Permission to Play: Why Having Fun in Yoga Class Matters

“You seem so happy!” This and similar statements are the norm for me to hear when I attend yoga classes. 

And it’s true. I tend to smile into the mirror (if a mirror is present) and giggle when I stumble a bit. I’m so grateful for the ability to move my body and engage in this practice. Of course these smiles and giggles of a practitioner are truly nothing compared to the boisterous laughter I bring with me when teaching a class. 

While my humor can be jarring for long-time yogis who are used to a certain set of norms, for those who are new to the practice, or didn’t feel like they fit in at traditional yoga spaces, it’s a welcome change.

There seems to be this idea that yoga asana is intended to be a bodily punishment. Or that it is so spiritual that it must be given solemn reverence. I want to be clear that I do find my yoga practice spiritual—not in any sort of religious sense, but rather that it fills up my metaphorical energy cup. But as with all things that fill me up, it also brings me joy. If something isn’t bringing me joy, then it starts to lack meaning, which drains my energy (and might eventually make it cease to be a spiritual practice).

As a yoga teacher, there is nothing more important to me than the safety of my students. A very close second, however, is that students are given permission to play. 

In the yoga world, we often give lip service to play, but in my experience, it’s usually still within the social constructs of a typical yoga class. For example, “Let’s take a few minutes to play” often means setting aside a little bit of time to attempt a “trickier” pose while the teacher observes. Less permission is given to being truly playful or whimsical, making yoga practice a time for experimentation and an opportunity to laugh, share, and grow. 

As a yoga teacher, there is nothing more important to me than the safety of my students. A very close second, however, is that students are given permission to play.

Imagine working with students on a pose such as crow (which is not accessible for many folks and I’m using it here simply for its evocative nature) in the spirit of embracing what it is to truly play with our imaginations, our hearts, and our classmates. If you’re a yoga teacher, I’m sure you can imagine how you would cue this pose: something along the lines of “Plant palms to the mat, shift weight forward, bring knees to triceps, and balance!” Proper cueing is important, but it doesn’t invite your students to dream. 

Consider adding something to engage their imaginations too, such as using a story that will resonate with them. If I were to use a story here, I would draw on the television series Game of Thrones and say something like the following:

“Ravens! (plant palms to the mat) You are called upon to do your duty and deliver a vital message to the King in the North! (shift weight forward) There are many dangers, so you must keep your wits about you. (bring knees to triceps) Winter is coming!” (and balance!)

Notice that traditional sequencing can fit right in between this narrative. But when we add the storyline, we are no longer yogis on mats—we are now ravens on a mission! 

If you see that students are having difficulties, consider amending the narrative to include an additional challenge they hadn’t anticipated, such as the cold winds of winter knocking them off course. Give them permission to land whenever they need to, because their message is of vital importance and so are they.

So how do we create a truly playful yoga space? 

1. The first step is permission. Students must know not just that they are allowed to be playful, but that this is a vital aspect of time on the mat. That permission must be given in all aspects of our teaching, beginning with the language that we use and the rules that we set. 

I realize that not all yoga spaces will allow for the permission I’m speaking of, so consider how you can carve out some of these playful tidbits within the paradigm of your own studio. If you have more leeway in how you teach, imagine the power of thinking outside the current modern yoga box. Consider what it would be like to move beyond directional cues into a more evocative narrative space.

2. Second, let’s consider social constructionism. The concept of social constructionism refers to the idea that all of our behaviors and beliefs are socially constructed. That doesn’t mean that they are good or bad, but simply that they have been formed from groups of people coming together who over time form the cultural rules and norms we tend to take for granted as inviolate laws or truths. 

This means that we may be accepting yogic social norms that no longer serve us or our students. Consider this your invitation to question your yogic social construct and determine whether it serves you and your students—or if it no longer serves, and may, in fact, even be harmful. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it is right or better than what we can imagine.

Now pause for a moment. Literally, pause. And tune in to how you feel in your body. Did you bump up against a big feeling when you read this? That’s natural, and absolutely okay. When anyone challenges our concept of reality, or simply the way we typically do things or were taught to do them, our immediate response is often resistance. And then we may find that if we breathe into that resistance, there is not just space but excitement about what could be.

When I created YogaQuest, a style of yoga that is focused on narratives and play over conventional yogic constructs, I received a lot of pushback from the mainstream yoga community. But my students felt free in a way they hadn’t in traditional wellness environments. And the reason for that? The social constructs that the greater yoga community has created do not serve those in marginalized populations. This means that the community fits those who can fit in it, rather than expanding to embrace all who need it.

So how did I think outside the yoga box and make things fun? 

