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Holding the Sacred Circle: Yoga Teachers and Emotional Safety (Part 1)


The impassioned debate over whether yoga can “wreck your body” (as the New York Times so memorably put it) has finally settled down. Similar discussions of the less tangible, but at least equally important issue of whether yoga might harm your psyche, however, haven’t really even begun.
The yoga community has hashed through the conditions that might cause physical injuries in yoga classes quite thoroughly. But we’ve barely broached the subject of how to protect students from psychological and emotional harm. Considering the recent wave of yoga scandals, as well as the high incidence of psycho-emotional distress in our society today, this silence is notable – and problematic.

Yoga teachers in particular would benefit from starting to think more systematically about how best to support students’ psychological and emotional safety. Of course, absolute safety – whether physical, psychological, or emotional – can never be guaranteed. Nonetheless, it’s the responsibility of the teacher to maintain the safest environment that he or she can. Notably, this doesn’t mean that classes shouldn’t be challenging. It’s not a matter of lightening up or dumbing down. On the contrary, the goal is to create the conditions that empower students to dive deeply into their practice – mind, body, and spirit.

In this series of articles, I hope to spark a more robust discussion of psychological and emotional safety in the yoga classroom. Comments, questions, and alternative perspectives are welcome. (Note: Although I’m writing with reference to the more or less standard asana class in North America, I’m also interested in hearing how these ideas may or may not translate to other contexts.) First, this post explains why the general issue of psychological and emotional safety in yoga is simultaneously so important and under-discussed. In subsequent articles, I’ll explore particular aspects of it in more depth, including teacher-student dynamics, self-study methods, teaching tools, and external supports.

More than Exercise

In the U.S., people who are unfamiliar with yoga generally assume that it’s simply another form of exercise. Even many who practice regularly are only interested in yoga’s physical benefits. (Witness the recent case in which Judge John Meyer, who practices himself, ruled that it’s OK to teach yoga in public schools on the grounds that it’s “just like dodgeball.”) On a purely individual level, this is fine: there’s nothing wrong with treating asana as exercise regime. If we want to understand yoga more fully, however, the “yoga as exercise” paradigm is simply inaccurate. There’s no question that yoga is, in fact, much more than that.

On the whole, I think it’s safe to say that anyone who cares enough about yoga to become a teacher values its emotional, psychological, and (broadly defined) spiritual benefits at least as much as its physical ones. Yet in the U.S., teachers are typically trained to be much more knowledgeable about the strictly physical aspects of yoga than anything else. The standard 200-hour yoga teacher training (YTT), for example, demands at least 20 hours of anatomy and physiology. In contrast, no exposure to basic concepts in psychology, neuroscience, emotional literacy, or any similar subject is required. (Although these subjects could be incorporated into the mandated 30 hours of “yoga philosophy, lifestyle, and ethics,” they typically aren’t.)

It’s taken for granted that yoga teachers need to learn basic anatomy. The need to build the knowledge base necessary to work appropriately with pre-existing injuries and prevent new ones is commonly recognized. Yet there’s no parallel assumption that yoga teachers should receive basic training in the psycho-emotional dynamics of their work as well. Of course, YTTs vary tremendously, and there are some notable exceptions. On the whole, however, the lack of required YTT hours in psychology and related subjects reflects the fact that such forms of knowledge are generally not valued, or even recognized as important in North American yoga culture.

The Sacred Circle

It’s an odd situation. On the one hand, there appears to be relatively little interest in thinking seriously into psychological and emotional dynamics of the yoga classroom. On the other, our most experienced and respected teachers consistently emphasize that meaningful practice engages the mind and heart at least as much as the body.

Reflecting on 30 years of teaching, Judith Hanson Lasater concluded that the most important work of a yoga teacher is to transform her class into a “sacred circle”: that is, “a safe place for the personal exploration of one’s body, emotions and mind.”

No teacher is a good teacher if he/she does not create this sacred circle in which every student feels valued, respected and completely safe. This means that the class is free from verbal, emotional, physical and sexual coercion or abuse. The first duty of a yoga teacher is to create this safe place. Without this intrinsic sense of safety, it is impossible for the student to let go and allow the practice to unfold.

Although the average student starts studying yoga in search of nothing more than stretching and stress relief, a good class provides the opportunity to go deeper. Students who are ready and willing to do so should be supported in the process of shifting out of an everyday state of mind and into one that enables internal exploration, learning, and growth. If teachers are to lead this process responsibly, they must develop the ability to create an environment that maximizes students’ psychological and emotional safety.

Safety Isn’t Automatic

The recent wave of yoga scandals has amply demonstrated that the yoga classroom cannot automatically be assumed to be safe. As discussed in my previous 90 Monkeys article, however, the yoga community needs to reflect more deeply on these high-profile disasters in order to learn something from them. As long as they’re simply blamed on isolated individuals (i.e., bad teachers and weak students), we’ll lack the psychological insight necessary to see how they fit into larger patterns of problematic interpersonal relationships, which are all too common in our society today.

