A few minutes before I was about to teach a recent yoga therapy class a middle-aged woman named Fran shuffled through the studio door, her shoulders slumped and demeanor apologetic. I could immediately sense Fran’s discomfort and fear that she wouldn’t be welcomed. I asked if this was her first yoga experience. “Yes,” she said. “Wonderful,” I replied, then proceeded to ask if she had any injuries or conditions I should be aware of.  With her eyes averted towards the floor, she rattled off a list of ailments from arthritis to low back pain to a sprained ankle that was taking a while to heal.  She said she had been to doctors, but they could do little to help, so a friend suggested she try yoga.  I told her that I didn’t know if yoga therapy alone could heal her ailments, but we were all happy to have her and she was at the perfect place to start exploring a yoga practice. By the time she found her seat and class began I could see, that without even starting to address her physical ailments, she was already starting to feel better.

In my experience, these introductory moments are a crucial time to feel out what’s going on with a new student, show that you completely accept them as they are, and communicate both verbally and energetically that you care. In Health, Healing and Beyond T.K.V. Desikachar states, “All that a teacher of Yoga can guarantee, to repeat, is: ‘I can care’. It appears that more often than not something beneficial will happen.

With the discovery of mirror neurons, we can better understand how these simple introductions set the stage on not just an emotional, but a neurological level, for healing to begin. “Found in several areas of the brain, mirror neurons fire in response to chains of actions linked to intentions” explains Sandra Blakeslee in her New York Times article Cells That Read Minds. Basically, our mirror neurons allow us to instantaneously perceive, understand and internalize the actions and motives of others. These highly specialized neurons are how we empathize with others, why we literally “feel” their pain, shame, sorrow or joy. As a teacher (or human being for that matter), your empathy towards others allows you to tune in to their inner state, and their mirror neurons are immediately touched by the fact that you care. This, of course, is helpful to keep in mind when taking on a class full of students with different physical needs.

Mirror neurons allow us to ‘feel’ what our students are feeling and develop empathy.

My group yoga therapy classes are a catchall for students with a vast spectrum of serious injuries and conditions. In my ‘Yoga Tune Up®: Pain Relief’ class there are students with torn rotator cuffs, severed tendons, fibromyalgia, cancer, herniated disks, sciatica, piriformis syndrome, arthritis and multiple sclerosis. A common denominator I have felt among students living with ongoing physical pain is the fear that their discomfort will never cease.  After repeated attempts to heal, they often lose hope and personalize their pain – exacerbating it with feelings of guilt or shame. Like Fran, by the time they show up at a yoga therapy class they have generally already undergone specialized treatment or therapies, to varying degrees of efficacy, and oftentimes entering the studio is their last resort.

While each individual body may have unique needs, it is reassuring to know that the attitude you bring as a teacher will resonate across the board. As each student soaks up an alternative, positive attitude toward a student’s physical ailment, they immediately mirror it, and their energy begins to shift. As with Fran, they become more settled, relaxed, open and warm. The combined energy of the group can enhance this “vibe”, finding lightness and humor while experimenting with different techniques to facilitate healthy transformation in damaged or compromised tissue. Whether or not the individual symptoms subside, the experience of being in a space where the students feel safe and cared for can go a long way toward relieving their discomfort.

Desikachar states: “It is not the most brilliant intellect that makes such a teacher.  It is the inner capacity to care about someone else more than yourself.”  By simply energetically conveying empathy to each new student or person that you meet, showing that you genuinely care, the healing begins.

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