The truth is that I realized that I wasn’t having fun. I was teaching at a “big box” yoga studio where I had to follow a script, and sell retail. I felt joyless. I was fully engaged in the social construct and found it to be lacking in meaning. What brought joy to my practice—and what ultimately led me to create YogaQuest—was tapping back into what I knew to be meaningful to me. Stories. 

I set myself a goal of thinking outside of the social construction of yoga practice and to create something unique for the people I wanted to serve—outsiders like myself. I asked myself a simple question: What if the yoga class were a story? It could be a sweeping epic, or a silly cartoon. I knew only that stories bring me joy, and that if I could move my body as the story progressed, then all the better. 

When observed from the outside, it can seem as though the YogaQuest world is a lawless wasteland, but I do set expectations. They just aren’t typical expectations. 

Unlike some other yoga spaces, I do not require a silent studio; I want people to engage with one another and with me; this is what forms community. I don’t require people to be on time; people can come and go as they wish, and I never lock doors. Students are welcome to take what works for them in class and leave the rest. That means I’ve had students sit on their mats and color. They can do that if that’s what their practice looks like that day. And because this is normalized, other students praise those students for listening to their bodies. 

I also do not offer hands-on adjustments, though I am open to giving them if students specifically request them. My opinion is that each student’s mat is their house and I’m like a vampire; I can’t enter unless I’m invited in. I welcome students to make whatever choices they believe best. I’ve said the following phrase ad nauseum, which all my students can repeat back: “You are an autonomous human being who gets to decide what to do with your mind and body.”

Again, pause for a moment and tune in to your body and notice what is coming up for you while reading this. Pay attention, without assigning any judgment to what you find. If you’re having a big feeling, it means that there’s something important to pay attention to.

Once students know what the rules are, they are allowed to exist within that safe space. To laugh, to share, to move. The biggest way that I encourage play in my classes is through the use of narratives. And specifically through the pop culture (or as I call them, modern mythology narratives) I choose. While many teachers embrace the use of theming, it’s usually only taken to a socially constructed point, without creating a full and immersive experience. 

Think about the best performance you’ve ever been to—were you just observing people on a stage, or was there a way in which you, the audience, were a part of the show? I imagine it was the latter. Part of the appeal of interactive experiences, such as the wand shop at the wizarding world of Harry Potter, is that you aren’t just a shopper—you’re a part of the show! A fully immersive experience is almost always going to be superior to simply being a spectator, which is what many yoga classes ask us to be. 

While we’re moving our bodies, we aren’t really part of something communal, something we’re all sharing. It’s a noble goal for us all to be in our own space on our mats, but we really are all in this thing together—both in this class and in the world. Naming that is powerful.

In order to create an immersive experience, we must consider all aspects of a class. That includes the temperature, the lighting, the scents, and most importantly the language we use. If our hope is to create a space of play, it must be free of shaming language. 

How can we create a space of pure joy and playfulness on our mats? How can we create a metaphorical sandbox in the yoga space that welcomes the laughs of our inner children?

Imagine being a child who is asked to think about how their body looks as they’re playing. It would immediately take that child out of their playful moment. Because when children play they are doing the hard work of childhood. They are utterly present and fully authentic. The truth is that we are very much still those children who are trying to play but are constantly being interrupted. How can we create a space of pure joy and playfulness on our mats? How can we create a metaphorical sandbox in the yoga space that welcomes the laughs of our inner children?

I continue to come back to language, because this is such a vital aspect of this practice. Consider for a moment what types of language you use in your classes. Even if you’ve been through a trauma-informed training and are mindful about not using shaming language, are you inviting joy? And by this I mean, are you allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, and to embrace your own humanity? 

When I invite a class to share in a narrative yogic adventure with me, I am bringing my entire self and I am honest about the possibility that people might not resonate with it. That’s okay. My intention is not to please all people, but to truly please myself and to share the joy that I feel. Anything less would be inauthentic. I allow my students to see my vulnerable underbelly, rather than putting on the mask of a wise guru. 

The next time you’re teaching, look around at the faces of your students. Are they smiling? If not, do some self-inquiry and ask if there is something more you could be bringing into the classroom in order to invite, and even create, the smiles. Are you allowing yourself to be vulnerable? We are asking our students for a great deal of vulnerability; are you meeting them in that vulnerable space? 

Remember that we as teachers set the tone for our classes. So consider whether you allow yourself to truly smile, laugh, and play. Now fly, my ravens, for winter is coming!

Justine Mastin

Justine Mastin

Justine Mastin, MA, LMFT, LADC, E-RYT 200, YACEP (she/her) is the creator/Fearless Leader of YogaQuest, a yoga organization that links together yoga with narratives to create a holistic healing... Read more>>  

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