Ling is a Victory Over Violence Ambassador.
This story is also submitted to the VOV blog.
* names have been changed.
On a quiet Monday afternoon, at class start time, it appeared as if no one was going to come to practise. Then ten minutes later, two people turned up.
It can be difficult for yoga teachers to face a quiet room at class start time and for students to sail nonchalantly into class late. This is a common challenge leading a practice in non-studio settings, where the crowd is not familiar with yoga and the usual class etiquette, and that there’s no advance class list and client notes, and you’ve no idea who’s going to show up (, if any were to show up at all).
When I started teaching at this shelter, I was told that the women had all experienced some form of violence before, and was keenly aware that they needed yoga so much, and that it was hard to come by, so I’ve learned to bend my own rules. In any case, this is a good reminder to teach to the bodies and beings in the room, rather than to follow a preset lesson plan.
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Begin with the Breath
So back to this Monday afternoon. Winnie brought her friend Gina. They were the first two. They said that they were not flexible but they looked excited to start. Abigail came even later. We found a variation of seated poses – thunderbolt or simple cross-legged on yoga blocks – that they could comfortably sit in, and then started to calm down with centering breathing. I invited them to focus at the tip of their nostrils and to notice the breath, and consider how it’s a reflection of how even if sometimes life can throw us lots of challenges and that everything appears to be changing all the time, there’s at least one thing that can be constant – the breath!
It was my little yoga philosophy for the day, which I thought would be particularly helpful to this audience.
It is amazing how focusing on breathing immediately synchronizes the energy in the room. Everyone looked a little calmer, with eyebrows less tense, lips less pursed, by the end of it.
Exploring Freedom in Movement
We started with gentle sun salutations. The women enjoyed the physical movement, and were laughing and enjoying themselves even when they found it difficult in the transitions from one pose to the next. We used blocks for support and I offered multiple variations of the same yoga pose each time. I explained that they could take a few steps and breaths to get into each shape, and most of all, I pointed out that they should focus on exploring the freedom in movement.
Abigail’s foot was hurting after a while, so she had to sit down. We had to modify what I had planned to do initially. I skipped the rest of the standing asanas. We completed a shorter, gentler sequence in table top, and went on to seated poses and poses on our backs. As we wound down to the corpse pose (savasana), I played a soothing kirtan track and the women looked placid and receptive of the moment of complete integration at the end.
They said that they would come back again when possible.
A Note to Those with the Gift of Teaching
As a teaching experience, leading class for the under-served is unparalleled and very rewarding. Even if you have worked with the same profile of population before, you would still have a lot of black holes in terms of knowledge of what’s going on with people who show up to each class – in terms of what they have been through, what they are still going through, and how they are doing on that very day.
In these scenarios, it is a good opportunity to remind ourselves as teachers to go with what feels right, and remember that yoga is not just a physical practice. I thought that it was important to let these women have the space to connect intuitively with how to move, and to feel good in their own skin. That’s right; teach yoga. Be in the moment, and flow with what’s going on and be with the individual who shows up, with their unique needs on that day.
The best yoga was yet to come on this afternoon. Abigail shared with me after the session that she had been doing what she wasn’t supposed to do in the past week – she kept over-working her bad foot – and she knew that it was the reason why she could not do the standing poses today.
We came to the agreement that through the practice of yoga, we are all seeking balance between doing what our naughty selves would like to do, and what our higher selves are aware we needed to do.
With this awareness, we can start to move away from self-deprecation, and realize our own beauty and wholeness of being.
Let’s not forget that as yoga teachers, we have the gift that can help support many people in cultivating self-love, forgiveness and non-violence. Use that gift!
Do write and share with me all about your experiences teaching the under-served.