Don’t do adjustments. Don’t put them on their backs. Don’t put them on their stomachs. Avoid “these” poses. Don’t turn off the lights. These are all things I have heard when discussing how to teach yoga to veterans. As a veteran, I understand why some of this guidance is given but there is not one way of teaching that works for everyone, and personally, I prefer to not be treated like I am broken.
Adjustments in a yoga class for veterans can be safely applied when done properly.
So please, stop telling yoga teachers not to touch me. I appreciate a good adjustment during class. Whether it is done because my alignment needs some correction or to help me deepen into the stretch in a pose, adjustments feel good. Not only do they feel good, they help me to deepen my practice, hence, furthering the healing benefits of yoga. So, how do you teach a class to military members or veterans and to those that may suffer from PTSD? Here are some techniques that I use in my teaching that helps my students get the most out of their yoga practice.
Do not assume that every military member or veteran has PTSD.
There is a lot of focus put on PTSD among military members and veterans. What gets left out of this dialogue is the fact that not every person that serves in the military or goes to war will develop PTSD. Not every person that has PTSD has served in the military. Anybody can develop PTSD after having a traumatic experience. With this in mind, any person that walks into your studio could potentially suffer from PTSD and there would be no outward indications of it.
Keep in mind that no matter what the “experts” say, you are the only one in the room teaching to your students.
Trust yourself. Trust the yoga. If you pay attention to the way your students respond to you, your teaching can be tailored on the spot to better serve them. Your words, the path you walk during your class and the ways you approach your students are all things that someone might not respond well to. I know which students don’t like me walking past them and for some reason it disrupts their practice. I don’t need to know why they feel this way; I just have to adjust the way I teach to accommodate their response.
If you want to give adjustments, go for it. But… make sure you know what you’re doing and why you are doing it.
Every yoga teacher I know was taught during teacher training how to ask their students at the beginning of class if they’re comfortable being adjusted. Usually the students are asked while they are in child’s pose, or while standing, eyes closed, and they raise a hand if they prefer to not be adjusted. The practice of giving your students a chance to opt out of adjustments should not be forgotten or skipped over, no matter how comfortable you are with your students. The techniques can very, depending on what is best suited for you and your students. Some teachers use a “coin”, red on one side and green on the other. The student puts it green side up if they welcome adjustments and red side up of they prefer not to be touched. Sometimes students are asked every time, before every single adjustment in a non-verbal way as they are approached. I keep a piece of paper at the front of the studio and I ask my students to raise a hand if they WANT to be adjusted. I put an “X” where students have asked to not be touched. Even still, they have the option to change their mind during the practice and can let me know as I’m teaching. There is an expectation when you serve in the military to tough through things you don’t want to do or things that might be painful. This mentality might keep someone from raising their hand and opting out of being adjusted, even if they don’t want to be touched. I had a yoga teacher during training tell me about an experience where she had asked for people to raise a hand if they didn’t want to be adjusted. She took note of those students that opted out. While adjusting a student that didn’t opt out, she felt them tense up and cringe under her hands. She didn’t understand why they did that to her when she explicitly asked who was ok being touched. The answer is that people have the right to change their minds. Someone may not feel the same 45 minutes into a class as they did during the first five minutes. Another explanation is that they had the mentality that they’d tough it out, but their body didn’t reflect their mentality. If this happens, simply back off. Don’t take it personally because it isn’t about you, the yoga teacher, it is about the student and how they feel in their body.
Always give options.
As a yoga teacher it is easy to get accustomed to students following direction, doing each pose as instructed. Eyes close on command, each breath flows gently in and out on cue. Teaching to military members or veterans sometimes requires more variation and a lot less attachment to being “in control” of the class. If a teacher does something to lose my trust (or just piss me off) during class I can’t help myself, I have to watch them any time they’re in my peripheral. I had an instructor swear at the class while we were in a certain pose and because I just knew that he had to be directing it at me I got agitated. I watched him like a hawk for the rest of that dreadful hour. Noticing he was being stared at and my drishti (gaze) wasn’t where he directed it to be he announced to the class, “a wandering eye is evidence of a wandering mind”. I did everything in my power to continue with my practice and fought the urge to drag my mat out of the studio like Linus with his blanky in Charlie Brown. I also fought the urge to punch him in the throat, which was a very foreign response for me to have during a yoga class and an unfortunate one. So the point is that as the yoga teacher you are the “guide”, not the dictator. Guide your class with options and variations and you are more likely to create a setting where your students feel confident in their practice and honor their bodies, no matter the variation.
Stop trying to take responsibility for how your students feel when they leave your class.
This is a hard one, even for me. I can say it to other people and say it to myself repeatedly but it is a work in progress trying to fully convince myself that I don’t control the outcome. No matter what intentions I want for my students, I don’t control how they feel after their yoga practice. I would love to have it be the best practice of their life. In a perfect world every student would leave my class after the most amazing savasana of their existence, seeing the world as brighter with more vibrant colors, float through the rest of their day and finish it off with the most restful sleep of their life. In reality, sometimes people leave class agitated or sad or disappointed. It isn’t for me to decide what they take from it because it isn’t my practice it is theirs. I am the yoga teacher and no matter how much yoga I do I can’t balance the whole universe.
Thank you for wanting to do this work. Thank you for wanting to bring the healing benefits of yoga to veterans and thank you for taking the time to read this. You may not be able to be the perfect teacher for every person you teach so just be your authentic self… and trust the yoga!