The other day, after class, two long-time regular students were quietly chatting about the recent privatization of the local jail. A student who began attending class regularly last month started asking questions, in earnest at first. She hadn’t figured out how to connect with this group of long-time regulars. And while a more innocuous conversation may have been a wiser starting ground she was diving in head first before checking the depth of the pool.
We all have a desire to be seen and heard exactly as we are – it creates a sense of belonging, something this student was seeking. Our yoga mats are a place to show up exactly as we are – to examine our beliefs and ourselves in an effort to connect deeply with our true selves, which in turn allows us to authentically connect with others. I refrain from more than surface level sharing of my political and religious beliefs in the yoga studio, mostly because no one wants a proselytizing yoga teacher but also because I don’t want to make any of my students feel shut out or shut down if we do not share the same beliefs.
As I watched the new student rapidly alienate herself from the group by vehemently refuting facts and revealing herself to be an extreme conservative with little regard for the well being of all amidst socially-minded liberals I sensed myself judging her harshly. I could feel anger beginning to take over my body, tension and heat rising into my chest and throat. I chose to come back to my breath, feel my feet standing firmly on the ground, and swallowed the urge to vehemently spit, “Are you fucking kidding me?!? You are out of your mind!” I mean, no one likes to be yelled at, and it just kind of looks bad if your yoga teacher is the one screaming at you in the midst of a blind rage.
My goal in every class is to hold a safe space while remaining open to seeing and hearing each student, free of judgment. Whether I know how you voted in the last election, how strictly you adhere to your religious beliefs, your dog’s name, and the birthday of your most recent grandchild or simply that you hold tension in your left shoulder on particularly rough days and smile out of the corner of your mouth when I crack the same joke for the millionth time on good days – I see you. I hear what you verbally tell me as well as what your body physically communicates as you move through your practice. I do my best to listen with an open mind and open heart.
I found myself face-to-face with the new student as even those typically left lingering for a chat after class had swiftly exited, escaping the ultra-conservative, fact-less rhetoric she had begun to spew. Almost imperceptibly she turned toward the door as if she too were going to leave. Then she stood up a little taller. Her hands began shaking as the floodgates opened and she spoke passionately about her beliefs even as the remaining students slipped out the door behind her. I stayed present and listened attentively without interjecting any of my own opinions even though I was appalled by much of what she was saying. After she had finished her piece she said, “Thank you for listening. I find it so hard to connect with people in this area because of my beliefs.” I felt a deep sense of sadness and isolation coming from this student. She wanted to be heard. She wanted to feel a sense connection and belonging.
I used to take classes with a teacher who closed every practice by saying, “May the corners of your heart and the corners of your mind open a little wider.” Sometimes holding space for someone, seeing them and accepting them exactly as is requires opening the corners of our hearts and minds wider than we are comfortably prepared for in the moment. Sometimes it requires listening deeply to what is just under the words being spoken. We don’t have to agree with others to see them, hear them, and make them feel they belong. And ultimately, we get to choose how deeply we connect with others once we have seen and heard them.