The issue of “power” rarely comes up in discussions about yoga. After all, yoga is widely viewed as the antidote to the power games playing out in society. However the yoga classroom is far from immune from outside forces. It could be a very healthy thing to talk about power relations in our communities of practice.
We’ve all read stories about this or that famous yoga teacher behaving inappropriately with his students. But what about the average teacher who, knowingly or unknowingly, “crosses the line”?
Have you ever heard a friend say, “I am NEVER going back to that class again!” It probably happens more often than we think. Often it’s just the student not liking a particular style of yoga, or picking a class that’s beyond their level. But subtle 'power plays' can also be a factor.
“Don’t lift your leg like that, it’s not correct.”
“Why are you doing it this way?”
“Come on, you can do it, it’s so simple.”
“There is no other way for this posture, it’s been done like this for thousands of years.”
“I gonna push you a little deeper; it will be good for you — trust me.”
Although well meaning, such comments may be damaging because they make students feel bad for being different or trying something different in class.
There’s no getting around it. Whenever a teacher is present, a natural hierarchy is established in the classroom. Students are aware that they are learning and they respectfully follow their teacher’s rules, sequence and pace. They often look for their teacher’s approval and guidance and that can make them feel vulnerable, especially if they’re a beginner.
The real question is, how much distance should there be between teacher and students? Greater distance confers more power to the teacher. But is this the right way? In my view, teachers that teach with responsibility resist that temptation. They set a tone in the classroom that is comforting to the student.
“Please rest whenever you feel the need to take a break.”
“It’s better to do less than to do too much and pay for it the next day.”
“This is not a competition, modify the pose as you see fit.”
“Don’t worry about perfection, there really is no perfect pose.”
“You may, or may not, want an assist — either way is perfectly fine.”
“I am here to help you and to guide you.”
Choosing the right words and setting the right tone in the classroom transfers some power to the student, at which point something magical happens: power submits to empowerment.