Partnering in yoga can be both exhilarating and instructive. Working with a partner often facilitates deeper stretches for students and may help them align in ways they could not manage on their own. It also gives them the opportunity to help someone else with their practice, and it allows budding yoga instructors to learn adjustments under the instruction of an experienced teacher. After all, looking up partner poses on Instagram and practicing them in the backyard can be risky. Having a teacher there to show students how to practice safely and mindfully may be just what a student needs.
Partner yoga can also help us lighten up and invite a sense of playfulness into asana practice. We yogis can sometimes get stern and stodgy on our lone little mats, and having someone to laugh with as we try a partner-assisted backbend—or hearing a friend sigh with pleasure in a spine-lengthening forward fold—can be rejuvenating to both participants.
Partner yoga can help us lighten up and invite a sense of playfulness into asana practice.
But what of those moments that become partner class disasters? As teachers, how do we prevent students from running out the door when we ask them to “partner-up”?
Scenario 1: Imagine you are a student attending a class for the first time when you hear the teacher announce “Let’s try some partner poses today—grab a friend!” This may bring a burst of excitement, or you may want to pretend you are heading to the bathroom and just not return.
Tip: Let students know if you are planning a partner class; avoid surprising them with company on their mats. Post it on your studio’s social media pages, give students a heads-up at the previous class, and allow them a chance to decide for themselves if practicing with someone else is for them (and encourage them to bring a fellow yogi-friend if they wish). Remember: We don’t know how each student feels about touching someone or being touched. Choice is really important. (Of course, if you have been working with a group of students for quite some time and know they are adventurous and gregarious, you are probably a little safer springing surprises.)
Scenario 2: You just started practicing yoga a couple weeks ago when you hear about a partner yoga class at your studio. You invite a friend, who's also a yoga beginner, and you’re both super-excited about it. That is, until you hear "Alright, yogis! After warm-up, are we all game for some acro poses?” You have no idea what acro is, but you soon find yourself pressing your somewhat ticklish pelvis into your friend’s feet while she apologizes for her chronic foot odor. After the two of you dissolve into a puddle of guffaws, you go out for pizza and vow never to go to that class again!
What went wrong here, teachers?
Tip: Let students know what level of partner class you’re teaching and if the practice involves acrobatics. Consider showing them photos of the types of things that will be done in the class. And be sure to clarify that partner yoga isn’t necessarily an “advanced” practice. New yogis might not want to go too “deep” in partner yoga poses, so be sure to let them know they won’t have to. After all, they’re only just getting comfortable with their own practice!
Scenario 3: You’re a student who loves partner yoga, and you hop down to your favorite studio for an eagerly anticipated “partner yoga workshop,” hoping your best guy pal from class will be there. And he is (with his girlfriend)! You sit awkwardly as the teacher places a chocolate kiss on each mat and the seductive soundtrack of Luther Vandross and Justin Timberlake plays. There is one other student there solo, and they have asked you if you’ve ever explored left-hand tantra or nude yoga. You suddenly come down with a headache, grab your chocolate, and leave.
Tip: Do let your students know if your partner class is geared toward couples, or if they’re expected to bring a partner along with them. We all like to have our classes well attended, but failing to be honest with students about your class format will not keep them coming back.
Scenario 4: Speaking of teaching a “couples” class: have you ever taught a Valentine’s Day class where all the flexy, supple yogis bring their jock or yogaphobic partners in for a hamstring shaming?
Tip: Foil that scenario by avoiding precarious or frustrating poses like forward folds with one partner lying on top of the other, or backbends over child’s pose (and especially avoid that if one partner’s knees are inflexible!).
Stick with standing partner poses (say, a partner version of warrior II, or a warrior III with partners holding on to each other’s forearms), and those that focus more on strength than flexibility (like plank and downward dog partner work). These are poses that both people can enjoy without anyone feeling like a “yoga failure.”
Scenario 5: You’ve been practicing yoga for a few years and go to a partner and assist class solo. You pair up there with a strong, enthusiastic yogi who really likes to help others and is bursting with ideas from his recent teacher training. As soon as the teacher utters the words “handstand with a partner,” he excitedly starts telling you all about the handstand assists he knows, tuning out most of her instructions. Moments later, he’s spotting you as you kick up. You’re mid-kick, and in spite of what the instructor has said (“Stand to the side of your partner as they hop up so that you don’t get kicked in the face”), your yogi-helper has other ideas, steps directly behind you, and gets a foot right in the jaw.
Tip: Partner classes can be super-exciting, and people tend to get chatty and lose focus. Instruct students to keep talk to a minimum so everyone can remain aware and avoid injury. And be wary of well-meaning students “taking over” the class with their ideas of how partner yoga should be. Though we want to give our students some creative leeway (like allowing them to offer each other assists when appropriate), establish clear rules and retain control of your class.
• I don’t allow phones or cameras in my yoga classes. Students often have a hard time keeping their hands off these devices, and they become distracted with “posing.” Students can take photos after class if they wish, but I suggest we keep the classroom yoga-focused.
• Begin by first demonstrating the least tactile and most easily achievable version of a pose or assist, and have everyone try it before introducing a more challenging or less tactile form. Give students permission to then move to a more difficult variation with more bodily contact if both partners are willing.
• Be very clear about touch boundaries by offering assists and poses that avoid contact with sensitive areas like the armpits and inner thighs. Remember also that for some people, touching the feet can be especially uncomfortable. Remind students to be clear with their partner and to always respect their partner’s boundaries.
• If someone wants to practice solo at any point, give them the option to do so. This may be an especially wise choice if a student has injuries or back pain. For example, they might place their hands on a chair or window ledge in an extended forward fold instead of holding a partner’s forearms. Remember to include each student in the class even if their choice is to practice alone.
• When a participant comes to the class alone and an odd number of students requires you to be their partner, make sure your attention remains on teaching the whole class. Demo with your friend first, and then have the other students do the asana.
• You can have fun too! It’s easy to get frustrated with awkward alignment when people at various stages of ability are working together. Poses may not match our understanding of “ideal” alignment when one partner is 5’2” and the other is 6’4,” or if one partner is a yoga beginner while the other is not. You don’t have to be the “yoga police.” You’ll have more fun, and you’ll offer your students a more liberating experience, if you aren’t overly worried about the small stuff.
And perhaps that last point about alignment offers the most important “take-home” partner yoga lesson of all. As teachers and students, it’s often easy for us to get way too serious and overly concerned with achieving ideals. But partner yoga gives us a venue for human cooperation, kindness, and selflessness—with our bodies, hearts, and minds there to support someone else’s practice as well as our own. When we approach partnering this way, it can become an act of (selfless service). And when we as teachers smile and appreciate a pair of mismatched trees swaying together and finding balance in vrksasana, we allow students to access the underlying beauty of yoga: that we are not on our mats to be perfect or to perform perfect poses, but rather to help each other.