Author’s note: So much has changed in the month since I wrote this piece. I hope that my thoughts on teaching during the pandemic will feel especially relevant as each day we continue to awaken and remake our role as teachers.
“Any requests today?” I asked a sleepy-looking student, as he reclined on his mat before class. He answered without opening his eyes or skipping a beat: “Gimme shelter.”
It was such an amazing and surprising response that at first I wasn’t even sure I had heard him correctly. This conversation occurred several weeks before the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 and the dizzying drop in the stock market, before mass unemployment and an unprecedented sense of national and global uncertainty. It was just an ordinary request on an ordinary day, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Like many teachers, it’s not uncommon for me to ask students whether they have requests for practice that day. Sometimes I throw the question into the deep pool of the studio just to hear the ripples it creates. Other times I ask the question individually, especially if I don’t know a student well, or sense they might have something on their mind. I find that it creates a bridge—a way to connect my practice to the students in front of me, and even a sense of collaboration, which can help engage students more deeply.
The responses, of course, vary. One person might ask for a specific pose, such as pigeon, or to work on a particular part of the body (shoulders, hips). Occasionally someone requests a general element of practice, such as meditation or pranayama. An out-loud request for “shelter” was certainly a first.
After that class, I recounted the conversation with my student to another yoga teacher. She was not at all surprised. “Of course!” she said. “That’s why people go to class.” It seems so simple that I realized it must be true, and even more so now. For those of us fortunate enough to live what felt like relatively secure lives, the coronavirus has brought a new awareness of the precarious nature of our time on this beautiful blue planet, and perhaps a better understanding of why all spiritual traditions seek to provide shelter in one way or another.
When that conversation with my student first occurred, I remember thinking that providing practice as shelter was a big responsibility, and that it was also a relief—a lot of extraneous aspects of what we as teachers might worry about can fall away: Is my playlist cool? Is my sequencing creative? Did I remember to tame my flyaway hair?
How can we as teachers offer the shelter of practice in these times?
But now, during a time in which many of us are still sheltering in place and avoiding in-person teaching entirely, the poignancy of my student’s request rings like a deep bell of mindfulness in my heart. How can we as teachers offer the shelter of practice in these times?
For a while, to be honest, I felt entirely lost. I live in New York City, and in the weeks after our yoga studios closed and there was a call to jump online, I found myself unable to teach at all. I was shaken to the core, and providing shelter to others did not seem possible. During those weeks, I struggled with questions such as: “Am I being selfish?” “Which practices matter?” and eventually, “Can my yoga even Zoom?”
I tried to engage consistently with svadhyaya (self-study) and asked myself a question I first heard from my meditation teachers, Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield: “Who do you want to be as you move through this?”
The answer is, of course, a work in progress. And each teacher, and each one of us, must find our own. The answer is not one size fits all. It never is.
But I’ve been finding my way back slowly. I am teaching again, and as I reflect on what it means to offer shelter through these practices now, here are some of the very personal choices that I have made.
1. Trust my voice. I am teaching online now, but mainly audio-only classes. Words have always been my primary teaching tool and for the moment it feels like a beautiful experiment. The purity of listening has a unique capacity to lead the student into a state of mindfulness. Audio-only guidance can also encourage deep concentration, pratyahara (softening of the senses inward), and a better possibility of exploring the poses as a compassionate conversation with the student’s own mind and body, rather than a mirroring or emulating of someone else’s.
2. Move more slowly. The trauma that so many of us feel during these times can make it challenging to process a lot of information. Although I love to flow through movement and that has always been a part of my teaching style, this can be hard for students when they are not in the room with you. When I give students more time to find their way, it feels kind, like waiting patiently when you hold a door open. Slow practices can still be vigorous.
3. Give permission. Without a teacher watching, and perhaps especially with audio only, students may worry whether they “are doing it right.” Here is what I tell them:
Consider these lines from the poet Rumi:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
Audio-only classes invite attention to the experience of the poses rather than what they look like. The alignment cues on offer are designed to bring you deeper into each experience as well as to explore practices that I hope are beneficial physically and mentally. If you are a little confused at certain moments, don’t worry! Confusion can be a great teacher. As long as you are paying attention and not feeling pain in the poses, you are doing them right.
For teachers working with video, it is also great to remind students to have their own experience and always, of course, to modify in ways that are helpful.
4. Be grateful and share. Whether I am doing a personal practice or recording a class for my students, it feels especially important to take a few minutes at the beginning or end to bring awareness to the community of yogis everywhere, and to our good fortune to be able to practice. I also try to close each class by dedicating the fruit of my practice to those who need it. This can be done as a prayer, a heartfelt wish, or through good acts when you step off the mat.
In those moments I can palpably feel that the more we develop the capacity to shelter ourselves, the more we can shelter one another.
Finally, as I write this in my small Brooklyn apartment, I wonder how yoga teachers everywhere are feeling on this topic. What are you looking for in your own practice in these challenging times? What feels most important to share with your students?
Sitting compassionately with these questions for ourselves, we can create the ground for our work as teachers to continue to be fertile and vital under any circumstance.