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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Ariel Kiley

Ariel Kiley is an NYC-based yoga and meditation teacher, teacher trainer, published author, and IAYT certified Yoga Therapist. Ariel is spokesperson and program designer for Equinox Fitness Clubs Regeneration classes. She created the 2018 "Yoga Fundamentals" program on DailyBurn.com. She is a lead teacher trainer for the fitness therapy system Yoga Tune Up®. Ariel also is co-creator and co-director of the Dou Yoga 200-hour teacher training. Ariel has published numerous posts and articles on the topics of yoga, meditation and yoga therapy. Additionally she co-authored the book Smitten: The Way of the Brilliant Flirt about self-realization and dating (Chronicle 2013). She has been featured on Extra!TV, CNN, NY Daily News and has worked as yoga consultant to the TV show The Affair. Ariel specializes in stress reduction and Somatic Experiencing® trauma resolution.

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lorimerburns

Beautiful article! Compassion is hard wired! It’s physics! Blows my mind! Thank you for your comprehensive explanation of mirror neurons!

Gary Carlisle

I think in the medical profession they have something called BEDSIDE MANOR. Wonderful post and I and pleased and proud to have met you this week Airel. “A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge” Thomas Carlyle

Giancarla

I loooooove that quote by Desakachar! I have it triple highlighted in my book also! It is so true! We come to heal together and that pranic power magnifies! It is like the power of prayer! I often think of all the experiments with plants and music effecting their growth, the classical music makes them flower and grow while heavy metal leaves them not looking so fresh….we are all energy! And energy influences other energy. The more positive focus the more power, the more positive focus on healing, the more healing! If only we knew we could heal ourselves by… Read more »

Franko

I just started taking yoga about 6 weeks ago, and my observation is that the few yoga instructors I’ve met are the most genuine and compassionate individuals I have come in contact with in my health team, including doctors, nurses, chiropractor. I’m really starting to see the mind-body-psyche connection to good health and I owe it all to yoga. You’re right about the mirror effect, I actually feel better in anticipation of my yoga class on my way to the gym! Keep up the good work!

Marc Nelles

I love this article! Facilitating the healing process “just”by caring and being open & welcoming to everyone that wants to join you in your class is a great lesson for everybody: not only the teacher, but also how we as humans care for other human beings and animals on a daily basis. Just imagine if every single person would consider this lesson and incorporate “caring on a daily basis” it into their own lives.

Brian Terpak

This article transcends the world of yoga to all sports and their teachers/trainers/coaches. The amount of knowledge and skill a coach possesses means nothing if he or she cannot convey that he or she is not only interested in the person as an athlete, but also in the person as a person. Athletes, believe it or not, are emotional beings and need support and care in the training hall as much as a small child. Thank you for reminding me that my success as a coach rests in my ability to connect and relate to people.

Celine

This so important! Thank you for this article. I always teach this to the students in my trainings. Be welcoming and interested in the other person. Every time I teach a class, I’m serving others. Not only do the students feel comfortable and safe but it also make the teaching more authentic and powerful.

najla

this is so beautiful ariel. first of all i want to say that having just met you in the teacher training workshop, the vibe you give off is exactly what you describe, and more! i found your entire aura and presence comforting and completely welcoming. also, we often forget how important being human is to being a teacher of this sort of discipline and sometimes its the easiest way in to working with a client. i try to keep this in mind when im working with people whose complex and numerous injuries seem overwhelming to me; i breathe, smile, listen… Read more »

Elizabeth W.

Thank you for the reminder of the importance of the seat we take as teachers. It’s so easy to forget how important it is to simply hold space with integrity and an “I Care” attitude.

Our ease and caring as teachers sets up an environment where the students can heal and care for themselves. What an honor and a great responsibility.

