Picture this. You’re in the middle of teaching a lesson. Perhaps you’re still relatively new to teaching, maybe this is a much bigger class size than you’re usually used to, or this could just be your regular class with regular students. The class is going great, you’re in your element, when someone starts to cry.
What do you do? Whether you’ve got 8 or 28 people in that class, whether you’re a new or more experienced teacher, how you handle this is crucial. Your heart goes out to the person with the tears rolling down their face, yet your brain is trying to remember the class plan, keep an eye on the time, and stay alert to the needs of the other students in the room. To decide what action to take, consider these three questions:
1. How well do you know the student?
If you know them well, then going over, placing a comforting hand on them, perhaps whispering, “Are you okay?” are all appropriate actions to take. If you don’t know the student so well, you may not feel so comfortable doing this. Don’t force yourself to do anything because you think you should; instead trust your instincts. Not everyone wants comforting when feeling emotional. In fact, if someone is already in tears, a light touch from you could actually see them completely lose control. Whilst we want to encourage people to be open and express their emotions, we also want them to feel safe.
If the student is avoiding your eye, and managing to stay with the class, then your best course of action may be no action at all. Remember that everyone is on their own journey — this yoga class may be the only place that this person has to release and let go. You can help support this freedom of expressing emotions by saying things like, “allow any feelings or emotions to arise without judging or labeling anything as good or bad.”
Sentiments like this can give the whole class permission to feel how they feel whilst allowing you to speak to that person in tears without singling them out. There may be one person crying that you’re aware of, but you probably have no idea of what is going on for that room full of students. All you need to do is create a safe, nurturing space for those students to be in.
2. Do they seem okay?
You may be thinking, “no, of course they’re not okay, they’re crying!” But remember that crying in itself is not a problem. In my experience, this type of scenario usually goes one of two ways — they either manage themselves by remaining in the class, or they leave the room.
If they leave the room, you pretty much have to let them go. Disrupting the whole class for one student is not going to help anyone. Your class will be left wondering what’s going on, whilst your upset student will feel embarrassed because they’ve suddenly become the centre of attention.
If it’s towards the end of class, or they suddenly dive out of savasana and head out the door, you could quietly step out to check on them, or ask reception to make sure they’re okay before they head out into the big wide world. It can be a good idea to have healthy snacks in your bag in case of situations like this; eating can be a stabilising and grounding activity, and can help an upset person come back down to earth.
3. Do you know your boundaries?
Remember that you are not here to fix people. If you do get the chance to speak to the emotional student after class, be clear on how much time you have to offer. You could say “I have 10 minutes after class, if you’d like to talk anything through?” but never feel obliged to do this. There is a risk that someone may want to sit down and discuss their problems with you for the next 45 minutes, and you must be very careful of allowing this to happen. Not only may you find yourself losing time that you need, it can be very exhausting to sit with someone and absorb all their issues, especially if you tend to be a very openhearted, emphatic person.
Although it’s wonderful to be kind and compassionate, you’re not here to solve people’s problems. If someone seems very distressed, or begins to offload problems which are too big for you to handle, don’t be scared to gently suggest they seek help, be that through their GP, counselling, or another form of therapy. You’re a yoga teacher, not a therapist. Don’t find yourself trying to do more than you are qualified or experienced enough for.
Always Be Prepared
It can be helpful to understand why yoga brings about certain responses when planning your class. Heart openers like backbends can feel terrifying if we’re spent a large part of our lives with hunched shoulders, trying to protect ourselves. Inversions turn our perspective upside down, which can be liberating and petrifying if we spend our lives trying to desperately control everything around us. Knowing this, and then observing your students bodies can help you anticipate emotional responses.
Remember that a lot of people out there aren’t really breathing properly or moving mindfully. Asking someone to simply focus on their breath can create a strong emotional response. Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book is a great resource for yoga teachers, as is Anodea Judith’s Eastern Body, Western Mind, a brilliant guide to the chakra system which begins to explain our emotional responses to yoga. You can also check out our series about chakras for some more details.
It’s Okay to Let Go
If we’ve been holding onto a lot of emotions, for a number of years, then we could find that our yoga practice involves shedding a lot of tears. This is not only true for your students but you. Personally, I found that yoga was a huge emotional release for me. Going through a particularly difficult time in my life, my Wednesday evening yoga class was the time that — for reasons I didn’t understand at the time — I would feel silent tears sliding down my face during Child’s Pose. I kept it together, I let the tears come, and I didn’t judge myself for them.
As a yoga teacher, let the yoga flow through you. Teach what you know, what strikes true to you, and don’t try to be anything that you’re not. Remember the principle of ahimsa and be kind to yourself. No one is expecting you to be perfect, apart from possibly you, so give yourself a break. Look after yourself with good food, rest and a balanced yoga practice. The best way to truly to be kind, is to practice kindness to yourself.