During my asana practice, there often times when thoughts such as what would happen if I were not a yoga practitioner? What would happen if I were not able-bodied? What would happen if I were seriously ill and couldn’t even learn about yoga, let alone wrote a blog post about it? And many more. But these thoughts all stem from one thing: the fact that I have the privilege to practice which many others might not have. And that leads to one wisdom: We don’t know what others have been through. Therefore, what we think is right for us, might not work or can possibly be harmful for others.
When there are students coming to our class with some agitated feelings, do we tell them to stop feeling agitated because a yoga class is all about being positive, “good vibes only” bla bla bla or do we just accept them as they are, as they feel?
Often we see a common bias against mental health sufferers that they are not ill because there is no “physical” evidence to support other than their own accounts. Why can’t you be happy? Why can’t you stop being anxious? Why can’t you drag yourself out of your bed? Why can’t you get a life? And so on. Because emotions are subtle, we assume what work for us when we deal with negative emotions will definitely work for people suffering from serious psychological traumas. But it is far from the truth. In a yoga class, for example, let’s say there is a student who only has one leg. As yoga teachers, do we modify the poses for that student? Of course. Do we emphatise and try to understand why this student cannot do the pose? Definitely, we are great teachers after all. Yet, when we have students who refrain from doing a pose we’re teaching because it’s emotionally triggering for them, what do we do? When they intentionally put their body in a particular position because of their past trauma, rather than according to our cues, what do we do? Do we say “you’re not doing it right, please do as I told you”, or do we allow them to do a safe modification that might not be triggering for them? When there are students coming to our class with some agitated feelings, do we tell them to stop feeling agitated because a yoga class is all about being positive, “good vibes only” bla bla bla or do we just accept them as they are, as they feel?
Of course it is challenging when we have no experience either on our own or secondary ones when we are dealing with other people’s mental health issues. Even if we have our own personal experience, we still couldn’t completely understand what others have been through. Because human beings are complex. Our mind is complex. Our thought patterns and basically the whole of our nervous system are of course very sophisticated. Maybe for some people who are blessed enough to not have experienced mental illnesses, it is not difficult to be positive, in fact, for some it might be their default to always rise and shine. For some people who are not mentally ill, “small” problems are just small problems and they get over them quite easily. But for those who have been to the extreme end of mental health breakdowns, even what appear to be a normal life can be challenging to navigate. Small issues may look big and their body will also respond to these issues as if they’re life-threatening. When other people tell them to “stop being dramatic over a small thing”, chances are they will become even more dramatic about it.
When we enable toxic positivity in our environment, we are positively toxic for people dealing with traumas.
Because our experiences are unique to each of us, something that might not trigger most people can have huge negative repercussions for people with traumas. Of course, I’m not giving a justification that just because we have mental health issues, we can treat other people badly. But my point is that we should be careful and sensitive enough to accept that people are different and we are not always right. And things that might appear wrong for us are not always wrong for others.
Yoga class is not about being “zen” or “peaceful” or “happy” all the time but it is a practice to allow us to be more attuned to our emotions.
In the yoga world, many mental health survivors come to the mat because of their issues. For yoga teachers, chances are at least one of our students have experienced some sort of mental health issues either currently or in the past. And because of that, we should be sensitive enough to be able to deal with students who are struggling. We should be open-minded and educate ourselves more about mental health issues if we have not done so. We should figure out: What should we do as teachers to create a safe space for our students that also fits into our teaching style? What should we refrain from doing so that we don’t emotionally trigger our students? In essence, how do we allow a supportive environment for our students whilst being realistic at the same time?
If you really want to take pictures of students during savasana, ask for their consent to do it separately after the class, not during the real class. Not only it is distracting, but can also be traumatising.
Personally, I have seen some pockets of those in the yoga and wellness sector who are sadly not very aware of the above issues. They are those who enable toxic positivity rather than creating a supportive environment by dismissing the reality of the students. Yoga class is not about being “zen” or “peaceful” or “happy” all the time but it is a practice to allow us to be more attuned to our emotions. We cannot just filter emotions as they come and go. We cannot reject our worries, anxiety, negative thoughts from coming to our mind as we go through the poses. We cannot pretend that those who come to our class are just bubbly happy without having emotional turbulence on their own. We cannot deny them of their worries and fear. We must allow them to accept those emotions. Only then they can SLOWLY release them. When we enable toxic positivity in our environment, we are positively toxic for people dealing with traumas. We should be realistic. We should allow them to feel any sensation in their body as their own. We should not dictate them what to feel. For sexual trauma survivors, what we might find are some people who are completely not in tune with sensations in their body and we should instead give guidance to allow them to feel safe and accepted so that they will be able to listen to their body more. Sometimes the process can be messy. But we must accept this messiness as a part of healing process.
Fear is as sacred as bravery. Shame is as sacred as confidence. Anxiety is as sacred as contentment. Sadness is as sacred as happiness. And life is about navigating ourselves through all these emotions so that we can transform ourselves to a higher level.
Another thing I want to say to yoga teachers and studio owners is that please with all your compassion, do not take pictures of students in savasana (corpse pose/ resting pose). Savasana is an extremely vulnerable pose. What we want is to create a safe space for our students so that they can completely relax in the pose. If your students have experienced some sort of trauma with their body, be it sexual, physical or emotional, when they find their savasana photos or videos uploaded in the studio or teacher’s instagrams without their consent, they might get very upset about this. So please, be mindful about it. If you really want to take pictures of students during savasana, ask for their consent to do it separately after the class, not during the real class. Not only it is distracting, but can also be traumatising.
In Yoga + Mental Health Summit that I recently listened to, Yogarupa Rod Stryker said that according to Tantra, all emotions are sacred. Fear is as sacred as bravery. Shame is as sacred as confidence. Anxiety is as sacred as contentment. Sadness is as sacred as happiness. And life is about navigating ourselves through all these emotions so that we can transform ourselves to a higher level. Without acknowledging our feelings, especially the negative ones, how can we transform them into something great? Without knowing how to feel anxious, how can we feel peace?
The last thing we want to do to other people is to be judgemental. And being judgemental often involves invalidating their feelings. For yoga teachers, our students want to come to our class to transform their feelings. They might feel sad as they enter our class because they want to feel less sad after the practice. Yet, how can they transform this sadness if we block them from feeling uncomfortable emotions as they walk into our class?
Self-love is not about toxic positivity. Self-love is not without negative emotions. Self-love is acknowledging whatever emotions, thoughts, or feelings that we have, RADICALLY as they appear. Self-love is not something that can be imposed upon us, but it is find within. Self-love might sometimes appear “ugly” – that is why it is radical to accept something “ugly”. And it is often not as sexy or beautiful as those “perfect yoga poses on the beach” on Instagram. Good or bad vibes don’t matter. They are just vibes. They change, they come, they go. Nothing is permanent anyway!