What does it mean to be a yoga teacher? The art of holding space

yoga teachers Apr 07, 2021
Through my investigation into shame and judgement in the yoga world I uncovered so many stories about teachers who had been the cause of public shaming and even blatant humiliation that it struck me, not only as a face palm moment, but also “Why do these people even want to become teachers in the first place?” Follow that thought to “What does it really mean to be a teacher?”

What does it really mean to be a yoga teacher?

In the context of yoga I think, personally, we have such a vast responsibility for guiding people that unlike other professions it cannot be based on a formula or sticking with a structure of information, and then “practice equals absorption”. Since Hatha yoga is based on finding a deeper connection to your true self through movement, breath and meditation then the information required, and progress of each individual, will be greatly different.
One of the most important elements I have discovered through my years of teaching and training teachers is that I have to give guidance, share information and then give space for this information to unfold in varying ways within the group in front of me. I need to “hold space” and let the process happen without getting in the way. My own experience with the practice may be valuable but ultimately I am at my best as a teacher when I can step back and let students find their own way.

I am at my best as a teacher when I can step back and let students find their own way.


Holding Space - To Bear Witness

Many of you have probably heard the term “holding space”, but what does it really mean? I have actually asked myself this question many times and the interesting thing is that in order for me to really understand it, in the beginning, I had to observe it in others. I knew, at the end of a workshop, if a teacher had the ability to hold space as opposed to just sharing information by the way I felt afterwards. Was I walking away with a note book full of data and information? Or was I walking away with that information in my body, in full knowledge and understanding? Did I have an experience? Not necessarily because it was delivered in the clearest way, but because the teacher was interested in guiding and then getting out of the way of the students receiving. That’s what I recognised as holding space.

Was I walking away with a note book full of data and information? Or was I walking away with that information in my body, in full knowledge and understanding?

Recently I came across a better terminology for what I had experienced: “To Bear Witness” This gave me some clarity as I was trying to describe holding space to someone else. The power of bearing witness to someone else’s growth and transformation was the key to holding space.

Being seen without judgement

Think of what your world was like when you were a small child. Or if you have small children currently. The regular request from a child of “Mommy, Daddy! Look at me!” usually exclaimed when said child is doing something new that they have either just figured out, or have found entertaining. In order to feel validated in this newfound nugget, the need to be seen, not judged, but seen is of vital importance for our childhood development. Of course parents will almost always regards these moments with praise (at least we hope so). But while, as adults, we don’t necessarily go around shouting “look at me and what I’ve just figured out” (ok, some people do), we still have an inherent need to be “witnessed” in order for personal growth and development to happen. This can come from a respectful and supportive partner or spouse, a best friend or often still a parent. If this is what helps our personal validation lead to growth and expansion then it makes sense that as yoga teachers this is a huge part of our jobs.
To walk into a room full of students with the aim to get them to do things “right”, which is often the case, is almost detrimental to a students personal development. You’re going to start off with a sense of right and wrong and when the “rights” don’t come as often as the “wrongs” then we get into the self shaming as we are not doing it as the teacher expects us to. This is where we are cultivating more shame based societies in our yoga world.

Respect & Presence

However, if we walk in, as teachers, with the aim to inspire and empower then we can lose our attachment to the level of each persons progress. We can step back and allow each student to find their own way. To bear witness to their path respecting that some will absorb quicker and some will take more time. If they keep coming back we know they are somewhere in the process and that is worth showing up for. As teachers I’m sure you’ve all had a few students who, from an outside perspective, seemed to be perpetually challenged in the class, or perhaps their face wasn’t a reflection of the internal dialogue, so we begin to think either this person doesn’t really understand what I’m trying to share or they don’t like it at all, but, they keep coming back. I know a lot of you are nodding “yes” right now. Happens all the time, right? It’s not our job to make them better at something and it’s also not our job to make sure they smile at us at the end of class to ensure both parties have received a good result at the end of class. If they continue to return we don’t even have to know the stories behind why they don’t appear to “get” it or enjoy it. Our job, is to be there, be present, show up and let them know they are “seen”.

Our job, is to be there, be present, show up and let them know they are “seen”.

To be seen is so important for humanity and in the business of modern day life there are millions of people out there who don’t feel “seen”, acknowledged or part of any kind of community, even if they appear to be. We can often be the loneliest in a big crowd. This, to me, is why the art of holding space and bearing witness to a person’s practice is an integral part of the job. Yes, I really need to know what I’m talking about and have the language skills and clarity to deliver the information, but to show up, present and available, without a personal agenda while I’m doing all of that is where the real teaching begins.

Cultivating trust

If we can put people in a state of trust in the room, a space becomes one of possibilities as long as freedom of choice is given within the realm of guidance. I often say to students “these are suggestions, not direct orders”. I want people to think for themselves, to feel what it’s like to be on the inside of their bodies, inside their emotions and be able to unravel whatever is preventing them from finding that ease in their practice and their lives. I can never experience it for them, that’s why holding space is the most valuable part of my job. I can’t really give corrections because I don’t know what is correct for the individual, I only know some good ideas to help them find it.
Over the years I have changed my language when I teach from cueing poses to allowing students to explore an idea or concept. Often this can start with something very dense and physical, like the relationship between your feet and your spine. To me this is the precursor for allowing them to become aware of their energy or emotions, or sensing something without judgement. Once I see they are focused on their experience I know I can only give them subtle guidance from that point. I don’t get satisfaction from someone executing a “perfect” pose. I get satisfaction when, at the end of class, there are little or no words for people to describe what they experienced. I didn’t impose my own agenda on them and they had freedom to trust themselves and that to me is truly where the practice begins. Especially the practice of being a teacher.
I invite you to notice, the next time you’re about to teach a class, how much your desire is to have them get something “right”. And can you then ask yourself to step back from that and let your intention be one of allowing and remaining present for whatever arises in the classroom? This can be a challenge for some of you, but when you find that balance you’ll feel the reward of bearing witness to students finding freedom. You will master the art of Holding Space.
This article was originally published on Brahmani Yoga on Aug 29, 2019

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