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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Amanda Stoker

As an esthetician working in a busy spa, I was often asked by newer estheticians how I retained my clientele. I did not follow the standard protocal to retain and prebook clients. The only thing I could ever come up with is “I care.” This article explains the physiology behind why. So interesting! Thank you!


Such a great point about how when we feel welcomed and accepted, we feel so much more at ease and better able to accept ourselves as we are.

Jess Blake

Thank you for the reminder that it’s not necessarily what we “do” as teachers, but how we “are” . As I get more and more experienced as a yoga teacher, I find that my ability to feel the energy of each student as well as the entire room increases. Your reference to mirror neurons brings to mind a quote from Judith Hanson Lasater who says, “Your primary job as a yoga teacher is to mirror back the inner radiance and inherent goodness in each human being”. I agree with you Ariel, that if we can meet our students with a… Read more »

Erika E Belanger

Love it! Our attitude is like a placebo effect on the physical body and our student pain. “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.” This quotes says it all. Personally, I suffer from chronic pain and I know my state of mind definitely affect the level of pain I experience. And when I have a loved one around me that cares about what I’m going through, the pain is always less intense. <3

Katelynn Corman

I just heard about mirror neurons for the first time today! I never knew the scientific term, but I’ve absolutely felt that from my teachers, and now from my students. I believe it has a lot to do with why we get attached to particular instructors. You feel safe with them, you feel seen by them. Great reminder on how empathy is so powerful. Thank you.


This is a great reminder. I used to be terrified of speaking in front of groups, then I became a YTU teacher. ha! I am a very empathetic person but still have that bit of uneasiness starting a conversation with a student I haven’t met before. I will think of this next time it happens!

Tracy E.

I love the reminder as a teacher to really communicate verbally and non verbally that you care. The scientific information about mirror neurons was really helpful in understanding how healing and empathy work on a neurological level.


I love the quotes you picked from Desikachar
“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.”
So true.
Thank you.


This is a great article. I love the reminder of the importance of communication and how critical it is to greet any new member of your class, no matter who they are!

Joann Burnham

A beautiful article. Lovingly written. The care and compassion we can offer our students IS the Pose. These first moments of connection truly have the capacity to heal and bridge gaps. Everything else is secondary.

Dani Ibarra

This article was so profound, I always try to make students feel welcome but I didn’t realize the potency of mirror neurons, I will take this information to heart and remind myself of it’s importance at the beginning of each class I teach. Thank you so much

Liz Maynard

I appreciate the link between Desikachar’s guidance for teachers and the functional effect of mirror neurons. It’s true that when people come to yoga they’ve already tried so many other things, and so come with a sense of helplessness. An excellent teacher’s reflecting the possibility of shifting did so much for working wth my own chronic injuries!

aniela eva

Wow thank you for that! It was profound for me. I never knew of mirror neurons but can feel to a great extent. Which in the begining was difficult to comprehend and scary as well. As I began to watch and observe I began to see how I could sense anothers pain/sorrow/fear etc and “flip it” to the opposite and positive emotion. I didnt really know what was happening other then it felt so much better. Having others, especially teachers and people in the health and wellness industry truley care has had a huge impact on me in a positive… Read more »


Hi Ariel, this is so beautiful, thank you for sharing this. I think this is a gift that you share with anybody who is fortunate enough to experience your healing presence. I’m learning so much about the human body, but it is becoming clearer to me that it’s so much more important to teach from the heart center, from a place of love and compassion. Thank you for reminding us!


Love how this piece weaves western science and heart essence of yoga together. Thank you.


Thank you for the post. One of my favourite sayings by Maya Angelou is “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Jen Wheaton

In my job, I work with a lot of babies and toddlers and absolutely love watching how their mirror neurons work. We learn from a very young age how to respond to others through mimicking their facial expressions and creating an emotional response to it. Your student who entered feeling obviously down, unsure of herself, and full of self doubt was probably very reassured by your welcoming energy and just the thought that you cared about her as a whole person instead of a laundry list of ailments. I think it’s a lesson all teachers can learn from about seeing… Read more »

Julia Sims Haas

I once heard a saying, “the vinyasa begins at the door”, meaning the student’s experience begins as they enter the room. Learning names, asking questions, showing care, and creative a safe space invite student’s to relax and the yoga practice them becomes a partnership. I try to connect with each student individually at some point in the class so they feel “seen”. Thank you for explaining the science behind this!

