Can a yoga teacher be too kind?

Rosemary Harding runs pain-friendly yoga classes in Bunbury. She explains to Rachael West how she walks the fine line between keeping students safe, and giving them the chance to progress.

Rachael: A lot of people think pain-friendly yoga is about teaching gently, or welcoming everyone with pain. But if we just did that no one would get anywhere. Have you had any challenges striking a balance between ensuring students don’t make their pain worse, while seeing progress in their yoga practice?

Rosemary Absolutely. I realised recently I can almost be too kind with my students. I’ll often plan an asana class that leads to a peak pose (one that is more challenging or complex) but don’t end up teaching the pose.

Rachael Why don’t you end up teaching your peak pose?

Rosemary I’m worried the posture will be too much for them and they’ll feel defeated. This is totally about my mindset – I’m worried they’ll decide yoga’s too hard.

Rachael The thought processes we have as teachers are really interesting! But I’d say it’s a reasonable concern. Many people with pain have spent years, decades even, unable to do things other people do easily. When the 75-year old on the yoga mat next to you can hold a headstand for five minutes and you can’t manage a forward bend it’s another reminder of how much you can’t do.

Rosemary That’s right. I don’t want them to decide yoga’s too hard. I’m a great believer that anyone can learn yoga, but of course not all yoga postures are useful for everyone.

Rachael Tell me about some things you do to make sure students in your pain-friendly classes don’t decide yoga is too hard.

Rosemary I teach 90-minute classes so have the luxury of a 20-minute warmup. I include the check-in process from Yoga for Pain Training. This helps students notice what they need for their body and mental state, and to take responsibility for that during the class.

Rachael Self-efficacy is important for everyone, pain or no pain.

But with chronic pain we tend to lose touch with our bodies – the brain’s mental map of the body actually changes. With that loss of connection goes our confidence to know what’s best for us.

That check in is so important. I also find it makes progress faster in the long term.

Your pain-friendly classes have a mix of ages, abilities and pain conditions. How do you cater for the different capacities?

Rosemary I now always demonstrate the first stage of a posture. I’ll then say “If this feels great for you” or “if you have more room to move” and offer more challenging options. This means they never have to feel they are going back to a ‘lesser’ pose.

Rachael What about those who are stronger and fitter or don’t experience pain? Do they have their needs met in your pain-friendly classes?

Rosemary A couple of students have moved on to my Ashtanga class but most progress within this one.

By encouraging students to develop a more refined awareness in that warmup time, their asana (postures) becomes more focused and intense, without being a strain. A lot of students say they find my class “gentle but strong”.

Rachael There’s a big difference between sort of waffly-gentle, and using just the right amount of energy. I remember one of the first times I ran the Yoga for Pain Program. About six months in, I introduced bakasana (crow pose). As you’d know, the program begins with tiny, tiny movements so seeing them attempt this challenging posture was amazing.

But it wasn’t their strength and flexibility that affected me. It was the way they did it: the quality of their attention and their movement. Some took their feet off the floor, others didn’t. It wasn’t about where they ‘got’ to.

Rosemary I must remember that teaching those peak poses is an opportunity for them to put in place what I’ve been teaching.

Rachael Everything that’s not just about how flexible or bendy you are?

Rosemary That’s right. I guess I get to step aside as a teacher and let them try it out for themselves. Because actually, my students are generally pretty good at organising themselves. I don’t need to individually intervene very often.

Rachael About 15 years ago an Iyengar teacher yelled out in class,

“I don’t want a bunch of yoga dependents!” It really stuck with me. We’ve got to give students the chance to progress.

Are you also now introducing other limbs to yoga in your pain-friendly classes?

Rosemary Last year we introduced a little pranayama so we’ll do more of that this year. I’m looking forward to seeing the students progress, not just physically but in their whole yoga practice.

Rachael We encourage students, health professionals and yoga teachers to make sure people with pain get to the right class. Have you had any students who would have been better suited to a pain-specific class?

Rosemary I once had a student in a full pain flare. Every week she spent most of the class in Savasana (rest pose).

It was wonderful she felt comfortable enough within herself and the class to do that. But a pain-specific class, tailored for people with pain, could have offered a bit more.

More options for different kinds of relaxation and gentle, mindful movements until she had the capacity to join more fully participate in the mixed group.

Rachael Pain-friendly yoga is probably harder to teach than a class specifically for pain. You have to be able to let students moderate their own practice, and to turn them away if the class isn’t right for them. Thanks for sharing your wisdom Rosemary.

Contact Rosemary Harding about her classes in Bunbury or find a Yoga for Pain Practitioner in your area on the practitioner register.

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