Matt Nadler

Wonderful article. Thank you. Sometimes we take the time to welcome a new student and are friendly. But adding the “I care” portion is critical. It’s one thing to be nice,to be friendly and have a warm environment, but it’s just as important to let the student know that we teachers really do care about their well being. If not, the student might have a good class, enjoy the fun of the other students, many even laugh a lot and walk out more relaxed. For some that might be more than enough. For others, though, short interactions of honest-to-goodness compassion… Read more »

Andrea Borrero

so true! And beautifully articulated … even in a general group class, if someone is new or anxious you can pick up on that right away as a teacher and it’s your obligation (i feel) to put them at ease. it doesn’t have to be verbal – it can be energetic, a softening into yourself that will be felt by them, a gentle adjustment that is reassuring, a smile. we forget how much people look to us to lead, and when we come into class as teachers but are grumpy or carrying our own ‘stuff’, that radiates.

Sharon

What a beautiful article and reminder as to why I teach Ariel. It is so vital to “see” our students, To feel with intuition and compassion. These traits are what mark the difference between an Instructor and a Teacher.

Lynda Jaworski

Beautifully said! Reading through your article it’s impossible not to feel the loving-kindness and compassion you show to every student who is lucky enough to find you! When a student, new or a regular, comes to class and really feels seen, understood and cared for, it creates an environment for healing – mind, body and spirit. It is such a privilege to teach yoga and your post is an excellent reminder of how important those first few moments with a new student are in making them feel welcome, accepted and happy to have chosen your class!

Jill D

Nice article. I think there is so much to be said for the intuitiveness of people to “sense” a genuine offering of care, and I truly believe if what is given is positive and authentic it can have a great deal of impact on healing. Curious to read the cited NYT article to learn more about the science behind this. And while brilliant intellect is most certainly necessary, I agree “the inner capacity to care about someone else more than yourself” is a key element of any teacher/caregiver.

Julia Ho

Love this article! I love that you found a scientific basis for your teaching relationships. If only the more of the western healthcare community would adopt this attitude, I think there would be a lot more healing going on rather than sick people waiting in queue for a pills or surgery.

Rachelle Gura

Regardless of how much a teacher knows, the knowledge they have attained…if they don’t have the right vibe or understand the unspoken language of energy the student will not open up completely. Those without knowledge, a friend, a stranger, can help by giving a person in pain their full attention even for a moment. The combination of a wise and aware teacher is healing both physically and emotionally. So nice to see attention paid to this subtle nuance.

Dawn McCrory

This is a most excellent post! It really doesn’t matter if you are deemed the best yoga instructor, teacher, PT, etc if you neglect to connect in a humane, compassionate fashion with each and every person who is guided to walk through your door. An initial attitude of caring sets the stage for healing even if your techniques are not spot on. Imagine if you are caring AND spot on with technique… MAGIC!!

David ibrahim

I always do mantras and meditation before class to bring the best of me as a teacher with my students. And love and compassion are truly natural forces of conciousness that heal and transform. It always begins with the teacher. We create the space for our students. They get to take it or leave it.

Ann Taylor Lashbrook

Ariel, thank you for a beautiful blog that really speaks to me. I loved the information about mirror neurons and look forward to learning more. When I first began teaching Pilates, about 8 years ago, I would often “rub people the wrong way.” It wasn’t my intention, but the controlling nature of how I understood Pilates and how I viewed myself. I wasn’t judging the women who took my classes, but they felt my self critical nature and thought it was about them. It took me years and a lot of yoga to figure out exactly what they were picking… Read more »

Kate Hall

Inspiring article. Thank you. This story has touched so many people because we have all felt unsure and not welcomed somewhere and some time in our life. It is beautiful to see that having empathy and compassion can go a long way in the healing process. I think it is important to remember as teachers of yoga that even when that compassion seems to be rejected or not heard by a student (or anyone in our life) it will eventually resonate. In other words, we cannot always expect a positive response to our caring and empathy, but that should not… Read more »

Maggie G.

Loved this post. In every person there is a part of us. Yoga is an inclusive practice, and as a teacher I think that empathy is the key for any student, even the most introverted, to trust and let the teacher be that guide to the healing process. I´ll repeat Desikchakar´s quote as a mantra through my process on becoming a teacher, and all the path that will follow!.

