruency and Trust.


These are an elegant and robust pair that asks us to live with an open bridge between the internal and external worlds. Congruency asks us to track and understand what is going on inside and wear it honestly instead of attempting to cover it up in hopes of being something "better". Congruency asks us to look at the ways we dampen, lessen, dismiss or negate our true internal state. It asks us to be present and show up.

And in so doing we model for our children, partners, students and all those around us a depth of honesty. When we are congruent we are modeling for our kids that they can be too. When we are congruent we model for our students the possibility that they can be too. It's deep, actually, this layer of modeling.

Do not underestimate how powerful it can be for a student to see you embody the meaning of your words. 

Perhaps you smile when you tell someone you are angry. Perhaps you put on your game face and tough it out too often in your attempt to be a leader. Perhaps you have trouble letting the joy of your heart crack all the way through your gestures.

As humans beings, we are actually wired to experience congruency as safe. When someone around us is hurting and is able to name that instead of unconsciously asking us to guess and tiptoe, something inside can relax and feels more connected. If we are wearing our emotions on our yoga pants but not naming what it happening we risk unconsciously allowing the students to stay on high alert around what is going on. Sure, some students won't notice. But many will. Some will guess or project. Some will unconsciously caretake. When we are congruent with our words, actions and feelings we take responsibility and stay in relationship.

If Olive hits me, I say "Ouch! That hurts mama if you hit."  with a matching expression on my face. If I were to say the words but smile or laugh instead, that would be confusing. When I match my gesture and my words, Olive learns that hitting hurts mama and that mama has feelings! She learns her actions have consequences. 

Congruency, as you can already tell, yields Trust. It helps us relax enough to settle into the relationship at hand. The more trust we desire, the more the need to be congruent. Think of it this way;

Congruency is a skill that builds Trust. 

Trust is one of those fancy words that everyone wants to use and say is in high presence in their classes. Is it though? Like at every level? I am not talking about expecting, or worse, demanding the students trust you. I am asking how you cultivate and earn your students trust both in the short and long term. Through language, touch, presence, eye contact, clarity of instruction, the ability to refer out when needed. All of it. I am also interested if you trust your students. 

See, Trust (note the capital T) is something earned. It cannot be forced. And it is multidirectional. The Psychologically Sound Yoga Classroom is healthy for the psyche because Trust is earned on the part of the teacher. And as the teacher we can take a stance of trusting our students as collaborative guides in the classroom. We can Trust their bodies have a knowledge worth listening too. We can Trust that the students are there for a reason, even if it's not the reason we go to class. When we Trust our students we do not need to control them. We are left wide open to educate them, an inherently collaborative act. And we become stewards of helping them find congruency and dissonance in what we ask and articulate and their actions in response. 

In an ideal world, we come into being with the capacity to be held, loved and rocked in the safety-net of Trust. But there are many instances where ruptures in Trust were not repaired, or a person might not have had the luck of Trust in their early relationships. Unconsciously, this can play out in the yoga room. While it is not your business as a yoga teacher to repair this per se, you can do enough by earning Trust through consistency, clarity, and presence. and by bestowing reverence and Trust to the students. (And many other ways too).

So, my friends, I give you the ever so elegant couple of Congruency and Trust. They take turns leading on the dance floor. And when in rhythm they inspire all of us. 

Have at it. 

How are you building trust in your classes? How do you earn trust? What are the ways someone has earned your trust? How congruent are you with your gestures and emotions? Practice transparency. 

Deep Bow to all you do and Are,

Rosh Hashanah

11 years ago on this day the car I was driving in went off the road, hit a ditch which flung the car through the air and into what seemed like endless time and space. It narrowly missed a giant poll which probably would have killed us, but instead rolled into a field after it nose-dived back to the ground. 

We landed with my passenger side down. The glass of the windshield fully cracked but not shattered. Somehow my glasses completely intact still on my face. My boyfriend at the time got himself out of the car and was trying to find a way out for me. At first I thought maybe it was a dream or that I had died. Somehow I managed to hear him say that I had to get out because gas was coming out of the car. 

So I did. I pulled myself out of the car through the broken window above me. I pulled myself out of the car not understanding why it felt like my arms would not work. I pulled myself out of the car and the dark night of broken metal with two fractures in my collar bone and six in my sternum-right through the center of what we call the heart space. 

Later, I discovered that those fractures were a result of the way the seatbelt restrained me and the impact of the airbag on my chest, which would have suffocated me had my seat not been reclined because I was falling asleep at the moment we drove off the road. I would also like to say this is not a tale of a drunk driver. He lost sight of the curve of the farmland road. That's it. It was dark. It was chance. 

And we literally walked out of that car alive and to the side of the nearly empty road in the new-moon darkness to meet an ambulance that had been called by two good samaritans who happened to be on the road that night. 

It was the second night of Rosh Hashanah and it was the Fall Equinox and it was Navaratri. 

I have always considered that night a rebirth for me. Though I rarely ever talk about it now. I did recount it for the first few years as I tried to understand the narrative and soothe the PTSD I developed. But over the past few years it has felt less relevant. 

The other day I was getting some bodywork and my Rolfer and dear friend was working on my right arm. She asked if that collar bone had ever been broken. "Yes" I told her. And since then I have been thinking of this night. Not in a bad, traumatic way. But in a deeply reverent way. 

As I write these words I can feel that old familiar painful ache in my chest. The kind of ache I lived with for years. First the intensity of bones healing and regrowing. And then the trapped fear and freezing. And then the old memory that creeps in through feeling when the air is damp and cold. 

I died that night. That night of the new year in 2006 as we turned towards fall, toward the liminal portal of the Days of Awe. But I was also reborn that night. I was reborn by Grace. Thrown into the Book of Life. Durga took away all the ways of being that were slowly sinking my life into a hole and made my life something more whole and holy. She delivered me that night. 

This time of year feels sacred to me not only because my traditional ways mark it so, but because I know with every living cell in my body that veils are thin right now. Prayers matter. And if we are given the chance to live. Let us delight in the moonlight and the royal sun by loving more fiercely than we can ever imagine. 

My relationship with a man I deeply loved also died that night. He was driving us home. It was an accident of no persons fault. We never managed to recover from our fear, pain and overwhelm. We grew apart. We hurt each other deeply. But he did indeed drive us Home that night. We were launched into lives that took us away from one another and towards our own future children and the spouses we deeply adore. We were reborn into the lives and loves waiting for us on this Rosh Hashanah eleven years later. We were initiated. 

This is my Rosh Hashanah prayer and blessing: 

May you be reborn. 

May your broken bones filled with the worlds sorrow heal. And remain achy enough you never loose sight of the worlds need for your healing touch.

May you move towards the sweetness and newness of Life even in the dark shattered and scattered night. 

May you dwell in the deep trust of the Goddess as your guide gently and ferociously surrounding you with Grace. 

May you go forth in this new year and new life and new cycle with a strength and vulnerability on your tongue.