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Shame-free Yoga Part 2: Can shame be a positive learning experience?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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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.

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12 Responses to "Shame-free Yoga Part 2: Can shame be a positive learning experience?"

  1. Potts says:

    Wise words Marianne. I’ve learned lots from your reflections and our conversation too. I agree that shame is an incredibly powerful emotion (and one that any yoga teacher would be very wary of triggering). In its raw form, I guess it’s simply a potent form of fear (of what we think other people think/feel towards us) that becomes deeply internalised. To unravel shame is therefore a further unravelling of the self-protective aspects of the ego that may not be serving us well.
    And here’s a short little story from my day…
    Today at lunch I was watching a very cute toddler doing all sorts of upside-down ‘yoga’ moves while seemingly mesmerised by blades of grass. I marvelled that it would probably take me 20 years of daily practice for my body to move like his (if indeed that was possible). A few minutes later he walked backwards into my empty sushi container, smearing some wasabi on his shoe. When he realised what he’d done, he quickly retreated and hid behind his father’s leg. All of us were telling him it was OK, and trying to ‘make’ him feel good, but the expression on his face was oozing embarrassment and shame. It was completely natural and totally transparent. I could see how many times I’d felt that way as a young child (and into adulthood)… even when no-one else was doing the judging. It’s a very, very deep-seated emotion. I can think of lots of examples of children trying to shame each other (and children/adults doing things that lead people to feel ashamed). Watching this child it was pretty simple to see though – we gave him some love, and he dropped the shame and got distracted by the blades of grass again. I’m sure I’ve got many old shames to confront too, but it’s heartening to know that when I let go of them I’ll be moving more deeply into really accepting who I am. Remembering to laugh at myself when I make a fool of myself is also the best trick I know for letting go of more painfully embarrassing moments (much as I wish, those moments never go away) 🙂

  2. Janine says:

    I am so glad you have shared more about the shame we hold (or hide) inside ourselves. Although I am still new and a little irregular with my yoga practice, I am deeply aware of it’s physical benefits, and am so grateful to be learning more of it’s emotional depths here through your words… thank you!

  3. As you wisely say, our bodies are common sites of shame. And here’s one of the things I struggle with about shame and yoga. It can start from the moment you get ready to go to class. No matter what your body shape you tend to wear quite tight fitting clothes – because it helps with movement. But for those with body shame, turning up anywhere in something tight fitting is a challenge. And the you might lie with your legs apart, putting yourself in positions that a neanderthal would struggle with as these positions are vulnerable ones for any animal. And once you get through all that shame, there is the shame of not performing as you should. And the positive thing is that you are so conscious of your body and mind during a yoga class. So overcoming those shames result in an amazing and confidence building experience. And it is certainly not the responsibility of the teacher to remove all things that will trigger shame – but a sensitive teacher can certainly help you overcome them.

  4. Megan says:

    Personally I’ve never recovered from the shame of the Queef from doing inversions…

  5. Julia says:

    Marianne – I love your blog. I love how you make me think and question these sorts of things.
    You help me to become a better yoga student and a better person…. you are awesome!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us so openly.

  6. Delia says:

    Ahh…until i found the studio i practice in now, i often carried these same issues in my body & heart during yoga. The teachers i work with presently also leave space for whatever comes up during our process. What a relief to read others’ experiences!

  7. Lubna Kably says:

    Hi there,
    I was ailing, and guess what, even the surgeon has suggested yoga for me to lose my stress. However, I do have glaucoma and hence cannot do those exercises where blood would rush to my head (eyes). I need to find a good yoga instructor who will understand all this. I am still recovering and hope to begin yoga later this month.

  8. […] Your comments in response to this post were so fascinating that I wrote a follow up post. You can read it here. Thanks for the great conversation! This entry was written by admin, posted on March 26, 2010 at […]

  9. Steven says:

    […] Your comments in response to this post were so fascinating that I wrote a follow up post. You can read it here. Thanks for the great conversation! This entry was written by admin, posted on March 26, 2010 at […]

  10. Willo says:

    I went to a wonderful yoga class last week here in SF – taught by Tony of – and I absolutely loved a few things he did, different from any other instructor I’ve encountered: He gave us permission. Permission to not judge ourselves, and a reminder to not take it all so seriously. He repeats:

    “Don’t compare yourself with others. This is not a competition.”

    “Be happy with what you have. Be happy with what you can do.”

    “Relax. Smile. Laugh.”

    I loved that. After not doing yoga regularly for awhile, I find diving back in is a huge conversation with my body… and it’s not always as loving as I’d like it to be. Tony’s messages were a great reminder to ease up & be happy with where we are, right in the moment.

    Another thing he did that I loved, was he announced we could ask questions at any time, the only condition was that we ask it right when we think of it, and that we speak up so everyone can hear it. I liked that. I didn’t have to feel weird about wanting to ask something, or feeling like I had to get his attention to ask it quietly, etc.

    Excellent posts on all of this Marianne. I feel like people come to yoga in order to find a gentler way to connect with their body, physically, and the western relationship to the body (hot yoga clothes & all) can be intimidating, not to mention unnecessary. Who needs to feel more judged & inadequate in this world?

    Thanks for posting about this. I’m looking forward to the 30 days of yoga with you!

  11. pamela says:

    I read both of your posts on shame and they were incredibly helpful. Thank you. Only now, at 38, (and reading Brene Brown’s book) am I becoming aware of the shame I carry.

    As yoga teachers, it is our job to teach compassion, which I believe can melt shame. I am sorry for your experience with that teacher. I have had similar things happen and it’s most definitely not helpful. Or loving. Or in the spirit of yoga.

  12. Matt says:

    Thank you for your discussion about shame. I have been thinking a lot about the use of shame in yoga not only when our own shame is triggered but when the instructor is openly shaming. I have had the experience with several teachers in the past month who openly shame the people in class and I am struggling with what to do about it. I don’t believe there is any place for shaming in yoga class and want to have a discussion with the instructor. However, how do you have a discussion about shaming without “shaming” the person?

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