One of the defining moments in my yoga career happened in a far-away town, where I was visiting and attending a yin class. It was an evening class, and the room was full of people. The light was dim, the incense was thick, and there was an air of hushed reverence to better hear the teacher, a popular one who was known to offer deep spiritual insights along with the long-held poses.
I was new to yoga and wanted to try it all. That first magical year of your yoga honeymoon– do you remember it? When you first wake up to the experience of being in your body in a completely new way, when every whispered “Namaste” is like a balm to your heart and there is nothing, nothing like lying on your mat in the quiet blessing of Savasana.
That Yin class ticked all of the boxes for the spiritual experience. Candles, incense, meditation and the feeling of being guided by someone who had more of a clue than I did about how to live a happy or fulfilled life. But the physical experience… that was another story.
I don’t know what other poses we did, but my memory comes to life here: we were instructed to lie back over a bolster lengthwise on the mat, hips on the floor, creating a backbend somewhere around the T-L junction– low to mid back. I’m pretty sure the instructions were as simple as, “Put your bolster on the mat and lie back over it.” I dutifully arranged myself and closed my eyes, waiting for the magic of yoga to wash over me.
The pose just didn’t work in my body. It was too extreme of a backbend for my spine, and I felt an ache grow into the kind of pain that takes over your whole experience. Yoga is about breathing, I thought, I should breathe and practice patience, so I breathed and waited– it felt like eternity, but was probably about 30 seconds– opened my eyes and looked around– everyone else was reclined in glorious ease (or so it seemed), small half-smiles of bliss on their faces.
“This should feel good,” the teacher said in a soothing tone. What is wrong with me? I thought. This feels terrible. I suck at this.
I’ve never forgotten how that moment felt. That yoga wasn’t right for me. That my body was wrong for yoga. That I wasn’t part of the group.
Years later, after becoming a teacher myself, I wanted to learn how to make people not feel the way I felt in that class- isolated and alone. Nobody was talking yet about inclusivity or accessibility (at least not in my circles), but I found Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga and became one of her certified Curvy Yoga teachers. I learned how to talk to people in a way that allowed their bodies to feel accepted and welcomed as they are; to teach variations (not “modifications”) of poses so that people can explore for themselves; and to teach the skills of proprioception and interception so that students can be their own teachers.
I’ve continued to learn and am still finding ways to make people feel more welcome. I know I’ve made mistakes– accessibility and inclusivity are messy and sometimes we are going to get it wrong. One thing that I consistently practice is Anna’s stellar advice never to tell a student how something should feel in their body.
When we tell someone, “this should feel good,” we make an enormous number of assumptions about their body and their experience in it. We don’t know what type of injury or trauma the person may have lived through. We don’t know whether or not they got enough sleep the night before, or they’re in a good mood, or they’re going through a divorce or their dog just died. Do they have a herniated disc, or a spinal fusion? We often have no clue.
Suggesting how something should feel also disempowers the other person. It takes away their ability to discern for themselves what sensations or experience they’re having, which is an essential part of injury prevention (and spiritual growth). It can create the idea that they’re doing something wrong, or that something is wrong with them, or even that they’re not welcome. Finally, we also close ourselves off to learning from that person’s experience, and create a potential barrier for understanding.
The teacher in my story wasn’t a bad teacher (the class was packed with fans!), but it wasn’t the right teacher for me. I needed a teacher who could create space to have the experience I was already having; who reminded me that not all poses are going to work the same way for every body; who helped me to understand and appreciate the value of my body’s wisdom.