Karl

This is another example of how yoga provides the stage for better living, a framework for one to learn and cultivate patterns of behaviour, thoughts and actions which lead to a better life for them and those around. Of course yoga is not the only way to learn these things, but it’s one of the most complete in my opinion. Compassion, or better yet, empathy is a skill without which interpersonal success would be a long shot. The ability to see yourself in another, or at least have an understanding of where they’re coming from and what they’re experiencing creates… Read more »

donna

Over the years I’ve been both an instructor and a participant in group fitness classes, yoga at the gym and yoga in a studio and the way an instructor receives a participant can set the tone for not just the class, but that participant’s entire day…or longer… This is especially true with people like Fran, but also with anyone who is simply new. When we’re self-conscious, out posture, breath patters, physiology and internal dialogue can change. That feeling of being welcome can make all the difference. Thank you for this post, it is a wonderful reminder of the power of… Read more »

Lana

Based on my own experience, most people who turn to yoga are already on a ‘sensitive’ side. They are more in tune with their spiritually and, most likely, do or want to take good care of their physical health. Thus they are perceptive enough to pick up on the teacher’s feelings and attitudes towards the practice he or she leads. Caring and creating a nurturing energy in the class is such an important part of being a yoga teacher/therapist – it benefits and nurtures not just the students but the teacher as well.

Renate

That’s what I think Yoga Therapy has to offer: A combination of rigorous training with deep familiarity of anatomy and physiology, combined with the caring attitude you are demonstrating. Your students will be glad about your knowledge, but they’ll come back because you care!

Christy

I love this quote: “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 to each new student or person that you meet, that you genuinely care, the healing begins. It amazes me the people that come to teach yoga and care for those who are not in perfect health or have ailments. Through my massage therapy training and teaching yoga, it has been imperative that I tune in to who I am working with. Although I have had challenges of… Read more »

Patricia Antoni

Thank your for your article. This is so true whether in a class of 5 or 100 the group energy is amazing to watch and so empowering. It’s great to have new people and watch them return and say how then yoga is helping them. What a great rewarding job.

Cindy

This was really good information for me to read. I came to yoga with an illness, and it is the community I found at my local yoga studio that really helped me through this time in my life. It was good to be reminded of this as now I’m on the otherside of the specturm as a teacher. I will make a concious effort to use my student’s mirror neurons, offering acceptance and sympathy. After reading this article, I recognize that my mirror neurons often kick in when I think a class went badly, a student will come up to… Read more »

susan

I love this! I think those opening moments when greeting students, especially new ones, are critical to setting the tone for their experience not only with that one class but with their feelings about yoga in general. Remembering my first yoga class and the fear that i had (that i wouldn’t fit in, i wouldn’t be able to do the poses, etc.) reminds me of what it’s like for a newcomer. Being welcoming and offering that sense of belonging is so important. Thank you!

orlena lackenbauer

As a repeat of the comment I tried to leave yesterday from my phone ( I now have temp. access to a computer), I said that remembering about the mirror neurons and how fquickly a student can pick up on the teacher’s energy and vica versa, this makes me more conscious of my attitude before entering the classroom. When I am distracted by some personal troubles, my mind is scattered and I am not present with the student. My teaching style that day can be sloppy and I know students can pick this up. I also realize that it goes… Read more »

Deanne

I truly believe in the power of compassion. By showing others compassion, we show them respect and validate them as human beings. This, in turn, ramps up their own self-compassion, acceptance and love–the first step towards healing.

Almaz Hayet

A lot of times it is our spirit our mentality that is hurting more than our physical ailments, alll we need is a little love and encouragement and half of our pains are gone! The mind is an amazing thing.

Erin

Love it! Addressing the needs, interests and possibly the insecurities is such an important component of teaching and something that can be just as therapeutic as what you end up teaching.

Destiny

I loved this article! The ability to have empathy with others are experiencing is the first step of helping others feel safe and giving them the space to get in touch with their bodies and minds and heal from past experiences.

