Why Did I Stay? When Yoga…Hurts…

Ginny and Jean have discussed their positive experiences with yoga, but we also want to remind people that not all experiences are made equal. Below we share a post from friend of SEEK, Sarah Jean White. Sarah is a mental health therapist and certified yoga instructor who sometimes incorporates yoga into her clinical practice. She is also a long-time yogi herself. Read her illuminating account below:

“I’ve been wanting to share the dark side of my experience of yoga for some time now. My hesitation comes from truly loving the practice! I don’t ever want to steer anybody away from Yoga, as it has been a catalyst for so many areas of healing for me….Yet….

Everyone who rolls out a mat is doing so for the same reason…healing. It may be for the body, it may be for the mind and it may be for emotional injuries. All of that was true and remains true for me. I roll out my mat to steady my anxious mind, to loosen tension from my body and to get perspective on my emotions.

I have been a dedicated practitioner since 2003. I became a certified instructor in 2013. I have taken hundreds of classes and workshops and training and still feel like a beginner because that’s how deep the practice is.

As westerners, we start with asana (the postures) often not realizing that is only 1 limb of the practice. There are 8 limbs that include philosophy, breath, dharma, and mediation.

I have incorporated the full practice into my everyday life and am better for it, but I have had some bad experiences. I am not going to share with whom or where because this is not about calling anybody out. What this is about is hopefully sharing an experience that can help others practice safely for the body, mind and emotional wellbeing.

A few years ago I went to a Master Class with a very well known and respected Yogi. Even though my practice was strong I was unsure that I should attend this particular class. Another instructor I practiced with regularly assured me that I was fully capable of handling the class, she had taken it before and knew my practice well, so I felt confident….until I walked in.

As per usual the other practitioners were rolling out their mats and getting ready via their own asana ritual warm-ups. I did the same. I rolled out my mat and begin to warm up my spine with simple cat/cow movements. When I looked up I saw people standing on their hands, dropping into backbends and doing full splits…before class even started and an instant surge of “WTF?” rose deep in my throat.

The instructor walked in with the stature of a deity and everyone got quiet and bowed there heads….ok, when in Rome. It felt intense but whatever I was all for the experience. The instructor of Guru status walked over to my friend and pointed at the floor not saying a word. She didn’t know what to do so she began to pick at the floor where there was a piece of tape. Instructor snapped, “No! Line your mat up!” Again, the throaty WTF?

At that point, I wanted to leave…but I didn’t.

The “warm up” started with forearm stands. FOREARM STANDS? “WTF?” Ok, I definitely should not have been there. It was looking more like Cirque De Soleil than a yoga class. The instructor said, “forearm stand, do not use the wall and do not fall”. Neither was a possibility for me at that time in my asana practice. I wanted to leave, but I didn’t.

As the class continued there were several humiliating experiences in which the instructor asked my friend “is this your first yoga class or something?” It most certainly was not, she had been practicing for years and has a strong practice. So disrespectful.

The instructor also physically forced my body into Kurmasan (tortoise pose) with my feet wrapped around my neck. I felt a sharp tug on my lower back and I snapped. I looked at the instructor and Instructor said….”See, like her”. WTF! Did Instructor just compare my body to somebody else? I looked at Instructor with anger and said, “yeah, MY body can’t do that!” Someone in the class said, “don’t talk back to Instructor.” WTF WTF WTF!!!!!!!!!!

It was awful. We laughed about it afterward but the truth is WTF! I felt humiliated, disrespected and I actually had to go to a chiropractor for the first time in my life a few weeks later to get some relief from the lower back pain. This is not the yoga experience anybody needs.

So, why did I stay? Because group mentality is a real thing. I did not want to disrespect the famous instructor that was disrespecting me. I felt reduced and didn’t want to bring any more attention to myself. I didn’t want to feel like a failure, even though I did. I didn’t want to be a quitter, although I had every right to quit something that was not safe for my body mind or emotional well being. I stayed.

This isn’t the only experience that I have had when I left a class feeling bad about myself. One time a yoga instructor slapped my ass in congratulations on nailing a flawless handstand. I said nothing. Another time I listened to an instructor talk about how we should never listen to objectifying music, but I love Missy Elliot singing about her vagina, it feels empowering TO ME. I’ve heard instructors say that meat is evil, caffeine is a toxic drug and alcohol diminishes one’s soul.

I love beer, and a good buffalo wing and Missy Elliot and I can’t do full splits standing on my hands…SO WHAT my “soul” is less than!?

We deserve to walk away from a yoga class having a positive powerful experience, even if intense and challenging. We need to feel supported in what our body can do on a day to day basis. We need encouragement and kindness. Humiliation, hands-on force, and judgment are abusive in and out of a yoga setting.

The practice is deeply personal. If we are bullied on our mat we can develop a conditioning to bully ourselves off the mat. We are there to gently challenge ourselves, soften and practice inner stillness.

I deeply respect all types of Yoga and personal philosophies that are attached to the traditions but I cannot support anything that is not supportive of our healing.

I have had WAY more positive experiences with Yoga than negative but there have been a handful or two of experiences that I wish I left or said something like, “hey, thanks for the encouragement but keep your hands off my ass!” Because let’s get real, do we women need to feel objectified any more than we already are? Also, a cup of coffee or a great cocktail and a delicious buffalo wing does not mean my “soul is diminished”. Sorry but that feels like some self-righteous BS not grounded in anything real

I don’t care what the status is of an instructor. If we are feeling humiliated, judged or physically harmed we need to listen to our physical and emotional body and get out of harm’s way.

Yoga is a healing practice, a waking up, a soul shaker a practice of self love and acceptance, a chance for connection to self and others rooted in compassion and kindness….if it feels like anything else, I encourage you to leave, speak up and find a space and instructor that helps you feel empowered not disempowered.

The light in me, the dark in me, the shades of grey in-between honors the light in you, the dark in you and your shades of grey in-between. I honor our humanness which does not encompass perfection. EnREALment with moments of EnLIGHTenment.

Namaste,

Sarah Jean”

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This post first appeared on Sarah Jean’s site, balancedinimbalance.wordpress.com. To see the original post and more from Sarah Jean, click here.

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