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.