Barb Voss

Thank you for your article. As yoga teachers, focusing on compassion and a service to others allows us to create a safe place for students to explore their own self-healing. It is quite amazing how the simplest of actions, when they are authentic, will allow for such profound transformations. I have read that according to Buddhism, “compassion is the only source of energy that is useful and safe.” I couldn’t agree more.

Shylaja

This is so true. I am very adventurous in the poses I try and teach. When teaching, poses considered to be way out there, it is a journey for me, and make everyone in the class feel they are on the journey too. This immediately makes even the simplest pose a journey and eases up people ( well most people ) and lets them relax into their practice, making it their own.

Livia

How amazing! From the opposite perspective, we students must also remember that our energy can impact the other students in the class and even the instructor, so we better keep positive 🙂

Robyn

I love that caring actually carries with it a neurological and physiological response! So much of our ability to heal depends on our ability to trust the person leading us – whether it be a therapy class or vinyasa class. Thanks for the great article!

Donna

As an older student with a number of ‘aches and pains’ , I can appreciate the challenge and courage it takes to enter a room full of young, physically fit yoga students. I am grateful for the teachers that accept me as I am and encourage me to still grow in my practice. I think that is the real gift of a good teacher – to accept students where they are and to help them grow from that place.

Myriam

Fascinating. A warm welcome with a compassionnate understanding those are key rules for yoga teachers. It also tells that we mostly influence people because of who we are as human being. A beautiful story that positively changed someone’s reality in such simplicity.

Chris

I’m fascinated by the concept of the mirror neuron, as a student of neuropsychology it is an area I get to explore. When our students see our faces they internalize our expressions. The way we merely greet people can be profoundly therapeutic.

Amanda

Ariel, I want to make it to one of your yoga therapy classes! 🙂
This article was a great reminder of the importance of connecting with your students and creating an environment where they feel comfortable and safe. That initial meeting/ introduction can be especially crucial with students new to yoga, and this article definitely brought that idea back to the forefront of my mind. Thanks for writing Ariel – beautiful article!

Margaux

Thank you for sharing and right on. Its rare in day to day life, some one stops looks you in the eyes, smiles and says hi with love or with an “I care” thought, not wanting anything in return. So rare that when it happens it can make people break down and cry. What an important thought and reminder, to take as both a yoga teacher, student and human. Thank you!

Taylor

I’m just now starting to dive deeper into mirror neurons – and here’s a great place to begin to build understanding, if anyone else likes to geek out on these things 🙂
http://www.ted.com/talks/vs_ramachandran_the_neurons_that_shaped_civilization.html

Mariah Frye

This is a great post. Words to live by, especially as a new yoga teacher just getting started. Thank you!

laurelyoga

Thanks for tying what I’ve always felt intuitively to science, Ariel. So cool, and a good reminder that our intention or sankalpa happens on both the macro and micro levels.

Leilana Pueliu

Beautiful. Love truly heals.

Heather C

It is such a simple concept to show you care and accept this person as they are in order to facilitate a trusting therapeutic relationship. Showing that you care and accept someone ailments and all is helping to bring the essence of yoga and yoga therapy to create a norm for our society that is outside the common myth that yoga is only for flexible, strong, thin people. If we have more teachers like you that help someone feel safe and comfortable then we will see more and more people get into yoga even if they are not flexible. Perhaps… Read more »

katie

this is a wonderful article! genuine compassion and empathy towards others comes easier for some but i think it still can be learned for others. there is such a difference in an instructor, p.t, provider etc who “feels” someones pain and really means it vs one who says it just because it’s the right thing to say.

Ada-Reva Spae

Your post on the interrelationship of how a teacher greets a new student and how that ties into mirror neurons and empathy was one I can empathize with. I was teaching a class for seniors and in the middle of warm ups the classroom door opened. I was an elderly woman in a big purple hat with thick glasses and a walker, and a slight scowl on her face. I told her we were having a yoga class and asked her if I could help her. “I just want to watch, I am thinking of taking this class but I… Read more »

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