Photo: Welcome Mat, cc Claudio Matsuoka, thanks!
Severe asthma and panic attacks – I understand the frustration of limitations all too well. But for some reason my experience wasn’t showing up in my teaching.
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST JESSICA LESLEY
I am under 30, have never been injured and naturally very thin – I don’t think these facts make me a better yogi (or a better person).
So often I hear that “yoga is for every body” and I even toss this phrase around myself; proudly explaining to anyone who is curious about starting a yoga practice that they will feel welcome and be accommodated in class. Honestly it’s something I never gave much thought to – just sounds good to say that yoga is all inclusive.
The reality is I had not personally experienced creating a safe space that was indeed for every body. I was incredibly naïve when it came to what kind of bodies would be in front of me as a teacher.
Reality is more complex than nice words or intentions
One of the first teaching jobs I accepted was at a Physical Therapy clinic that just so happens to cater to the prenatal crowd. Students that show up are in various states of healing, and varying trimesters of pregnancy. This has become one of my most challenging yet rewarding places to teach. I can’t just toss out random vinyasa flows.
Early on I tried planning out my sequences; it just felt like the responsible thing to do. How could I not show up with a plan?
The problem with this is that I gave myself no room to improvise and no opportunity to really check in with the people that showed up.
I began to compensate my lack of experience with treating people with injuries like frail little dolls and not challenging them enough. I was not upset that the “wrong” people showed up, I was upset that I had fallen back into the rigid habit of feeling like I could plan everything out.
In no way do I feel like everyone should be just like me in class. I really don’t know what it’s like to have pain in my knees, or anywhere for that matter. I have compassion for those that do and I continue to study anatomy so I can at least have a better understanding of what is going on in their body. And I don’t know what it’s like to be nervous about being the only curvy yogi in the room – but I do see the beauty in all shapes and love that we are not all waif thin.
Understanding myself helped me understand others
Severe asthma kept me in the house my entire childhood. Those childhood limitations grew into adult over-compensation once I outgrew the asthma. Obsessive exercising (not for weight loss or health, but simply to prove I could do it), and control issues that led to panic attacks.
So I understand the frustration of limitations but for some reason it was not showing up in my teaching.
I had to take an honest look at my own ideas of acceptance and as painful as it was at times I needed to pinpoint where I was judging, where I was lacking empathy, and situations I was just plain ignorant to.
I had the wonderful opportunity to assist my friend Ariel in her weekly class, because this was not a typical sweaty flow class it drew a different type of crowd than I was used to. There were severe cases of limited mobility, seniors, curvy folks, and on one occasion a gentlemen wearing a colostomy bag.
Ariel would always prep me before class about who was in the room to ensure that I was sensitive with my adjustments. When she advised me of the man with the colostomy bag I was moved almost to tears – not tears of pity, but deep admiration that he chose to come to class. He did not want special treatment, he just wanted respect.
I was also in awe of the compassion and encouragement she showed in the class without sounding fake: I was able to see what it truly meant to honor the bodies in the room.
Real enthusiasm for real people, including myself
That class was a turning point in how I looked at bodies.
Finding a balance between making the class accessible while still providing a challenge has been (and still is) difficult. As a teacher I want to encourage growth and acceptance, not intimidation or shame because they have a different body type than me or physical limitations to work with.
I am finally beginning to trust my knowledge as a teacher, this allows me to wait and see who shows up, and honor them by teaching directly to them. Encouraging them to honor their body in its current state serves as a reminder of how I have taken my own body and yoga practice for granted.
Super sweet and super smart, Jessica is quadruple certified in yoga and in fitness! Trained in anatomy, asana and positive practice, she’s experienced in supporting her students as they get present to their challenges with compassion and courage. When you visit her website jessicalesley.com be sure to read her surprising and powerful personal journey. Watch for Jessica’s adventures in teaching column monthly in The Magazine of Yoga!
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.