Awhile back, I witnessed an interesting exchange between a male yoga teacher and two female yoga students. The teacher was expressing caution around women doing inversions while menstruating. He cited a long history of teachers agreeing on this point, waving his hands in the air, as if for extra emphasis. One woman raised her hand and at the same time said, “Almost all of those teachers were men. How long have women been practicing yoga?” This was followed by another woman who basically disagreed with the teacher, citing potential health benefits and personal narratives of her students and friends.
There was some back and forth. At one point during the discussion, the first woman who spoke said, point blank, “I’m just expressing my disagreement with you, is that ok?” After a few minutes of this, the teacher requested that they drop it and move on with the class.
It struck me that the teacher wasn’t too comfortable with this kind of conflict. Perhaps he worried about losing control of the class. I also think there was some sexism going on. Listening to a man insist that he knew better than the women in the room about their own bodies was pretty cringe-worthy; I had a hard time looking at him the same after that. However, I think something else was at play there as well. Namely, doing whatever you can to maintain that harmonious, peaceful ‘yoga environment’ that people have come to expect.
The way that discussion played out was a disappointment. Since the teacher insisted he was essentially right on the matter, I seriously doubt the women who challenged him felt heard at all. And it no doubt impacted others in the room who hadn’t spoken up, though perhaps were wondering about either that particular issue or something else. In addition, the manner of shifting the class away from the conflict gave the impression that the discussion was mostly a distraction from the ‘real learning’ that was supposed to be taking place. Finally, there was the effort immediately following the shift away from the conversation to return everyone to a calm and happy place, as if to override what had just happened.
Now, I feel some compassion for teachers that rush to shift uncomfortable dynamics. I have been there myself, struggling to respond to something unexpected and volatile that arose in a class. I remember a time when I was teaching adult ESL when a particularly outspoken Muslim student starting putting down those of other spiritual/religious backgrounds. She even went so far as to chastise her fellow Muslim students, who mostly stood up for their classmates and for openness and sharing across differences. I found myself wondering how to stay loyal to my own desire for an active, participatory classroom, and yet also make sure that one or a handful of voices didn’t dominate and alienate others. In some ways, this situation was an ESL teacher’s dream – over half the class actively using English to talk about their lives and share opinions. On the other hand, there was a distinct upset quality that lingered long after we had moved on to other things.
Although I did a fairly good job of facilitating space for different students to speak during that class, it was really the students themselves who chose to reach out to each other and keep things respectful, even with the woman berating them. In fact, our collective tolerance of her actually seemed to shift her views some. Toward the end of class, she was actually speaking positively about other students’ beliefs and backgrounds, something I hadn’t heard from her before.
I could have squashed that discussion really quickly if I wanted to. I certainly did just that under similar circumstances in previous classes. However, this time I chose to trust my students. I also chose to trust myself, in that I would find a way to keep the whole thing flowing in the direction of sharing and learning as opposed to spiraling out of control.
At the end of the day, good teaching is always a bit risky. It requires a balance of maintaining your power as a teacher, while at the same time giving space to the students in the room to step into their own power, even if that creates conflict along the way.
Photo courtesy of Nathan Thompson – all rights reserved