How to Create a Safe Container for Yoga Students Experiencing Anxiety
Anxiety is very common worldwide, with one in four Australians reported suffering this condition in a 2007 survey (ABS, 2007). Statistically speaking, it is likely there will be yoga students with anxiety in general yoga classes.
The population prevalence could be higher almost 20 years on, and potentially even be overrepresented in a yoga class, as students may be drawn to the practise with evidence-based practises such as mindful movement of the body and breath becoming more widely known as beneficial for anxiety.
Paradoxically, the very idea of attending a yoga class may be anxiety-inducing to such a prohibitive extent that these students become excluded from experiencing the benefits. Therefore, providing an environment that is conducive to students with anxiety and feeling comfortable enough to continue returning to practise is imperative.
The focus here is on ways to support students’ participation in class with the inherent therapeutic aspects of the practise enhancing their health and well-being. Providing a welcoming environment to encourage anxious students’ attendance may also enhance your following and ability to be of service to the community.
Creating a Safe Container
As yoga teachers, you may be familiar with the term safe container; a non-judgemental space with high confidentiality inspiring students to show up as their true selves. However, it is simply not enough to declare ‘this is a safe space’. It must be demonstrable, as potentially it may feel decidedly unsafe (through no fault of your own) to a student with anxiety.
The saying, ‘actions speak louder than words’ is good to remember here. How you show up and conduct the class can foster a sense of trust in you, the space, and the practise of yoga. So how do you provide this level of reassurance to anxious students to enable them to continue practising with you? Here are some suggestions to try.
Be Warm and Welcoming
Greet your students in an open, engaged manner. Show interest without being interrogative.
Make yourself available ten minutes prior to start time for any questions or concerns.
Be Clear and Concise
Advise the class about the length and basic format, including where you will be situated whilst teaching. Explain where the toilets and exits are located with invitation to use them at any time without needing to ask permission.
Show your students where the props are and consider inviting all students to use one. Whilst teaching the class, try to avoid sounding overly instructional in your guidance by using invitational language. Offer variations to poses, along with encouragement to curate their own practise from their body’s ongoing feedback.
Do what you say you are going to do to build and hold their confidence. This could include beginning and ending the class on time, including some repetition in your weekly sequencing and maintaining a standard set up in the room.
Be Clear about Choice
Ensure that all students are aware that everything is optional, including, but not limited to attendance and continuing to the end of class, contributing socially before and after formal practise, and all aspects of your teachings. Encourage self-inquiry and interoception to foster agency and self-empowerment. This way, you can further bolster your student’s self-confidence and sense of ease.
Yoga classes may be a place of great vulnerability for some. Being able to provide a space where the armoury, amassed as protection from day-to-day pressures and life expectations can be dismantled, is a rare privilege.
As teachers, being present and accountable to your students cannot be taken lightly and may be your greatest teaching. Making your class accessible for students suffering anxiety is a true gift, and by bestowing them the freedom to show up and be themselves, it can be truly transformational.
Rosemary Harding (she/her) is a Yoga Teacher and Mental Health Aware Yoga graduate based in the South West of Australia on Wandardi Noongar country. She has been teaching since 2013 and is a dedicated student of over 15 years.
Her passion is that yoga can be for everyone and continues to explore accessibility of the practise.
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