The Art of Holding Space

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what it really means to hold space for others. I think about how my understanding of that concept has evolved over my years as a teacher, and how glad I am for that evolution.

As I watch what Tim has done every day for decades, and continues to do, I have such a great appreciation and admiration for it. While I’m moving away from thinking in terms of the word “guru,” I continue to learn from Tim every day.

We talk a lot about holding space in the Mysore community. I believe that cultivating the capacity to hold space is the single most important thing we do as teachers - more than the adjustments, more than the teaching, even. Without being able to hold space, we lose the opportunity to truly meet others where they’re at in their practice and growth, and we miss the chance to see how we can be most genuinely helpful as we spend some time with them on their journey.

As a teacher, the idea of holding space means that we’re walking alongside our students on their yoga journey, destination unknown. It means offering support that isn’t conditional on performance or ability or attendance. I know this isn’t always easy - holding space is its own practice, in teaching and in life. It’s an emotional muscle that you have to learn to work with, but it can make all the difference in the world, both for your students and for you as a teacher.

Before we get into the tips, there’s one thing I need to mention that I learned the hard way: It’s virtually impossible to be a strong space-holder unless you have people who will hold space for you. As someone who holds space for others, you need your own place to feel vulnerable without fear of being judged. Personally, I’ve found this in a therapist, my meditation teacher, my yoga teacher, a few friends. But another thing I learned is that once you get to understand what it is to hold space for others and to have space held for you, you cultivate an awareness of the ways others hold space (or don’t). Since I’ve gotten to understand this better, I’ve gotten better at steering away from situations and relationships in my personal life where the other person just doesn’t have the ability to hold that space for another individual. I know that to be able to show up for my students and hold their space, I can’t also be the only one holding my own.

To truly support others in their journeys of growth and transformation, we have to be mindful not to fall into the traps of approaches like taking their power away, shaming them, or overwhelming them. It can be hard - like I said, learning to hold space is its own practice, and these are all such human approaches to trying to teach. I remember an early Ashtanga teacher of mine who yelled at me across the room for trying to float into bakasana, who had me catching my ankles before he let me finish primary series, who criticized my friend for wearing striped pants. I didn’t realize the power struggles going on back then, but looking back at it has given me a clear sense of who I don’t want to be as a teacher. And knowing that has helped me shape a clearer and more positive idea of the kind of teacher I do want to be.

As yoga teachers, we have to be prepared to step to the side so that our students can make their own choices. We have to offer support, and sometimes gentle guidance, but most of all we need to make them feel safe even when they make mistakes. And they will make mistakes - but we all have, and we all continue to. A space in which students feel that they are allowed to make mistakes is a space in which they can let themselves succeed beyond anything they thought possible.

Tips to Help You Hold Space for Others as a Yoga Teacher

When it comes down to it, holding space is just a matter of providing a few basic things that are both simple and incredibly powerful.

Keep your own ego out of it. This is a big one. We all get caught in that trap once in a while, where we begin to believe someone else’s success is dependent on our involvement in it, or when we think that their setbacks reflect poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they bring into the room are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I’ve occasionally slipped into myself, but it’s a trap we all fall into sometimes. When we work closely with people, especially in a teaching capacity, it can be hard not to wrap up our own self-worth in our students’ successes and setbacks. You might find that their challenges leave you experiencing your own feelings of insecurity and failure. But this is their own journey, and they’re on it for their own reasons that have nothing to do with you. Just like you’re on your own journey. The pressure that comes from wrapping up your ego in their practice is unsustainable for both of you. To truly support a student’s growth, I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is keep my ego out of their space, so they have that space to grow and learn.

Give students permission to trust themselves. Not even the most skilled teacher can experience a pose in anyone’s body but their own. Students know their own bodies - your responsibility is to trust what they tell you and work with that, and to give them the room to learn from trusting themselves and their own intuition.

Give students only as much information as they can handle. As a teacher, my main priority is to keep students coming back and feeling empowered in their practice. That’s why I don’t like to inundate students with information before they need it. Giving information in smaller increments shows the student that all there’s a whole universe available to them, rather than making them feel like they already “don’t know enough” at points when there’s no reason that they should be anywhere but right where they are.

Don’t take students’ power away. When we take away a person’s decision-making power, we leave them feeling useless and incompetent. We forget that this is their journey, not ours, and it’s their experience and their practice. They might be tired, or agitated, or sad or stressed or feeling whatever it is their feeling - these are phenomena we all experience. Let them decide what practice is best for them. Let it be a joint effort.

Let students feel safe enough to fail. When people are learning and growing and transforming (like we’re all constantly doing), they’re bound to make mistakes along the way. When we can avoid responding to this with judgment or shame, we give students the opportunity to keep going, knowing that a single setback doesn’t mean that they’re not still on the journey and that it’s not still moving at the exact pace it’s supposed to. We can give them the space to find their own way into their personal victories. Mistakes are how we learn what works.

Teach with humility and sincerity. Years ago, I was questioning myself as a teacher and Tim offered me some advice. (It was in a slightly different context, but I’m recognizing it for what I learned from it.) It was that a teacher knows when to withhold guidance and when to offer it gently. It’s a careful dance that we all do when we’re holding space for people, trying to know when our attempts to help will only make the person feel worse, but I’ve found that it helps to create an environment where people know that they can come to you for guidance when they want or need it. If you can do that, you can create a space where they know they can open themselves up to the vulnerability of this practice, and where you know you can offer guidance without risking feelings of shame or judgment. It can be difficult to withhold our advice - after all, we think, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do as teachers? But holding that space for the students also holds the space for ourselves to take a step back. Because unsolicited advice is not the point of what we do as teachers. And that’s something we should all be glad for.

Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. This is ultimately the whole message of holding space, all wrapped into one suggestion. The fact is, it’s not your practice. It’s not your journey. You are simply a guide along the way - maybe a respected guide, maybe a venerated guide, but it is still their journey. It’s not about you. Respect their choices even when you would’ve made different ones. Remember the people who’ve done the same for you, and what that’s meant to you. When we hold space, we release control and we honor the differences between ourselves and our experiences. We support without taking over the other person’s experience.

This has been one of the most important things I’ve ever learned as a teacher. It might be one of the most important things I’ve ever learned as a person, too. I hope it resonates with you as much as it has with me.


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