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Holding Space

Yoga can be a spiritual practice, for others, an exercise routine, and for some, just time away from their regular life events, where they can focus purely on themselves.

For each student, the teacher must hold the space. Creating an environment free from the distractions of the mind, where the concepts of yoga, as interpreted by the instructor, can be delivered in a non-judgemental, loving environment.

This is easy enough when all your students arrive in a great mood, ready to absorb whatever you have to offer.

But this isn’t always the case.

Students are humans, with human emotions, and there are many reasons why someone can show up to your class and shift the vibe. Bad day, bad mood, bad traffic.

I recently taught a class where the tense energy hit me immediately.

I teach yoga in English, in a country where English is not the native language. This, for the most part, has rarely been an issue. I’ve always admired how Europeans can switch between two, (or more) languages, like it ain’t no thang.

On this occasion though, I was subbing for a German-speaking teacher. This wasn’t regarded by the studio as such a big deal, since everyone else there teaches in English, and students are aware of this fact. I had one regular show up, she was fun and full of (way too much) energy for 7am. And then a couple arrives. I say hello and introduce myself, and that I’m subbing today. This is their first time at the studio. They ask the other student if this class is in German and she says, usually yes, but the regular teacher is away. Cue tension.

I don’t blame them. They’ve shown up to a yoga class in their country, one would expect it to be taught in their language. It was incredible how palpable the energy shift was.

Then from my end, these guys brought their own mats, so my initial thoughts are; they’re advanced yogis. The guy has a ponytail resembling David Life of Jivamukti yoga, and I’m immediately scared that not only have they got a teacher who speaks only English, but they are also in a class that isn’t advanced enough for their ponytail-wielding practice. Cue panic.

We roll out the mats and I say hi and welcome everyone (all three, it is 7am), and explain how this class works. It’s a ‘different’ kind of studio, so things don’t run quite like a normal yoga class. I’m nervous about their reaction to this too. I jump out of the class to close the gate, (something we do while the students have a chat and get to know each other’s practice), and I use this moment to collect my thoughts.

I feel nervous. I’m subbing for another teacher who’s style I don’t know. The regular has told me she usually goes to Thursday morning classes, which are harder, advanced classes, taught by one of the most incredible teachers. Plus, I’ve got these two newbies who speak little English and I’m convinced are advanced yogis (because of the ponytail).

I breathe.

I decide I’m going to teach the class I had planned. A grounding, balanced practice, perfect to start the day. I’m going to teach the way I do it. With playfulness, humour, and lots of alignment cues. Which maybe no one will understand. I walk back into the class.

The ponytail guy says it’s like a yoga and English class in one. I’m not sure if he’s happy or annoyed about this. I begin.

I start with simple pranayama to come into the space, and also because it’s 7am. (And also because I kinda needed it). I notice eyes open every time I give the next instruction, which I totally expected since words alone wouldn’t quite be enough this time.

And then we start to move, start to flow.

Ponytail isn’t advanced at all. Neither is the regular. I got it all wrong!

I slip my first joke in. Couple of laughs. Ok. *Nodding head in happily surprised way.

The vibe begins to change. The students smile as I ask them to come into a tricky balance, they take deep breaths when I cue them. I’m also enjoying this.

We come to the end where we sit in gratitude for our practice, and after Namasté, they sit peacefully, absorbing the effects of what preceded.

I apologised at the end, in German, for only speaking English, and they brushed it off like it wasn’t even an issue. Huh? This is a change.

After pouring some tea, the woman tells me that she really enjoyed the class and asks me when is my usual time? She even takes one of my business cards. Ponytail gives me the double thumbs up, and they both ask for a hug on the way out. I was beaming!

At the beginning of the class, I wasn’t feeling good about teaching to this group. I had made a judgement (which turned out to be wrong), and based on that judgement, I was scared.

The reason, I believe, that the energy of the class was completely different in the end, was because I acknowledged that I felt that way. I knew I didn’t feel comfortable, so I had to figure out a way that I would be able to hold the space for students that maybe entered their practice in a not-so-great state of mind either.

I taught the way I always do. Authentically me.

I didn’t try to change who I was and how I instructed to try to appeal to what I thought was the attitude of the group, but instead, I taught a yoga class. I did what I know how to do. I didn’t let the mood of my students (or myself) affect how I taught that day.

Through breath, and movement, and laughter, we shifted nervous energy into a warm, genuine connection. And it is only through controlling our own thoughts and taking ownership of our feelings, that we’re able to move that energy into something different. Like hugs.

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