King, strong and muscular, entered the class for yoga at Rikers Island. The dorm has 100 beds. We practice in the dayroom, usually with a fairly large audience of other inmates who watch through plexiglass walls from the dorm. That audience also pays us visits, making their way through and over the mats to get their coffee from the container in the corner.
While noise levels are always high in that dorm, in the previous week, the men were on line in the yoga room for their coffee, stepping over my students in savasana. It was just too crazy.
After speaking to the Correctional Officer on duty about it, she called out: “NO ONE IS ALLOWED TO STEP INTO THE ROOM WHILE THEY’RE DOING YOGA IN THERE. WAIT TO GET COFFEE ‘TIL THEY’RE DONE. THAT IS THE NEW RULE FOR YOGA!
We sat down to start class, and as always I bring up that the students don’t have to do what I say. “I’m sure we’re all injured, and in yoga we try to take care of ourselves and not push.”
After some basic rounds of pranayam, we added some movement. “We can raise the left arm, if you’d like, and stretch to the right placing the right hand on the floor.”
I had decided to be mindful of my speech today. Though I train other yoga instructors who are interested in serving the prison population to avoid using commands, I know it’s quite a turn-around from teaching a regular yoga class.
Once, a trainee asked in disbelief: “But how can you teach a class without commands?”
I know. It’s very different. Especially because it has to happen organically. You can turn a command into an invitation by prefacing a direction; for example: “If you’d like, you can …step the right foot forward.” But if it’s an order in disguise, with an admittedly friendly opening, the teacher is just going to sound like a hypocrite.
Observing my language in class today, I noticed that I was speaking about ‘we’ – not ‘you’. I realize that I speak that way because I think that way. We were all in this room together doing yoga. I’m doing something. Perhaps we can all do it. There are no commands in ‘we’.
We interspersed movement with child pose (called ‘reclining warrior’ in the men’s prison class) in which I encouraged the men to let all tension roll off them. “We can take these few seconds to let all tension sink down into the mat – like there was no before, and there will be no after. Just for this moment, it’s okay to completely relax. Just for this moment, we’re all safe.”
I started this practice of not using commands in teaching yoga four years ago. I know I didn’t immediately eliminate commands from my teaching: I’ve seen some footage of my prison class in which I am… using commands.
On the other hand, I’ve also become allergic to being commanded. On the rare occasion that I take a yoga class on the outside, I’m usually met with a well-meaning, perfectly nice yoga teacher, ordering me around.
I take it personally. I’m not used to it anymore. I can just imagine what it’s like to be commanded all day long, like prisoners.
I’ve seen students in prison recoil when a new teacher – popular on the outside – fired off one command after the other. This was an instructor who was trained in trauma-sensitive yoga, who had observed me teaching the class weeks in a row, and had been reminded not to use commands on the way there. It was unbelievable – he just couldn’t help it. I noticed the students’ blank stares. The following week, just two students showed up. That teacher left soon after, and the students came back to class and told me that they had not liked him.
This teacher sounded nothing like a C.O. He was simply giving instructions as he was used to doing. But that language must be triggering if it’s being used against you all day long, to control you, to make you feel that you’re bad. To make you feel you’re not worthy of being asked. To make you feel less than human.
How can we possibly connect with people if we’re ordering them around?
In today’s class, we did a bit of asana, and like most strong men, King was extremely tight. It was hard for him to get into a lunge pose. Most poses were hard for him, but we had many ‘reclined warrior’ poses to let go of all stress, physically, and of course mentally.
We spent over ten minutes in a guided meditation, taking ourselves to a peaceful beach, watching the ocean, and taking in the expansive, restful scenery – no commands. We followed with guided savasana, relaxing body part by body part – no commands.
King fell asleep in savasana and was woken up at the end of class by the other students. He jumped up and cried: “YOGA IS GOOD EXERCISE!”
He explained that he had first wanted to work out, which he does in the dorm, but then thought he’d try yoga instead. And he was glad he did.
As I walked out the day-room towards the bubble with C.O.’s and the exit, an inmate standing by the door sized me up, so lecherous his eyes were half closed, but his gaze was intense.
For a split second I was unsure what to do. From behind me came King’s voice: “Keep your head up.”
Immediately I realized why it was indeed best to look strong in this situation. If I had bowed my head down to avoid his gaze, it may have emboldened him. It would have looked as if I were submitting.
That man was closer to me than anyone, and the way I conducted myself in that moment mattered. King clearly had my back. He had been closer than I realized, and guided me. Thank God.
I noted to myself that King had correctly used a command. “Keep your head up.”
It was urgent. It was important that I hear and act immediately. I was unsafe. Commands have that purpose; they illicit instant action, in this case to escape danger.
In jail, commands are used to control inmates, or to humiliate them. In the military, commands are used to direct the troops, discipline soldiers, and also to humiliate them. In general, commands are used to control others. In arguments, when we lose self-control, we use commands to get out of the feeling of helplessness: “Shut up!” “Get out!” “Stop it!”
And finally there are yoga teachers. There were the teachers in India who took on disciples that would stay in the Ashram for months or years, who submitted themselves to the discipline of their Master, because they needed that training for their spiritual enfoldment. The guru would give to them exactly what they needed on their path, not only disciplining them, but showing unconditional love; Master of him or herself, not of others. Lesser gurus would use discipline to humiliate their students. It is those lesser gurus who would attract the masses, in need of glorification, or stuffing their pockets, or both. These gurus needed to keep a safe personal distance from their students, which allowed for the projection of greatness on the student’s part. Their commands were used to control students. Perhaps the current yoga tradition in the US, with its lopsided focus on the physical discipline, took its cue from some of those lesser gurus, whose object was to control their students, to keep them blind, deaf and dumb.
The 2016 Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance Yoga Survey indicated that for every actual yoga teacher there are two people interested in becoming a yoga teacher. Today, there are over 92,300 working yoga teachers, based on Yoga Alliance registered teachers plus the 9% of teachers of the Yoga Alliance survey who reportedly did not register with YA. And of all of the multitude of YA credited training programs, not a single one specifically teaches aspiring instructors to use inviting language, even though some stress for teachers to be thoughtful in their approach.
For many, the confusion about the language starts with the fear that you will sound wishy-washy to your students. In truth, it requires greater than usual self-confidence to be both firm and kind. Some teachers who have taken the Liberation Prison Yoga training and adapted their teaching style, have lost certain A-type students who want to be ordered about.
The vast majority of yoga instructors are nice people who sound bossy: “Take a deep breath! Relax your shoulders. Lift your arms. Stretch your fingers up… Step your left leg back. Warrior One! Keep those shoulders relaxed! Put your hands down. Step your right leg back. Plank! Lower into Chatarunga. Inhale. Upward Dog. Exhale. Downward Dog. Breathe!… Step your left leg forward. Warrior One. Hands up. Keep those shoulders down! Relax!”
Using commands is not easier or more practical than not using them. We may teach classes at a certain pace, but language is just a habit. Stating neutral actions, such as: “Inhaling, exhaling,” is a perfect substitute that doesn’t take extra time.
We all know yoga is about the ‘we’, and not the ‘I’. Commands can be uttered by the sweetest, most sincere yoga teacher – they’re still the tool of the dictator putting his armies in line. Or they save us from imminent harm. Only, in our yoga class, where is the fire?