Guest post by Yogasteya member Abby Nathanson
There’s something about the typical yoga class set up – teacher’s mat lengthwise at the front of the room, students’ mats lined up in rows, always oriented towards the teacher – that never felt right to me. Even when I was a new student gratefully learning from watching my teachers’ asanas (physical poses), the class arrangement always felt wrong. For a practice that was meant to foster the inward gaze, the structure of rows always made me much more aware of my body’s relationship to others’ in the room.
As a beginner, I would coax myself to the front of the room so that I could have the clearest view of the teacher and be first in line for adjustments. At the front of the room, I knew that when I was the last to leave Downward Facing Dog to go through the flow, the person behind me would be staring at my butt (a fact I eventually got used to, because I am just not made for fast vinyasa classes). If I moved back a row, I found that a significant part of each class would be about trying not to think about the person in front of me – how her poses were, what brand of yoga mat she had, if she knew that the tag was sticking out of her shirt.
And then there are the horizontal aspects. When students end up facing the long side of the mat, usually in standing poses, a new watch-and-be-watched dynamic is set up. I once found myself going lower into extended side angle pose on the side where the whole class was facing me, backing off a bit when we switched sides. Ever curious, I often don’t turn my head the correct way in triangles and warrior twos because I’m looking around the room, learning from the poses of my neighbours.
This, by the way, is why you should go to yoga school if you have the opportunity – to get the whole thing about learning-by-observing out of your system, a little bit. Observation is an excellent way to learn, but also, group classes should be well facilitated, encouraging each practitioner to focus on what’s within the four corners of their mat island. That said, we continue to live in the world as curious and flawed people. When there’s another person, directly in front of you – and you have to look past them to see the teacher for instruction – it’s hard to avoid noticing, getting distracted by, or even having your practice be affected by all those gazes and all the sights of all those other bodies.
And then there’s the whole aspect of the teacher-student hierarchy that’s implicit in the rows-towards-the-front structure. If you’re watching yoga videos online, the camera is of course oriented straight on, longways towards the teacher, which makes enormous sense. In class, since we do have the gift of sharing space in a room, I like to take advantage of that and try out different ways of arranging ourselves – like teaching yoga in a circle.
I studied in the Iyengar method, which means that my first time teaching a class at a studio was my first time teaching formally at all (I know, it’s a little absurd, but also a topic for another post). Following from the tradition I trained in, I started my beginners’ yoga classes in the typical arrangement – but where the students’ mats are typically parallel to mine, and I’m mirroring them. However, my beginners’ classes resemble workshops, a mix of how I was trained and from taking Education courses in college, full of demonstrations, students asking questions, and getting into the nuances of a small number of poses. It’s great, and my place at the front of the room is mostly one of pragmatics – I demonstrate poses while the students sit or stand to watch, so my place at the front makes perfect sense.
Where I found my place at the front to make less and less sense, however, was when I added a Friday night candlelight karma class. It’s a donation class that benefits two organizations I’m a part of that advocate for historically marginalized women’s access to yoga, Women’s Power Space and The Kishna Foundation. A lovely, small group of mostly women gather on Friday evenings for a restorative and gentle class. We take the time to build community – we begin class by sharing our names and appreciations for our bodies, and I usually share a passage after savasana (final resting pose) on yoga and social justice. We create a gorgeous circle of lit candles in the middle of the room, and then we all put our mats in a circle around them, front edge facing the candles.
I love it. A couple of my students have been practicing for longer than I’ve known how to drive, and a couple of my students are totally new to yoga, so it’s fun to put us all on the same plane. Since the class is very gentle, there’s not a lot of need to look at me for instruction, and I walk around the circle to assist newer students. If someone does choose to look at me to follow my example, they can look directly at me – no need to look past and through other students to see me, I’m just right across the circle.
Teaching in a circle has helped me start to learn how to cue differently – I can say “towards the candles” or “away from the candles,” but after that I have to start getting precise because everyone is facing a different direction. Any movements that I might have said before “as towards the yellow wall” or “towards the windows” no longer work, so I have to thoughtfully cue body parts in relation to other body parts. For instance, rather than asking students to open their hips towards a part of the room in warrior two, I talk about the relationship between the bent-knee’s hip and the straight-leg’s hip. Not only is the overall yoga practice about turning inward, but I start cuing more inwardly, too. Yoga teachers are always learning.
The room is dark and everyone’s gaze eventually just lands on the beautiful candle circle, creating a very meditative space. We practice savasana with our heads facing in towards the candles – I’m super new to energy healing, but I know that savasana in a circle definitely does something. We end in a brief seated meditation, and then we all roll forward to some type of tabletop/child’s pose/sphinx pose for the collective birthday in which we all blow out the candles. At the end of 90 minutes of my voice doing the instructing, I invite everyone forward for the collective birthday party, we giggle, and then I don’t say anything – everyone knows how this works. At the perfect time, someone else always, totally naturally, looks around the circle and counts aloud, “1, 2, 3…” before we all blow out the candles and maybe make some wishes, too.
Abby Nathanson is the Co-Founder of Women’s Power Space, the center for women’s leadership, collaboration, yoga and arts in downtown Poughkeepsie, New York. She studied Sociology and Africana Studies at Vassar College and is a RYT-200 yoga instructor with a background in the Iyengar method. Abby is passionate about feminism, anti-racism, decolonial witchcraft in Cameroon, leadership-building with high school students, crying in pigeon pose, and savasana (resting pose) that is practiced with a bolster, eye pillow, two blocks, and three blankets. To connect, visit her website.