yoga teaching environmentsBy Kathryn Boland

Are you in challenging yoga teaching environments? It’s clear that yoga instructors have a lot to offer with their skills and knowledge in guiding various individuals to greater holistic wellness – Opportunities for doing so range from nursing homes to health clubs to schools. Many resourceful and creative yoga instructors have taken advantage of such diverse opportunities, often apart from the specialized yoga studio atmosphere. It’s also clear that yogic philosophy often differs from Western’s cultures perspectives on wellness, including the best ways to both work towards and maintain it.

The result can be a clashing of philosophies between yoga instructors and those at the sites where they find themselves teaching. In the long run, then, places where offering yoga isn’t a central mission can present challenging environments within which to teach. If we can exercise our practice tools – such as keeping full breath, and remaining detached from needing to achieve “ideals”, and above all remain open and curious – we can persevere. We can continue to offer all that we know how to, even in those challenging environments.

My personal experience teaching yoga in a low-income preschool this year (through my graduate school internship in Dance/Movement Therapy) clearly demonstrates these dynamics. Yoga philosophy holds that individuals have the potential to know what is best for them, and they can reach their greatest potential wellness when they listen to that innate wisdom. With children, this often translates to being incredibly active and energetic (“squirming” and “fidgeting”, some might call it). Capable children’s yoga instructors most often engage this energy through creating practices with more movement, and fewer still postures, overall. Underlying that strategy is an acknowledgment of children’s physical and emotional needs, rather than condemning of its resulting behaviors.

Despite my best efforts to do just that, some of the children have difficulty maintaining focus and following the postures and movements I have been guiding them in. The atmosphere has therefore sometimes devolves into overall chaos, me losing control of the group. At those times, the teachers have sometimes not intervened. At other times, they strongly and clearly have. For instance, one teacher has taken children out of the group, for what I sometimes perceived as minor infractions. Other teachers have yelled at the children, with clear anger in their voices, to stop “fooling around” and listen to me. I haven’t felt comfortable attempting to override those disciplinary actions; though they have been directly against my philosophies and instruction practices, and the groups are mine to lead, they are still the teachers’ classrooms. To me, it hasn’t been worth it to create more negative energy through further objections.

I sought another avenue, however, to express my views on the matter. The children at the site nap for a solid two hours mid-day, everyday. That time offers a great opportunity to connect with the teachers. I have had many good conversations with them during those mid-day periods, often about matters of discipline and the most effective ways to guide children to more pro-social and otherwise desired behaviors. In the beginning part of my internship, I listened attentively and sometimes offered my views – but I remained somewhat closed-off to their “old school”, so to speak, views on guiding children to their potentials.

At one point, however, my supervisor advised me to come at presenting my opposing views to the teachers with a “curious” attitude – what could I learn from what they’re saying? That helped me to understand that there are parts of what they believe and practice that I can adapt and put into practice, that fit with who I am and what I believe. As one example, that attitude helped me to more clearly hear the value in the teachers’ beliefs of how children test limits in order to learn what those are. Guiding adult figures need to enforce those boundaries in order for the children to begin respecting them.

With this developed understanding, I could still energetically engage the children (playing upon their interests in animals and nature, for instance). I could be more comfortable lovingly challenging the children, with a firm and neutral tone – such as saying “Is that what we’re doing? Come join your friends, come do this with us!” when children have not been following along with the class’s sequence and structure. The situation demonstrates that the key is knowing one’s students. I still fully believe and put into practice the yogic philosophy that individuals know what’s best for them at heart. I also acknowledge, however, that it’s a lot to expect of preschool children to put that into practice when there are so many fun and tempting alternatives.

Finding that balance between what I came to those classes with initially, and what the teachers believe and practice, was possible because I remained open and curious. I stayed open to what they had to teach me, and the children have benefited in the end; my most recent groups have still been fun and energetic, but I have been able to keep them more regulated through acting as a more clearly boundary-enforcing figure when necessary. It seems like the children have felt safer and more in community with each other (and me) as a result.

The same holds true in other challenging environments. Fitness-directed environments might pressure instructors to base their practices to fitness-directed goals, to the detriment of work in the other seven Limbs of yoga, for instance. Corporate environments might try to force instructors to “economize” practices, maximizing goals in ever-shortening spans of times and dwindling available resources. Wherever instructors find themselves, however, we can adapt to where we are – and therein offer the people there all that we are capable of offering. We can do that through clear communication, using yogic tools for remaining calm and collected, and remaining open and curious to perspectives and practices that we might first resist. Doing so can certainly be difficult at times. For all of the healing and empowerment that we can bring to various corners of this earth with our knowledge and skills, however, it’s a small thing to ask of us.

© Copyright 2015 – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

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