Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Before I begin teaching a class, I check in with my student/s about:
1) How they are feeling (physical pain + emotional state)
2) If they want to focus on anything specific for their practice with me that day.
Most of the time, I get "I'm fine" or "Good". But I've also had students who are more "honest". One would respond with curt one-word answers: "Tired." "Stressed." "Irritated." I ask not out of politeness, but to give them the opportunity to tell me anything I should know before we begin class. This ranges from their mood, sleep, work day, pet, family etc, which might lead to a pertinent conversation or a signal for me to change my class plan (e.g. if they are physically / emotionally exhausted, a 60-minute vinyasa class would not be ideal).
When I asked my student before his class with me, he replied: "Legs."
Great, I thought and began teaching a sequence which included chair pose, standing heel raises and balancing poses. About 15 minutes in, he let out a big sigh of what sounded to me like a combination of fatigue and frustration.
I stopped what we were doing and asked, "What's the matter? Are you okay?"
He replied with a half laugh: "I'm tired."
"Why didn't you say so...?" I asked, frowning.
I asked him to lie back on the yoga mat, while I slid a cushion under his head and block under each knee. "Take the next few moments to slow down your breathing. Let the weight of your body release into the ground," I said in a quieter tone.
After a few minutes, I gently asked, "Did you have trouble sleeping last night?" We have spoken before about his sleep troubles and he has been open with me about his mental health. In fact, he first contacted me for class after reading a post I wrote about losing my cousin to suicide. My student then went on to say that his sleeplessness was due to a family fight. (Note: I prefer not to pry into my students' personal lives but let them talk as much as they are comfortable with.)
For the rest of the class, he spoke to me at length about his depression and various issues that were weighing on him, amongst them:
- Leaving his religion and subsequent identity crisis
- Questioning his sexuality
HOW TO HOLD SPACE FOR SOMEONE?
LISTEN TO LISTEN. DON'T LISTEN TO RESPOND.
I listened without interrupting, letting him take his time to pause, breathe and speak freely. After a sustained pause, I waited a few more moments for both of us to absorb the weight of his words, taking this time to choose my thoughts. Only then did I begin to speak. Our exchange went on like this for the rest of the class. There were 2 times I mistook his silence for him having finished his train of thought and we began to speak simultaneously. Both times I apologised and told him to go ahead. For many of us (including myself) being listened to with genuine, undivided attention itself can be a gift.
CONNECTION & CO-REGULATION.
The first thing I asked was: "Do you have someone you can talk to, whom you feel safe with?" He mentioned that he had 2 friends whom he contacted but they were not able to be regularly present with him. This seemed to bring him down even more. When we are depressed, connection with others is vital and despite his response, I didn't jump in with meaningless advice like: "Make friends." I accepted the answer and kept the theme of Connection at the back of my mind to return to later.
AVOID LECTURING / OFFERING UNSOLICITED ADVICE.
We don't like being talked at, we like being talked with. Even though I was in a position of authority in this context, I did not immediately offer solutions. There are two drawbacks of this approach. Firstly, it inadvertently presents the person as a problem to be fixed. As Krishnamurti said:
If we can really understand the problem, the answer will come out of it, because the answer is not separate from the problem.
Take more time to be with and listen to the person. Let them express themselves in their own words. Avoid finishing their sentences for them. Get comfortable with silence, and if they come, tears.
The second drawback: It sets up a vertical authority between teacher and student where I present myself as purporting to know my student better than himself. Instead, to establish a more horizontal dynamic, I spoke about my own episodes of depression in my teenaged years, sharing details that echoed those he had mentioned earlier including crying and isolating himself in his room. This reminded my student that I am not some enlightened being or lead a perfect life. Ram Dass wrote:
We're all just walking each other home.
GUIDE THEM TOWARD THE GOOD ALREADY IN THEM.
Remind them of something they are currently doing either for themselves or others. Be specific. This lets them see themselves through your eyes. In my experience, this has been one of the most powerful things that lifted my self-worth: When a person whom you love / respect / admire shows you you. Note: This is not the same as offering vague praise ("You are so pretty / strong / brave" etc.)
Two weeks ago, my student shared that he had begun volunteering at a horses' stable. "At first when they said I could volunteer, I didn't want to cos I had to sweep up their shit," he remarked, grimacing. "But then I got to walk the horses, and I liked that."
"Hey, are you still volunteering at the stable?" I asked. I was delighted when he told me he was indeed and then he laughed out loud: "Just before coming to class, I was looking at a picture of a horse." It was the first moment I noticed him truly relax. As he went on to speak about a few horses that he had walked with, his energy lightened and I could hear life, joy and happiness in his voice.
How do you feel when you walk with the horses? I asked.
"I feel a bit confused but very excited.
Maybe because it is a new experience.
Walking into the stable with several horses on both sides, is like walking a runway. Not that I've walked on a runway.
But sometimes all their heads turn towards you,
And they might stare at you while you're working, so even though you don't acknowledge them when you're working, they acknowledge you.
I think it helps with loneliness.
When they reject your hand, it sucks, but there are very sweet horses who will just let you rub their forehead.
The first big horse I walked doesn't like other horses, but she's sweet and gentle.
They get very excited during lunch time, at least one of them will neigh very loudly and it's extremely scary to me.
When one of them neighs, most of them will respond with a softer neigh.
Once I was refilling a water bucket, the horse in that stall suddenly turned around and looked at me directly.
When their eyes are directly focused on you, it's kinda scary.
Understanding how horses get spooked easily and run, helped me realise people are usually spooked by stupid things too and run - maybe not literally. In a way, humans are herd animals too.
And of course I have to learn to regulate my own emotions when I'm with them, so that they feel safe. Even if they don't feel safe, it's my responsibility to be grounded.
They are huge but gentle.
You can see that they're powerful because their bodies are chiseled and their heads are huge. It's a strangely nice feeling having a huge animal look at you.
It's difficult not to be happy when I'm around horses."
Don't stop," I said, catching his eye. "Keep that in your week."
In addition to his work at the stables, he told me that he listens to music and leaves livestreams on in the background as he finds these calming. "I just distract myself," he said. "Think of it as self-regulation," I replied. It reframes the activity in different language that recognises your strength." "Good idea," he said. When he is with the horses, he is co-regulating - that is when we can turn to safe others including family, friends and animals that bring calmness to our nervous system.
From Johann Hari's book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions:
To end loneliness, you need other people—plus something else.
You also need to feel you are sharing something with the other person, or the group, that is meaningful to both of you.
You have to be in it together—and “it” can be anything that you both think has meaning and value.
WHAT IF I WANT TO HELP? MAKE IT SPECIFIC, PRACTICAL, DOABLE
Towards the end of class, I wanted to leave him with a few things he could do that would not be overwhelming.
What I suggested for him:
Take some quiet time to sit with yourself. Ask yourself honestly, gently, what is at the root of your depression. Write it out so you can see it as words and not a huge, hopeless mess in your head.
Find a different therapist / psychologist who can see you sooner, who helps you understand yourself better, and whom you can connect with better. (He had shared that not only were his current appointments too far spaced out but that he dreaded seeing his current psychologist who would talk non-stop for the entire session.) I gave him the website of someone I knew and said to contact them if he'd like to. Always offer choices - this reminds us that we have the power to act and effect change.
As we got up to go, I said, "See... once you were able to be honest about what you really needed in today's class, we were able to speak to that directly."
Story shared with permission from my student Faizi.
Title image by Mugica Berthoud, 'chevaux sauvages'.