Francine Young

As a Psychiatric Nurse i see everyday how important those first few moments can be for anyone stepping out of their comfort zone. Kindness, empathy and body language are powerful and lasting impact. Mirror neurons is a powerful phenomenon. Thanks for sharing.


Thank you for sharing this piece of information about mirror neurons. Now I want to do more research and read more on mirror neurons. 🙂 Reading your post reminded me about my teacher’s words – to teach from the heart, and teach with love.

Sarah R

Helping newcomers feel welcome is such an important part of teaching. I really like the Desikachar quote you included at the end of your post. Creating a caring connection between teacher and student contributes to a safe class environment where people feel as though they can begin to let go of their own judgments and expectations and focus on the practice of healing.

Cat Murcek

I love this article because of the scientific explanation of a phenomenon that we all feel in our heart of hearts. There are still many ways in which energy manifests in the body that modern science has no explanation for, so I always find it exciting and validating when discoveries like this come along. Thank you for sharing this important reminder to try to maintain and exhibit the energy we would like to see in our students!


As a fairly new yoga teacher but a seasoned NYC school teacher, well, former school teacher, I truly value this article. I know very well the need to be welcoming to all students in the school classroom…even if you are in the middles of a math lesson to the kids you have been teaching all month and the principal shows up at your door with a new kid who is to start at that moment. In this situation I want to commiserate with the class for a moment and groan in understanding of how this is going to disrupt everything,… Read more »


I love that the mirror neurons work both directions. The teacher can empathize with the student, and the student can model the teacher. What a beautiful exchange; this is definitely a piece that drives connection.

Gretchen Corbin

I always strive to create a ‘safe container’ for my students, which includes making everyone feel welcome and appreciated in my classes. It is so interesting to learn about the science (mirror neurons!?!) behind people’s reaction to empathy. I always learn something new when reading this blog. I want to send everyone I know in NYC to your class.

I also appreciate Elizabeth’s comment below mine reminding us all that “to truly see and be seen by other people is an essential human experience we all crave.”

Elizabeth Bond

Thank you for sharing T.K.S Desikachar’s quote, “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.”. This is a great reminder for teachers of all sorts: to truly see and be seen by other people is an essential human experience we all crave. This blog drove home the importance of creating a healing, welcoming space for students. I’m eager to learn more about mirror neurons!


Creating an environment where each student feels comfortable is essential for safety and progress. As teachers we can be so focussed on the subject matter, we can forget that the individual is what it’s really about. Thanks for emphasising this!

Kimberly Greeff

I appreciate your bringing attention to the role of the yoga teacehr even before class starts. This sparked the thought that our continued journey of exploring, embodying and doing our own work translates in our ability to better show up for our students. I’ve attended classes where the teacher blows in late, totally frazaled and apears to be disapointed with the people present or not present in the class. Every student in the room is affected.

Katie Alba

Brilliant post! And so powerful. I’m going to need to reread this a few time to let if fully settle in. Thank you for this.


Thanks Ariel a very interesting article, creating a safe space for students is so important and I love the Desikachar quotes too very fitting.

Erin Hoien

What a great post, I think a must read for all yoga teachers. Making a student feel welcome and accepted is a something that needs to be in the forefront of every teachers mind.

Mika Saburi

This is the very important topic for yoga teacher! Thank you for reminding Ariel.
I will always remember the power of mirror neurons as an instructor and do my best with loving care for each student.
I would like to welcome new student as warm family to share pain or happiness.
I’m very interesting to take class for Yoga Tune Up pain Relief class!
So excited to study with you, wonderful unique and loving teacher!


Thanks, Ariel, for the important reminder that we serve as a mirror to our students. Simply modeling confidence and ease can give our students so much! Then, of course, when we have the presence and strength to model this for a whole room full of people, they become one collective and very powerful mirror for us and for each other. I guess for many people that’s a huge part of what makes a great yoga class, while also strengthening our own ability to shine.

Isabelle Barter

How interesting and wonderful. Powerful to know that the energy we talk about in yoga is actually physiologically having a real impact on others with the mirror neurons. Definitely a reason to be careful about what we are putting out there!

Marla Brackman

I have never heard of the term “mirror neurons”. However, I have experienced the power of caring intentions when relating to my clients and students – now I know more about how that happens! I love how you instilled hope into your new student, which is a powerful emotion, just by taking the time to sincerely get to know her and by letting her know that she is in “the”perfect place to start exploring a yoga practice.” Thanks for sharing!


