4 Ways to Empower Your Students (or Yourself) in Yoga Class
Okay, first let me say the thing that needs to be said, but that doesn't make such a catchy title: you can't really empower your students. You don't have their power, they do. This distinction is important. Power isn't a thing that you can give to someone else, it's something that each person has within them that they can be willing and able to access - or not.
What you can do is create an environment where your students are welcome and encouraged to use their power.
You can create a container where it's safe to explore personal power and all the qualities that come along with it: agency, confidence, clarity, inner strength, trust...
And if you're a yoga teacher, I'm sure that's what you're intending to do! But as the teacher, you're also in a position of authority. You're making so many decisions for the class as a whole, from what postures to do, to how long to hold each one, to what music to listen to (if any)... Without meaning to, it's easy to reinforce the idea that as the teacher you know what's best for each student and that the students should defer to your expertise instead of their intimate understanding of their own bodies.
Without even realizing it, you could be communicating to your students that their inner authority isn't to be trusted - that there's a right and wrong way (or at least a better way) to do things which is more valid than their internal wisdom.
Which is the opposite of empowering.
Of course as the teacher, students are coming to you for instruction and you do have a responsibility to help keep people safe. So it becomes a balance between sharing the knowledge your students need and at the same time giving them the support and the space to make their own choices so they develop trust in themselves, instead of dependence on you.
There are so many ways you could do this - and I'd love to hear your ideas! Here are four things I've been doing in my classes as a teacher to shift the balance of power back to the students wherever possible:
1) Work through options as a group.
This is slightly different than offering "modified" versions or variations of a pose, which is something common in many yoga classes. For example, a teacher might say, "option to place your hand here or here" or "you are welcome to use a block for support" or "for a more advanced version, try this." Certainly, those cues are better than a one-size-fits-all approach, but there are a few drawbacks. Students are often resistant to using props or doing the "easier" variation because there's an impression that harder is better. Or they might avoid the more challenging variations out of fear when those postures are in fact within their capacity.
Instead, try leading the entire class through any options that you're offering. For instance, in something as simple as the choice to use a block or not during Triangle Pose, lead the whole class into using a block at the highest height for 3-5 breaths, then a lower height for 3-5 breaths, then without a block for 3-5 breaths. Invite them to notice how the slight variation affects their breathing, the relative angle between the spine and the floor, the space on both sides of the ribcage, the sensation in the hips, and any other differences they might notice.
This works really well for Vinyasa flow too - have the entire class do a round or two of gentler variations (like lowering to the knees and coming to Cobra Pose), then something more challenging (like a few Chaturanga push-ups with the knees down, then coming to the belly for Cobra), then a full flow with Chaturanga and Upward Facing Dog. I find this works well if you do one right after the other without other poses in between to really feel the contrast.
If you're a student in the class, you can easily do this on your own by actually trying the options that the teacher offers (or other options that you know) for a few breaths each instead of rushing straight the variation you usually do.
2) Give free time.
Building up from the first suggestion, you can give your students even more opportunity to make choices and use their agency by giving them open practice time with less input from you. Fair warning - this often freaks people out a bit! Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just be prepared for a few bewildered looks.
An easy way to start with this is something I learned from Dianne Bondy. Lead your students through a simple sequence of about 3 poses and then give them a minute or two to pick which posture they'd like to return to and practice on their own. As above, you can also lead the entire class through a few preparatory stages of a posture (i.e. everyone does the "easy, medium, and hard" version) and then give them "play time" to return to whichever level of challenge feels most rewarding and also safe for them. This works especially well with postures that may not be accessible to all students like inversions or arm balances.
For maximum freedom (and some funny looks!) don't give your students any postural or anatomical cues and invite them to embody a shape or a movement that makes them feel grounded, or restful, or strong. Or tell them to move their body in any way that feels good for them for 3 minutes. That's a lot less direction than we're used to in yoga classes, and it's a good way to test how dependent your students are on you to tell them what they need!
3) Slow down and check in.
This has become non-negotiable for me.
I always start my classes now by inviting everyone to take a few moments to look inward without judgment, just observing how they're showing up on their mat. I'll invite them to notice anything that's present in their body, their mind, their heart.
Anything that shows up is allowed, nothing needs to be turned away. And then I remind them that information about your present state is invaluable to help you make good decisions about what you need during practice.
Beginning in this way sets the stage for a continuous awareness of the internal state. Then, throughout the practice, take pauses where you nudge your students to notice what's happening inside, and to adjust the practice however they need / want. Even in a dynamic Vinyasa class, there will be moments of rest or at least neutrality (like Down Dog, Tadasana, etc.) where you can invite your students to notice how the previous postures / movement / breath work is affecting them.
4) Remind them that they're in charge, not you.
Unfortunately, there are so many times in our everyday lives that we're expected to override our inner messages and ignore our needs, which is deeply disempowering. If you've ever been so swamped at work that you forgot to eat or drink, if you've ever desperately needed a rest but couldn't afford to take the down time, if you've ever been expected / guilted into saying yes when your true answer was no...you know exactly what I'm talking about here.
So when you look out at your students, know that you have a group of people who are very likely to have a habit of overriding their internal messages in favor of what they "should" be doing. Yoga class can be an opportunity to dismantle that habit and practice being in your power at the same time that you practice postures.
As the teacher, you can facilitate this by reminding the class that you can't know what's going on in anyone else's body or mind. Each individual is their own best judge of where they are and what will serve them. Tell them you don't have all the answers. When you adjust someone's alignment, check with them to see how it feels in their body. Say that your cues are guidelines not rules - it's not a problem if they move a little ahead or behind you, or if they choose a completely different option (within the boundaries of safety and respect for the rest of the group).
There are so many ways that you can subvert the idea that it's normal or necessary to submit to an external authority even when it means abandoning yourself. And that's a story we would all benefit from overturning.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, so if you have other thoughts, feel free to let me know in the comments! And of course, you can use any of the suggestions above as a student as well - you are your own best teacher, so bring these things to class even if your teacher doesn't. Wishing you all an empowering practice!!