What Does a ‘Safe’ Yoga Practice Really Mean?

yogasafetypicA few weeks ago, I received a call at 10:30 on a Friday morning letting me know that my house alarm was tripped.   The alarm had gone off two times earlier in the month and both times I rushed home to meet the police only to find that everything was okay.  My cat was terrified but nothing was missing, and we attributed the alarm to my cat somehow setting it off.  So when the alarm went off for the third time, I was less than 5 minutes away from home and walked in my house expecting again to find nothing but a scared cat.  This time, however, I found my living room and bedroom televisions ripped off the walls.  And of course, a very very scared cat.

The police came to my home, wrote up a report and we eventually figured out that intruders had likely been in the house a few times before.   When the alarm had gone off, it was probably not a false alarm but rather a “test break-in” for the intruders to enter our home and see how long it took police to arrive.

I know many people have had a similar experience but as is the case when bad things happen to you, it seems like the end of the world.   I upgraded our alarm to a system even the Pentagon would be jealous of, and I nailed all of our windows shut.  I admittedly over-reacted, but I was freaked out.  I didn’t sleep for weeks, and I still jump every time my phone rings thinking it will be another break-in.

I’ve never really thought about the importance of safety, but this experience has shown me that nothing can really be achieved without it.  How can you explore, develop and live when you are constantly worrying about your own personal safety and security?  Maybe I should have paid more attention in my college sociology class when we studied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – he lists safety as the most basic fundamental need behind breathing and food.   I guess safety is just one of those things you do not think about until it is no longer there.

As I focused more and more on this need for safety, it made me realize that the word ‘safe’ is often used when talking about yoga as a practice.  Google ‘is yoga safe?’ and you will see 112,000,000 results come up (seriously!).  And check out different yoga studios’ websites – you will find countless references to creating a safe space or safe environment for their practitioners.  So how does this concept of safety really relate to us as yoga teachers and studio owners?  Here are three ways I think we each have a responsibility for the safety of our students:

We need to create a safe physical environment:  I do not own a yoga studio or gym, but I can certainly appreciate that budgets are limited and resources tight.  That being said, I have been to studios and gyms where I think owners are being irresponsible with the equipment (or lack there of) provided to students practicing in their space.  For example, I have visited studios where their mats had absolutely no traction and cringed as I watched people slip around on them.  If we are encouraging students to sweat and move, we need to make it physically safe for them to do so.

In the end, I also think that by providing practitioners with high quality products we create buyers with high quality taste- something that will ultimately benefit a studio or gym’s retail sales.   I know borrowing a yoga mat from my old studio immediately made me ditch my $10 yoga mat and purchase one from the studio for $50.

We need to teach a safe practice:  As a yoga teacher, I struggle a great deal with this concept of a ‘safe practice.’  Having taught in both yoga studios and at large-scale gyms, I have found that there are dramatic differences in what is considered safe in yoga from one venue to another.  In some places, shoulderstands are off-limits as well as allowing your head to roll back in poses such as camel.  In other places, these poses and postures are the basics of a yoga practice.

I understand that we live in a litigious society, and I am the first person to have private clients sign a waiver for this exact reason.   Although others will disagree with me, however, I refuse to believe that there are safe and unsafe poses or safe and unsafe practices.  Ultimately what is ‘safe’ for me may not be ‘safe’ for you. Teachers obviously need to use common sense when teaching yoga to different populations, but I think arguing whether a certain pose is safe or not is totally missing the point.  Rather, I think our discussion should focus on how we teach our students to practice safely themselves.    Students need to be able to listen to their bodies and respect what they hear – beyond just keeping them safe for the hour they are on their mats, I think this is the one of greatest gifts that yoga provides to us.  We learn to tap into what our body really needs and not let our ego get in the way of abiding by it.

We need to create a space that is safe for students to mess up, to fail and to laugh at themselves:   I think we have all had teachers in school, employers or coaches that created an environment where everyone is scared to mess up.  A boss that berates you for a failed project or a coach that pulls you from the game the second you make a mistake.  What I have found is that this style of leadership creates not only an unhappy environment but also one that never truly progresses or succeeds.

In order to succeed, you must be willing to take risks.  And to take a risk, you must be okay with falling on your face.  To me, yoga is all about taking risks and pushing yourself and your boundaries – that has often led me to falling on my face (and my back and my butt and my hip) but that’s how I’ve taken myself to places I did not think I could go.  Only by creating an environment in our class where students know they can fail and still be supported and okay can we successfully teach the practice of yoga.

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I really wish my home hadn’t been burglarized (I mean I really wish it hadn’t), but like most negative experiences it has taught me an important lesson.  Creating a safe environment, whether it is in your home, your relationships or your yoga studio is of critical importance.

If Maslow is correct and we must first satisfy our need for safety before attaining belonging, esteem, and ultimately self-actualization then this certainly must apply to our personal mission as yoga teachers and studio owners.  As we encourage our students to push themselves, challenge themselves and use yoga as a tool for growth, we must remember that creating a safe environment – both physically and emotionally – is the first step in this process.

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