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No-Drama Yoga

'I have been in many Yoga classes and sought out Yoga at various points to help with chronic pain issues.

Most teachers I encountered were often trying to push or nudge me to do things that were uncomfortable or ill-advised perhaps.

It has been a tricky journey, as I come from a place where I have felt not attuned to my body or understanding of where those pain issues arose from.

And part of me was internally pressured to do things that were ill-advised because I felt that pushing those limits might lead to greater strength.

Sometimes it is hard to know.

These things are complex.

Sometimes it feels like the slightest movements will provoke pain, but I don't learn the consequences until after.

It's also hard as a young person with arthritis because people assume there's nothing wrong with you.

They can't see or feel your pain easily.

Becoming attuned to your students is rife with complexity - along with one's own capacity to be attuned to themselves.

As I have slowly gained more embodied understanding of those pains and with the help of scans, and other therapists, it is still challenging to know what I will be okay with.

I really like what you said about trust.

It reminds me of this Dan Siegel book on 'No-Drama Discipline' parenting, where instead of being caught up in moments of reactivity to a situation, we attune, listen and understand why they feel that way and what is provoking that behaviour.

Validating their experience in this way is a building block, perhaps akin to providing a yoga block emotionally, so that we can feel seen, and create a healing path together.'

-Sol Thompson, in response to my previous post 'What Is Accessible Yoga?'


This reply from Sol Thompson is so rich with nuance, depth and self-awareness that it needed its own post. He raises numerous significant points which should be discussed in any Accessible Yoga teacher training:

  1. When we have a student with pain or special needs, how much time do we take observing / being around them before giving them a posture or movement?

  2. We tell students to "listen to their body" - but do they know how to do this?

  3. How do we know they know?

  4. What does "listening to your body" look like in a class of 10 - 20 students? Are we teachers prepared to handle this?

  5. What assumptions do we make about students based on how they look?

A barre teacher friend told me that she likes going to Yoga classes that are gentler / slower - but because she "looks athletic", she noticed that the teacher would often dial up the intensity of the class. So too, someone like Sol who looks young and healthy from the outside, may have an "invisible" medical condition.

One of my students is a young woman with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (a connective tissue disorder with symptoms including loose joints, chronic pain, muscle fatigue, degenerative joint disease, easy bruising and premature osteoarthritis). She has joint hypermobility, weak knees and wrists, and ankle surgery in one foot. She has also suffered immense childhood and teenage trauma, has a history of depression and an eating disorder, and is also on the spectrum. It was only a few years ago that she was diagnosed as autistic, and much of her energy these days is devoted to managing her anxiety through a combination of therapy, medication and Yoga.

As her teacher, I have to be extra alert to watch for non-typical signs of pain - like laughter. And when she stops or shows signs of fatigue, I need to respect that. Because she is someone who pushes herself both physically and mentally, I need to dial back my own inclination to push her. If she has stopped, it means: "I need to stop," not, "I'm tired but you can push me more."

And the only reason I know this is because I took time to talk with her, learn about her, and see her as more than just a body in front of me waiting for instructions. By showing that I trust HER, she won't be constantly wondering: "Am I going to hurt myself in class today?" "Is my teacher going to give me a painful adjustment?"

How can my students feel safe in my class if they are in constant self-protection mode around me?

Safety is created by listening, learning the needs and validating the experience of each student. When they see their teacher trusts them, they begin to trust themselves. If they are constantly looking to me for validation, approval - or worse still, if there is fear - this is a dead space for learning.

I think a lot about how I can be a better teacher. But as Sol says, this is a collaborative effort. What about being a better student?

Questions for students:

Before class

  1. What injuries / medical conditions / health issues do I have?

  2. What does my teacher need to know about me to teach me safely?

In class

  1. What is each part of my body feeling?

  2. What feels safe?

  3. What feels good?

  4. What makes my body feel strong?

  5. How do I know when to stop?

  6. What is the difference between pain and discomfort?

  7. Do I stop when I need to?

  8. Am I pushing myself because I feel safe and prepared to - or do I feel pressured by the teacher / other students / my ideals of what I think my practice should look like?

  9. Do I need props?

  10. Do I know how to use props effectively?

  11. If I need to modify a pose for my body, do I feel safe asking my teacher for help?

  12. If I know how to modify a pose for my body, do I feel embarrassed looking different from everyone else?

  13. Where is my focus in my practice?

  14. Especially if there are mirrors - is the focus on FORM (how I look) distracting me from how I FEEL (inner sensations)?

After class

  1. How does my body feel?

  2. Do I trust my teacher - what am I basing this on?

  3. What am I learning from them?

  4. Has my practice affected any other areas of my life?

  5. Is my practice sustainable (i.e. if I continue practising the way I do, what will my body look like in 30, 40, 50 years?)

(Note: Your answers to these questions will likely change over time.)

A student can come to class every week and not learn anything. Mechanically obeying the teacher's instruction creates a room of robots. Yes, the robots can be performing perfect asana... but Advanced Asana is not = Advanced Yoga.

I'm fond of telling my students: "I am teaching you to be smarter than me."

Your reflection on your own practice is more valuable than anything I can give you: 'A teacher is never a giver of truth; she is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for themselves.'

(Image and words of Sol Thompson provided and used with his permission).

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