I discovered yoga at a local gym after my physiatrist suggested it for chronic back pain. In the first exciting months, I discovered my body’s capabilities and the peacefulness I felt at the end of each class. When the facility decided to adopt a hot and competitive power format, my experience as a yoga student went from joyful to distressing.

Each person has a different reason for attending a yoga class, which is why many formats exist. While the workout format is popular and great for many, it doesn’t work for people whose stress levels are aggravated by this type of activity, nor for those with various medical conditions. I developed Soulful Flow Yoga to suit those who don’t want or need an athletic approach – but can still benefit physically, mentally and emotionally. Here’s how:

The Class Space

Safety

Feeling personally safe may be an issue for those who’ve survived a traumatic event. For this reason, I always offer the following:

  • Upon request, I will show students all exits.
  • Students feeling vulnerable are welcome to sit or stand with their backs to a wall and away from (or near) doors.
  • Yoga nidra/guided meditation is usually practiced laying down with your eyes closed, but this is not a requirement. Feel free to remain seated (in a chair, against a wall), or lay in ways that your body feels comfortable.You aren’t required to close your eyes if you don’t feel comfortable.
  • Although straps are helpful, I refrain from using them if I know they may be triggering to new students.
  • For those unable to stand or hold poses very long, I encourage you to use a chair or come out of your pose. I encourage you to be mindful of your body’s needs.
  • I rarely use touch and will often mirror people instead (see below). However, if a person needs more guidance, I will always ask their permission and only use touch as a gentle form of direction. I don’t use forceful assists.
  • Vulnerable poses: If you do not “feel right” in certain poses, adjust or don’t do them. Go into any pose (even simply standing or sitting) and breathe.

No Mirrors

While many studios and gyms offer mirrors to help students learn about body alignment, I purposely chose a facility that does not have these. This is why:

  • Alignment-based yoga isn’t a “one size fits all” concept. Each physical body is different, so “correct alignment for one” doesn’t apply to others.
  • Self-judgment: Seeing ourselves may trigger critical thoughts about the “shoulds” – our weight, how we compare to others in class, what we are wearing, etc. By not having mirrors, we eliminate the mental distraction.
  • We learn by actually feeling our bodies rather than focusing on the “shoulds.” What feels good versus what causes pain or instability becomes the spotlight, helping us build our everyday living skills with balance, knowing when to stop if something doesn’t feel right, how to lower our stress levels, etc.
  • In lieu of mirrors, I “mirror” or mimic what I see if people need the guidance to adjust their pose into a more comfortable position.

Ambiance

Music

When we use music, we use calming ambient music for these reasons:

  • For some people, fast-paced music can trigger an anxiety attack. Others simply want a calming atmosphere to accompany their practice.
  • For others, music helps concentration, especially if the music does not have lyrics.
  • Ambient music may help some beginner students center themselves during meditative practices.

Did you notice the word “when?” We don’t always use music so we can focus on our breath and bodies. While music is a great distraction from wandering thoughts, it can also be a distraction from the present moment. The silent moments can be the most challenging – or the most rewarding.

Inspiration

We can learn so much from those who inspire us. Regardless of the author or article, the aim is to inspire us to overcome our personal suffering by choosing empathy and compassion toward ourselves and others in challenging situations.

A Healthy Zone

Heavy Scents, Perfume, etc. (Asthma, Allergies)

To honor individuals with asthma or allergies, we do not use incense or fragrant oils. I also ask students to refrain from wearing any scents or perfumes since these can trigger asthma attacks or allergic reactions.

Lighting (Migraines)

For some people prone to migraines, certain lighting can trigger a migraine. I turn off ceiling lights and use ambient table lighting.

Medical Conditions and Liability Waiver

In the past, some haven’t considered certain medical conditions relevant to their class participation. The student then discovers that their (dizziness; asthma; anxiety, “small injury,” etc.) are suddenly relevant. If you’ve experienced anything that adversely affects your well-being during or after class, always tell your teacher. This applies to any yoga class (mine or others). A good teacher will then offer “modifications” that can help you – and others. Modifications include music, any cues you find “off,” etc. Yoga teachers constantly learn from their students – we can only improve if you provide the guidance.

Props

Healthy choices mean we encourage props. Our props include chairs, the wall, the floor, foam blocks, and any furniture that aids balance and flexibility and build strength. We usually refrain from using straps since they can be triggering (refer to Safety, above).

Is it Okay if I… (Choice)

“…lay on my side instead of on my back?”
“…use a chair?”
“…if I do the pose (or meditation or breathing) this way?”

Yes! Choice is the hallmark of our class. If a pose, length of holding or meditation style isn’t working for you, adjust. The only time I intercede with suggestions is if I see an alignment issue that may cause personal injury or feel painful. If you need guidance, ask. It’s your practice.

Lack of Judgment and No Apologies

Overall, we aim to gain control over the monkey mind that is constantly nagging us about our imperfections. That includes reminding ourselves when we think, “Gee, I wish I was nonjudgmental” that we as humans are a work in progress. Words like must, must not, should, should not and have to can be replaced with I like, I am working on, I honor, and other neutral or affirming phrases.

Never feel you have to apologize for feeling you can’t do certain poses or techniques. Recognize that any adjustment you make is progress – you are honoring your body, mind and spirit.

Thoughts?

If you are a student with specific needs, have you considered these areas in your search for a class? If you are a teacher, do you incorporate any of these steps? For students and teachers, what else would you like to see in the classes you attend? I’d love to hear from you!