Connecting

Contributed by Kate Rice

In a practice where one person guides a group of silent people through yoga poses, how does a yoga instructor connect with students? And what about in yoga service settings such as shelters and jails?

In some settings, as the instructor at a studio I am the one signing students into class, so even this simple interaction is a nice basis to make eye contact and say “hello” or “I love your pants!”. Some yoga studios have specific suggestions for teachers: provide lots of hands on assists, learn students’ names and praise them in class, initiate conversations about students’ practice and how they as instructors might support it (with alignment, retail, or enrolling in teacher training).

Obviously some yoga instructors may simply strike up conversations on their own. During class, many instructors have intuitive ways of connecting above and beyond assisting and using names: making eye contact, making a joke, sharing a bit of info about ourselves that students can likely relate to. Even starting a class by saying hello rather than simply cuing people into the first pose can make a difference.

When this human connection or even friendship happens organically, it is really lovely! It can sometimes feel false for me to follow someone else’s suggestions, especially if there is some sort of sales goal underlying it. I try to stick to my own authentic ways of connecting.

Yoga teachers have asked me how I connect with yoga service students – I think with the assumption that it must be harder or different to connect with people who seem to have had some very different life experiences than me. For me, since I stick to my own authentic way of connecting with studio students, it’s not all that different connecting with students in service settings!

Sometimes I make conversation before class around topics that aren’t likely to be emotionally charged. Like what? Weather, in many cases food, things in the space we’re in, funny stories that happened to me recently. What might be emotionally charged? Asking an incarcerated woman (who hasn’t brought it up) about her children – who she is obviously away from and probably cannot see enough of. Asking folks what they did for a recent holiday if it’s very possible they spent it homeless or in other challenging circumstances. Asking where a person went on their last vacation or talking about your recent vacation if their current circumstances make them most likely unable to travel. These topics shouldn’t be totally off limits if they come up, but it may not be helpful to bring them up if you don’t know students well at all…which is often the case in yoga and in yoga service.

In service settings, I do sometimes learn the names of students who come regularly and make a point to say names when I greet people. Sometimes I make a more formal, lighthearted “ice breaker” activity the first thing we do as a group. I mostly don’t use names or single out students in class (David Emerson touches on how he sees this practice at odds with a trauma informed approach and its intention in his book Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga). In some cases, it’s not possible or practical to exchange personal info with students in a way I might with yoga students in a public class.

More broadly, teaching in a trauma informed way – recognizing that YOU know your body best as the practitioner rather than me as an instructor (who may have as little as 200 hours of training) – is a way of not only connecting with students, but also empowering them in ways that a more traditional approach may not.

As lovely as friendship and exchange is, I just don’t believe it is the goal of yoga, at least not in the sense that many businesses might like it to be. Yoga is about connecting with yourself, or, if taken in a more general sense of “unity”, a unity that’s more expansive than making friends with the teacher. So while I do have some public class yoga students I’ve developed friendships with, I don’t believe I would serve them any less well as a yoga instructor if I hadn’t. What people do with yoga is something they create themselves, not what an all-knowing teacher somehow “gives” them outside of class, or through a charismatic personality. That simply isn’t necessary to connect. I’ve known and loved yoga instructors with very charismatic personalities, and I’ve gained a lot from taking their classes, but I’ve also known, loved and learned from quieter more reserved teachers. Sharing a practice that is close to our hearts IS connecting.

Kate Rice fell in love with vinyasa yoga at her gym in Washington, DC about 8 years ago. She returned to her Chicago roots after teaching English in eastern Europe and completed yoga teacher training in 2014. Passionate about making yoga more accessible, Kate has completed trauma informed yoga trainings (Street Yoga, Prison Yoga and others) as well as 40 hours of sexual violence crisis intervention training in order to teach yoga to survivors served by the YWCA counseling center. Read more from Kate on her blog.

In addition to public classes yoga at Cook County Jail through Yoga for Recovery. Follow her work at shareyourpractice.org (which now also offers a directory of trauma informed yoga trainings throughout the US).

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