I had so many interesting comments and responses to my post last week about shame and yoga that I found myself with more questions on the whole topic of yoga and shame.
In particular, my friend Nick suggested that there was a difference between a teacher "creating" shame, on the one hand, and "triggering old shame" on the other. He wondered whether there was any difference between triggering old shame and triggering any other kind of emotional release through yoga, an experience which I freely admit is a part of my experience of yoga and something which I accept and even embrace as an important and positive part of how yoga brings me home to my authentic self.
I believe that the yogic path is the path through, rather than around, our shadows. So I can see Nick's point. If this teacher's style, tone, words or action reconnected me to old body-shame that I've been carrying around, then he created a powerful learning opportunity for me. There is no doubt that through this experience I've become more aware of the shame I still carry in my body, despite the powerful and positive shifts that yoga has brought me.
As I said in an email to a friend about this experience:
"It seems despite seeking out compassionate yoga teachers, I still carry the hard taskmaster, the shrill critic, within me.
I don't think that this teacher shamed me, he just triggered my own internal critic, who does a very good job of making me feel 'not good enough' – which is pretty much my definition of shame.
That internal critic gets a lot less airtime these days than in the past, so it caught me off-guard – very much off guard! But it was a useful learning experience. "
So, if I was carrying this old shame within me, and if it needed to be released or at least recognised, then didn't the teacher last week do what all yoga teachers aspire to do – i.e. create an opportunity for me to learn and grow and deepen in my yoga and my life?
I think he did. But shame is a very powerful emotion. It has the capacity to paralyze us. It certainly has the potential to send an otherwise curious new yoga student away from a class with no intention of ever returning.
I have no problem with the idea that I am not the teacher for every yoga student. If I was we would all be in trouble. So, if after one class you decide that I'm not the teacher for you and never return I won't be upset at all.
But if in your first class, or one of your early experiences of yoga, you feel so shamed that you decided never to try another yoga class, then I would be very sorry.
Shame is a much more powerful emotion than many of the others that arise in our yoga practices. Many of us will experience frustration as we begin (and, for that matter, as we continue) to practice yoga. Some of us will feel waves of almost inexplicable sadness as we release layers of grief that we may have been storing in our bodies. These feelings may be very frightening for some people, but research indicates that none of them have the almost universal ability to paralyze us that shame has.
It is for this reason that I am especially mindful, as a yoga teacher and as a human-being, of the most common shame triggers. Sadly, our bodies are one of the most common sites of shame.
I agree with Nick that once a teacher comes to know a student well, and once that student knows and trusts the teacher, there is a powerful space in which a teacher may gently encourage a student to extend themselves beyond their comfort zone. A wise and intuitive teacher will know what each student is capable of doing, which is often more than that student suspects.
I've certainly have yoga teachers encourage me to try poses or go to places in my poses that I believed to be beyond me. When I trust those teachers enough I'll go even where I believe I cannot go. That is the beauty of a trusting teacher student relationship.
In this case, it may be that the teacher has such strong intuition that he saw that I not only carried 'shame' baggage but that I had the strength and the self-awareness to be able to process that shame. He may even have knowingly poked into my weak spot to show me what was lying beneath the surface. If he did, he certainly created a profound learning opportunity for me.
It takes careful judgement to know when a student has the support and tools to process a stored emotion as strong as shame without creating new shame.
I'm happy to admit that I will generally do what I can to avoid triggering shame in my classes, but I also accept that at the end of the day I cannot control what arises in people as they practice with me. I'm quite sure that there are people who have been in my classes who could tell us all a story about how my choice of words or adjustment triggered their own feelings of shame.
Shame is such a widely shared experience and can leave such deep wounds that all yoga teachers and yoga students are likely to need to face it at some point. I only hope that I can create a safe and supportive environment in which for my students to experience whatever may arise as they practice yoga.