I love this post. I am very much in touch with this side of me. I am very open to feel what others in my surrounding feel but I had no idea that this was originated in mirror neurons that all humans share. This is a great thing to know and now I feel empowered to to mirror positive feelings of love, peace and faith in all my students and everybody around. I feel like the best yoga classes are those in which the teacher is able to create an experience and the connection between student/teacher and between students themselves… Read more »


Facinating! This article has seriously perked up my interest in mirror neurons. I know I often experience the feeling of “empathy” when dealing with others, but it is amazing to get a bit more insight into the science of what is facilitating this experiece. My next question is what makes one person more prone to empathize than another?

Julie Ann

Thank you Ariel. It is important to remember to take time to look at your students, feel he energy of the class, and address it! The teacher has the power to change the affect of every single body in the class, and the smart teachers are tuned into this to generate a neurophysiological response! Thanks for the gentle reminder to be more aware.


I am so excited to learn about these neurons and will be following up with the article – cells that read minds. As both a nurse and a yoga teacher, it is validating to know that the empathy and care are ‘palpable’ in a scientific sense as well as an emotional sense. I will be sharing this with my colleagues at the hospital. As yoga instructors, we are healers as well.

Sunina Young

“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.” – I love this! Thank you for sharing. I truly believe that teachers have a great power to transfer their energy of care to students, and likewise with students giving light to teachers as well. Beautiful article Ariel.


I can care. The ultimate sankpa. Thank you for reiterating that from a deep neurological place we all feel our connection. The ability to authentically care for people is quintessentially human and that humanity is the foundation of yoga!

Jennie Cohen

Such an important reminder: 90% of teaching is human relationship.


I love this post!! Come as you are yoga! I love it


Good ‘Ole Discomfort. As for discomfort, I have well accepted that it is a sign that I am alive. Thus, I appreciate it’s perpetual presence in my life. Sometimes not entirely physical, discomfort does show it’s face one way or another. Today in fact, it showed-up in the form a cyclist zooming by my passenger side door while I was making a right-hand turn. Yikes! Discomfort at that point, was a much better than the alternative… Which would have been guilt, if I have had made that right-hand turn with a little bit more aggression. On that note, having a… Read more »

Meredith Brockriede

Very well said, and summed up with that final Desikachar quote. I have taken class with many yoga teachers, a great many of them very knowledgeable and experienced, but unfailingly the ones I come back to are the people I feel take the time to do what you describe above. It doesn’t matter to me as a student if a teacher can execute perfect poses or expertly list all the small muscles of a region if I don’t feel like my presence and experience is validated and honored. It is this acknowledgement of our shared humanity that the yoga community… Read more »


Thank you for this post. your experience with Fran is just another example of how the mind is able to lead the body into a place of healing when their exists an environment of trust. You are creating what we clinicians (I am an occupational therapist) refer to as a therapeutic relationship. The other belief of OT that coincides with that of yoga is that the limitations that you perceive are able to be moved, or removed entirely, by how you perceive your environment, whether it be physical, social, or psychological.

Elise Gibney

Thank you for this post! I also work with people who have had to deal with a wide range of obstacles, including medical issues and many types of socio-political marginalization. Many don’t believe that yoga is something that is accessible for them. Our attitudes as teachers is so important – the ability to be welcoming and inclusive is key. Thank you for taking the time to recognize this. Research on mirror neurons has supported the age old knowledge that we are truly social creatures – we develop in a social context. Dan Siegal’s Interpersonal Neurobiology is one of my favorite… Read more »

Narcedalia (Nars)

I absolutely love this post. It is amazing how one simple shift can lead the body and mind towards a totally new direction…It is a very good reminder to be aware that every thing we do or word we say, has an impact in those around us. Even when our body language!

Kristen B.

a great reminder of the responsibility that we have as yoga teachers to show up, be present and create a safe environment for healing to occur. as a trainer of yoga teachers, i often talk about the importance of showing up early to greet students as they arrive and be approachable so that people feel comfortable telling you what it is that they might be dealing with that day. i love adding the concept of mirror neurons to this equation – sometimes all it takes is a smile or a twinkle in the eye to say “i see you, i… Read more »

Alex Ellis

Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story. I think it is too easy to forget the power of mirror neurons as an instructor. I try to make my classes as light as possible to help my students endure the discomfort of their restricted mobility and flexibility with a smile on their faces =)