From Subtle Abuse to Personal Agency: One Teacher’s Journey
A LETTER FROM A MENTAL HEALTH AWARE YOGA GRADUATE
I spent the weekend in Mullumbimby learning about mental health and how to be a responsible yoga teacher to my students.
I had no idea so much would hit home for me.
I’ve spent a long time studying yoga. My foundations started at a little ashram in Toronto that has since closed down. I’ve had a weird relationship with my own yoga practice ever since, and last year during a yoga diploma program I began to feel unbelievably agitated and upset during our classes.
What seemed normal to everyone else – strong poses and new adjusts – had me feeling beaten up and pushed beyond my capacity. No one was hurting me, of course. It was a feeling that arose from the inside. I told one teacher that it felt like a ghost had taken an invisible bat to my body every time I stepped on my mat. No one had any answers.
Eventually I became disappointed with the lack of support and I quit. Having over 1200 hours of yoga teacher training, I wasn’t worried about not completing this one.
What dawned on me in Lauren’s Mental Health Aware Yoga was the subtle abuse of power that had taken place during every single one of my yoga trainings, starting from that little ashram in Toronto.
My body was telling me, “enough.”
It was tired of the memories of my original teacher who told me time and time again that I wasn’t good enough, that I’m a bad student for fidgeting in a pose. That I’m not spiritual enough and that there’s too many fluctuations in my mind. My body held the memories of the effort and the striving and the self-punishment I didn’t know I was committing.
I let my teacher put me down. I welcomed it because I wanted to break through my ego and become a better person. I never viewed her as a guru, but she showed up in my life demanding to be one, and for two years I let her play the part in spite of how it felt in my body – not good.
Mental Health Aware Yoga brought agency back to my practice.
Movement became my choice.
Poses began to feel different when I was no longer moving to satisfy my teacher and instead moving to listen to my body.
Yoga was no longer about how well I could engage my thighs. No longer about how spiritual I was or what emotions I’d had blocked in some chakra.
Yoga became an invitation – allowing me to choose for myself where I’d like to be in response to what my body needs, directed by eloquent cues that guided me safely through the sequence.
In Mental Health Aware Yoga, the power is placed back in the student’s hands. This doesn’t mean the class is gentle or that alignment goes out the window. It’s not the yoga itself that changes, but the language.
The way we speak to our students in modern yoga is problematic. Even those of us with the best and most nourishing intentions are using language that tells our students that directions are to be followed our way.
But yoga doesn’t have to be the perfect alignment we learned from a teacher who learned from his guru and the desire to mimic that alignment by dictating it to our students.
It doesn’t have to be about the concise way we cue a beautiful flow class, or wanting to crack our students hearts open to show them how amazing the experience can be.
Yoga doesn’t have to be about cueing the breath to our personal rhythm, expecting the students to follow or get there eventually. It doesn’t have to be about diagnosing our students with spiritual deficiencies and prescribing them postures that helped us in the past.
None of these things are inherently wrong. Concise cues and alignment and breath are all wonderful tools.
But we are missing part of a bigger picture: We are following traditions that perpetuate trauma and we are calling it part of the spiritual awakening process.
In actuality, re-traumatization is a thing that stunts our growth and evolution, not enhances it.
We don’t have to change our yoga practice per say. But I do think we need to change our language. That’s what Lauren’s Mental Health Aware Yoga awakened me to. It’s one of the single most valuable tools I’ve learned as both a student and teacher. I’m forever changed – and grateful – for the experience.
Mental Health Aware Yoga Graduate
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Hi, I'm Dr Lauren Tober!
As a Clinical Psychologist and Yoga Teacher of nearly two decades, I'm passionate about integrating yoga and psychology on the mat, in the counselling room and in the world.
With the growing interest in mental health and yoga, yoga students are attending yoga classes for the mental health benefits in unprecedented numbers.
In fact, 79.4% of yoga students report practicing yoga for the mental health benefits.
It's important that Yoga Teachers know how to support them.
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