How to hold space: The ultimate guide for yoga teachers

hold space

By Jessica Humphries

As yoga teachers we are responsible for holding space for students. In this space physical, emotional and mental experiences will arise and dissipate. It is part of your role to ensure that people feel safe throughout these waves of experience. This requires both strength and compassion as you allow yourself to be a container without taking responsibility for what arises within others, as well as offering the gentleness and empathy that allows them to feel both held and inspired.

Here, we explore some essential elements in holding the energetic space that allows students to move to the next stage of their spiritual journey.

Centre yourself to hold space

Let’s be honest: As teachers, we sometimes come into a yoga space feeling rushed and frazzled. But creating the space within yourself to contain the experiences that arise for others is the beginning of the class. It allows students to come into a place of relaxation and ease – positively impacted by your energetic state.

Before any class – ground yourself, come into the present by tuning into your breath, and as much as you can, leave your ego at the door. This way you can completely focus on your students and effectively hold space. If it’s possible to do this in the classroom then that is ideal, but if not, you can even do this in your car or before you leave home to teach. Set a silent intention for your class and commit to being a supportive force for your students. Do not seek validation, nor fear judgement from your students. Simply allow yourself to be a conduit for the teachings of yoga to move through.

Teach from a place of compassion

In a world saturated with powerful, fitness inspired asana, bringing softness and compassion into the way that you teach can feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable. For many of us, it’s so much easier to jump on a stage and teach a strong, fast-paced practice than it is to feel the vulnerability that sometimes arises when we tune into our own empathy and compassion. But, as teachers, it’s not our job to place ourselves on a pedestal. It is, however, a great honour to hold space in a way that facilitates transformation in others – an important step on their own path to becoming a yogi.

Notice where you can bring more softness and compassion into your teaching. Most people are already quite hard on themselves. So, while a light-hearted reminder to work harder/faster/stronger might make you feel like a superstar, perhaps what is really needed is the invitation to stop pushing and simply let go.

Allow everything to arise

By becoming centred in your own presence, you hold space and provide the opportunity to be open to whatever arises.  It is not your job or responsibility to control the experiences of your students. But by allowing them to be exactly as they are, you give them the opportunity to come to a deeper place of self-acceptance and love.

Just as you do in your meditation practice, be the witness to all that arises without the need to change or fix anything. Of course if a student is in physical pain then you can provide modifications and variations for that student. However, if someone experiences the natural emotional catharsis that often accompanies the release of deeply held tension, know that that is all perfectly normal and okay.

Without singling anyone out, you might hold space by gently acknowledging that experiencing strong emotions during a yoga practice is all a part of the journey. If appropriate, when you notice strong emotions arising (during hip openers, for example), you may support a student with a gentle physical adjustment. Use your intuition here. This may not be suitable for a student you have only just met or who is not comfortable with physical touch. It’s a good idea to ask permission early on in the class so that students who prefer to be left to their own practice can let you know.

Allowing all experiences to arise (particularly emotional ones) with a gentle, nurturing approach gives your students permission to arrive in their own space of truth and eventually, transformation.

Allow space and silence

Learn to be comfortable with silence. As a teacher, it can sometimes feel awkward to be in a space of quiet stillness during class. You might feel as though there’s so much knowledge to share, or fearful that your students will think you have forgotten about them if you stop speaking. But this is one of the most important lessons as a yoga teacher and in life: Only speak when you really have something to say. By allowing silence, we not only give our students the opportunity to look within, but ourselves, as teachers, the chance to really tune into our intuition and listen within the silence.

The late psychiatrist Karl A. Menniger sums it up well – “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, and makes us unfold and expand.”

Providing silence when you hold space is a great gift that empowers people to understand the teachings of yoga on an experiential level.

Embody authenticity

Give yourself permission to be beautifully, authentically you. If you’ve had a rough day, don’t be afraid to share it in some way. You don’t have to tell your life story, but you could share a little anecdote and relate it to the philosophies of yoga. Your students are much more likely to trust you if they can relate to you on a human level.

You don’t have to be a perfect yogi all the time. Accepting your own flaws and connecting from a place of humility allows your students to do the same.

Learn and practice counselling skills

Finally, as teachers we often find ourselves in the role of ‘unofficial counsellor’, which can feel confronting – often leading to awkwardly fumbling your way through some pseudo-psychological advice. By taking the time to learn the foundations of interpersonal communication and counselling, you can learn to step back from the desire to want to fix your students, and instead learn to actively listen and paraphrase – giving them the tools to resolve their own conflicts rather than authoritatively advising on what they ‘should’ do.

Thank you so much to the following wonderful yogis who provided expert comments that assisted in the development of this blog post: Rachel Zinman, Lauren Tober, Delamay Devi, Tiffany Cowley, Kristen Bentley, Ginny Clarke, Lisa Thodore, Ana Davis, Diana Timmins, Ulyana Michailov, Nikola Ellis (whose business, Adore Yoga,includes counselling skills as part of its Yoga Therapy Teacher Trainings),Denby Sheather, Jennifer Quail-Allen.

About the author: Jessica Humphries is a writer, editor and yoga teacher. Learn more at www.jesshumphries.com