by Valerie Moselle
It never occurred to me when I started practicing yoga in 1993 that a yoga space could be anything other than a place of safety. I want to share with you a story that illustrates, and possibly illuminates, why I feel it can and should be- more than ever.
Also, this November 18th, on the tails of the release of his latest book, Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond international teacher Matthew Remski will be joining us once again at Luma. This year he will speak to how we can collectively co-create and enjoy safer yoga and spiritual communities.
What do I mean safe? Yoga is where we take care of ourselves, right? A place to enjoy a little peace and a respite from daily life? The mat is a refuge. Isn’t it? Isn’t safety and healing the point of it all?
I was 21 years old in the early 90’s when I made my way to my first yoga class of my adult life. I was a dancer living in Seattle when a teacher shared that he had been taking some yoga classes. This peaked my interest, and I decided to try it. These were the early days before the yoga boom really took off, so I had to cross town to a neighborhood I had never been to find a studio.
Like much of Seattle, the area was an odd mix of more modern commercial buildings — an auto shop, a hardware store, a key shop — and 100 year-old houses turned commercial rentals — a real estate broker, a dentist, a cafe. It was dark and raining as I made my way up the narrow staircase of one of these converted residences into an emptied out apartment with a bare oak floor. A tiny, brusque woman in her 60’s greeted me and welcomed me into the room, where a handful of other students had already gathered.
I don’t remember much about that first yoga class other than the odd rest at the end that I have since come to love. I don’t recall the postures we worked on, what it felt like to practice, or even the teacher’s name. I do remember a few random details however: a mirrored wall, dimmed lighting, the color of the room (pink), and that during the class the teacher laughed at me.
Perhaps because I was new student, or perhaps because I was young, this teacher took a particular interest in me. At one point during the class she singled me out and asked me to hold my arms out to the side. When I obliged she chuckled, and asked,
“Is this what they have been teaching you in dancing school about arms?”
She then proceeded to squeeze my biceps, poke at my triceps, and manipulate my arms into position.
It’s funny that I still have this memory because at the time I don’t remember thinking that much about the experience. As a dancer I was used to strict methods of training. Though most of my teachers were encouraging and kind, it was not uncommon to experience harsh corrective tones, motivational yelling, and the occasional berating. I was not a stranger to militaristic-style ballet drills, and I was well-versed in the strict formality of the demanding Martha Graham technique. “It takes 10 years to make a dancer,” we were reminded Graham used to say, referring to her regimented training protocols of dynamic and rigorous movements.
Classical dance training emphasizes erasing the person in the dancer. The person, complicated with her needs, desires, and opinions, must be put aside — transcended. Erasing her (for those who succeed in rising to the occasion) unveils a dedicated, disciplined and persistent technician; one who is willing to put personal needs aside including relationships, rest, sleep, and even food, for the higher ideal of the art form. What is left is an individual capable of rising to the ‘ask’ of the physical and emotional expression required to communicate the inspiration of the dance-maker. Not all dance training is like this, of course. There are softer, more holistic environments. But even then, at the professional level anyway, the cutthroat nature of competition sets a self-sacrificial tone. The most talented and devoted student wins. And my successes, when they came, did feel like winning.
Because of my prior experience with dance, in that yoga room on that dark wet evening, windows fogged with rain, I didn’t think twice about being chuckled at for the inadequacy of my arm position. I had been primed for such scrutiny. I was used to being in spaces where my body would be managed for another ideal. I was neither offended or concerned. Yet it is this exchange which has stayed with me all of these years. And it is worth mentioning that I went back for more, many times.
Come to think of it, the path of the yoga aspirant is not so different from the path of the professional dancer. In yoga it is the ego that is to be transcended. Practice is how we prepare ourselves to release our attachments so that we may experience the true nature of reality and bathe in the bliss of pure illumination. Either way, the will and desire of the pedestrian self must be put aside. Which means the pedestrian self must put aside her protective impulses and surrender…to art form, to practice, to teacher, to choreographer, to spiritual guide.
I see that first experience with that first yoga teacher, though harmless enough compared to the stories of abuse recently shared by veterans of the Jois and Iyengar yoga lineages (from which much of our modern expression of yoga springs) through a different lens now. I can’t think of a teacher I know today who would laugh at a student in such a belittling manner. Thankfully, that kind of authoritarianism has gone out of style in most yoga rooms. It was a power play, really. A way to demonstrate my inadequacy, which in turn elevated her status as the keeper of important knowledge in both my eyes and hers.
Recently I retold this story to my students in class. Afterward, one of them came up to me to share a similar experience. Sharing our stories is healing, and I am reminded that it is essential we acknowledge the less savory aspects of our yoga culture. We owe it to all future students of yoga to recognize and turn our negative experiences with the practice, and with those who were guiding us for better or for worse, into learning opportunities. It is our job to discover how best to enjoy the safest possible experience. I’m not talking about the way in which teachers might try to help students to avoid physical injury, though that is also important. I’m talking about teachers and studios taking responsibility for the classroom environments to ensure that they are emotionally and psychologically safe.
To do this, certain questions need to be asked, such as:
- How much and what kind of instruction from teachers is really necessary for students to investigate their relationship to their physical and energetic bodies?
- To what end should we offer/engage with that instruction?
- Who is the expert in the room? Is it the student, with decades of history in their very own body? Or is it the teacher, who may have only just learned the student’s name?
- Many teachers may have nuanced experience with embodied practice, but do they really have any grasp at all on how it might or might not be useful to any given individual with their unique orientation, history and heritage?
- As teachers, how then should we focus our efforts?
And, it’s true that we learn from others. One of the ways we gather information is by finding someone else who is willing to share their knowledge with us. No matter how you slice it though, that is always going to look like one person telling another person what to do. With that comes an implicit power dynamic. If one of us is a teacher, and one is a student, the teacher intrinsically sits in a position of authority. As teachers, how can we ensure that the transaction is safe for our students? As a student, how can we open ourselves to something new without becoming vulnerable- to our teachers’ honest mistakes, to power imbalances, to misplaced egos, to sexual attraction, or worse, to malicious intent.
Obviously I did come to find much solace in yoga, which ultimately drew me away from the world of dance. I was relieved by a shift from embodied practice for performance, and the associated complications, towards embodied practice for my own personal growth and evolving consciousness (in theory anyway). Breathing and meditation promoted a tolerance for stillness, and allowed me access to certain layers of introspection and heightened sensitivity. Thankfully, for the most part, I chose good teachers. Now I share that experience with others.
As I take in Remski’s book however, and reflect on other subtle and not so subtle experiences I have had with authority in yoga, I must ask myself:
- What are the ways in which I casually and lightly engage with my students that might inadvertently leave them feeling diminished?
- How might I unconsciously do harm?
- Have I carried forward even mildly destructive power dynamics from my teachers?
- As my students and I move and grow together with the practice, what should I keep, and what should I let go of?
As you can see, I am engaging with this work from the perspective of the student/teacher relationship, which is relevant to me. But if I take a step back, I am engaging with a broader question that perhaps we all should be continually engaging with:
In my actions, and with my words, am I doing harm? And, how can I better engage in my community for the betterment of all?
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Originally published at https://lumayoga.com on November 9, 2019.