In my view, the recent teacher/guru scandals are best understood as the extreme end of a continuum of co-dependent teacher-student relationships, which range from the mildly problematic to shockingly pathological. They’re simply cases in which the garden-variety problems of narcissism and co-dependence that are so common in our culture today grew exceptionally out of control. As such, they can be used like a magnifying glass to help us see much less dramatic, but nonetheless similar cases more clearly.

As I explain in my recent book, Yoga Ph.D., “it’s important to recognize that the yoga teacher-student relationship is inherently fraught with interpersonal issues not dissimilar to those of the therapist-client”:

This isn’t to suggest that yoga teachers are equivalent to therapists: obviously, they’re not. There is a parallelism there, however, in that strong emotional and psychological experiences, which tap into deep personal issues buried in the subconscious mind, are not uncommon in the yoga classroom. Consequently, there’s a pronounced tendency for students who have such experiences to unwittingly project strong feelings onto their teachers . . . This kind of projection puts the teacher up on a pedestal where she’s no longer perceived to be an ordinary person. Rather, she’s imagined as someone imbued with a mystical ability to evoke powerful states in her students. This misattribution is potentially damaging. And this is particularly true in cases where the teacher feeds off such adulation and (without necessarily realizing what she’s doing) works to reinforce or even demand it.

In order to maximize psychological and emotional safety, yoga teachers must be grounded enough to withstand the seductive force of strong student projections. Ideally, they should be able to hold a safe space for students to work through their projections, while encouraging them to progressively reclaim the power of their experience for themselves. And, even when projections are not present, it can be difficult to know how to work with unexpectedly powerful emotional releases that regularly occur in yoga classes. Developing the tools necessary to work with these dynamics is every bit as important as learning enough about anatomy to prevent physical injuries.

So Where’s the Discussion?

If psychological and emotional safety is so important, why is it so rare to hear in-depth discussions of it in the yoga community? While I can’t say for sure, I have several hunches.

First, I’ve noticed that teachers and students alike tend to assume that the most difficult hurdle in yoga is getting past experiencing it as a purely physical practice. Once that’s happened, there’s an assumption that “yoga” will automatically take care of the rest. It’s as if “yoga” were a time-release pill that guarantees positive change, rather than an ongoing practice with variable outcomes. If yoga is seen as a thing that works, rather than a practice we work on, there’s no incentive to investigate deeper.

Second, people who become prominent yoga teachers tend to be physically gifted. They inspire us with their ability to perform exceptionally advanced asanas. More significantly, many are unusually skilled at working with the body in multi-dimensional ways. Consequently, they’re often drawn to study more immediately physical disciplines, such as anatomy (or in some cases, acrobatics), rather than the intangibles of psychology or emotional literacy.

Third, many serious practitioners are interested in studying the ancient yoga tradition in order to grasp what’s seen as its unchanging essence. While this can be a valuable pursuit, that fact that it’s commonly coupled with a relative lack of concern with the development of modern practice creates a problematic imbalance. Important questions regarding the relevance of traditional practices to modern societies, as well as how best to synthesize them with contemporary knowledge are seldom raised, let alone addressed. Compared to the closely related practices of meditation and mindfulness, which have been studied in conjunction with psychology, neuroscience, and emotional intelligence for decades, contemporary thinking about yoga tends to be unsophisticated and unadventurous.

Finally, yoga is often used as a means of escaping the pressures of everyday life. This may take the form of spiritual bypassing, which chases blissed out states of consciousness as a means of avoiding such pedestrian demands as work, family, and relationships. Alternatively, practitioners may fantasize about achieving the iconic “yoga body,” which has been aggressively marketed as a symbol of perfect health, beauty, serenity, achievement, and self-control. Either way, thinking into the psychological and emotional dynamics in play would burst the bubble. As a result, it’s avoided.

Shifting the Paradigm

The one major exception to this otherwise common scenario is in the growing field of trauma-sensitive yoga. Within the yoga service movement, it’s commonly understood that teachers committed to working with populations that have experienced high levels of trauma, such as homeless youth, recovering addicts, prisoners, veterans, and domestic violence survivors, need to be trained to teach in ways that maximize students’ psychological and emotional safety. Consequently, there’s a growing body of work offering insights and techniques regarding how to do this (some of which I’ll share in subsequent posts).

The rest of the yoga community would benefit from following this example. Regardless of whether students represent a more specialized population or not, there needs to be more reflection on the psychological and emotional issues they’re likely to bring into the yoga classroom. At the same time, teachers need to engage in ongoing self-study to become more intimate with their own psychological and emotional patterning, and learn to work with it as best they can.

It’s important to recognize that anxiety, depression, and other psychological and emotional problems are rampant today. An estimated 26.2 percent of American adults, or 57.7 million people, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder annually. Add in the undiagnosed problems caused by skyrocketing stress, and it’s evident that grappling with challenging psychological and emotional issues is the new normal.

Yoga teachers should be proud of the fact that they’re working to create a sacred space that not only offers students refuge from these pressures, but tools for emotional and psychological renewal as well. Teaching yoga is invaluable work that can transform and even save lives. Doing it responsibly, however, requires maintaining psychological and emotional safety. This is not necessarily easy. Learning to do it effectively requires at least as much targeted study, training, and concern as the much more commonly recognized goal of preventing physical injuries.

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CH photoCarol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. She holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago.

 

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