What yoga class has taught me about BDSM education: A teaching philosophy of sorts

Photo of a tabby cat stretching between a sidewalk and a car wheel

Today I realized that my approach to teaching BDSM skills and concepts has a lot in common with the things I liked in the weekly drop-in yoga classes I took for a while.[1]

In those classes, there is basic instruction for everyone, no matter if this is the first time they ever get on a mat or if they have done this for a decade already. Breathe. Arrive in the moment. Stay on your own mat; it doesn’t matter what everyone else can or can’t do, measure yourself against yourself. Focus on here, on now.

There usually is a basic version of an asana, a yoga pose, that is taught first. Feet like this, weight there, stretch out from here. It is the raw material from which your version of it is created. Because there are always adaptations, and they are of equal worth. Yoga is meant to adapt to us, to the way we are, right here, right now.

If you have trouble with your knees, do it like this.  If you have a sensitive neck, leave out that bit. If you can’t reach this body part, reach that one. You can do this pose like this, like this, or like this. If you like, you can use a belt, a block, a cushion, a blanket to make it work for you. If you can’t stand, do it sitting down, like this. If this is too much for you today, only take it until here. It’s always okay to take a break. Listen to your body. Stay on your own mat.

If you’d like more of a challenge, try it this way. If you can reliably do this version, try out that one for variety, if you like. If you feel like experimenting, you can try changing this part of the exercise and see which one feels better to you. Listen to your body. Stay on your own mat.

When you start struggling, end the pose or take it back to a less demanding version. Arrogance and overconfidence are likely to get you hurt. There’s always more to learn, for everyone. Find your own range of movement. Take breaks if you need to. Listen to your body. Stay on your own mat.

It is assumed that everybody, every body is different. We are middle-aged and youthful and old, skinny and slender and chubby and fat; we have scars and injuries and constant aches and weak spots and that one muscle that keeps tensing up. We do this for the company, the challenge, the comfort; because our doctor told us, because our friend is here as well, because this is our last hope, because we are just curious, because this is part of our spirituality, because this is a type of sport that works for us. We have all lived a different life before we’ve arrived in this class.

It is assumed that even the same body, the same person will be different every time we get onto the mat. We’re tired, distracted, nervous, recovering from an illness, well-rested, up for a challenge, bubbling with energy, quiet, centered. It’s all okay. We’re all here, now.

We come with different inherent abilities, have made different experiences in and with our bodies, learn at different speeds and in different ways. Some of us spend the best part of the hour battling memories of humiliating experiences in physical education class where we were most definitely not okay the way we were then, the way we maybe still are today. Some of us constantly put ourselves down if we don’t get it “right” on the first try because no one ever told us that getting it “wrong” is a normal part of learning. Some of us need to learn how to learn in the first place because we’ve never been in a situation where we were bad at something, where we had to practice to get better, where we had to work for anything. Some of us feel like we have to be the best at all times or we will be the worst because no one has ever given us permission to be mediocre, just okay, just good enough. Some of us find everything easy and fun and playful, until we acquire an injury, an illness, a disability and have to recreate our yoga practice from scratch, and then everything is just hard and sad and frustrating for a long time. Some of us need to learn how to have compassion for and patience with others in the same class who struggle with things that were always easy for us. Some of us need to learn to leave their complacent comfort zone and take a bit of a risk. Some of us need to learn to stay with our comfort zone. Some of us need to learn to even feel their bodies at all. All of us need to learn to be okay with how we are, right here, right now. All of us need to learn that this is not a competition. There’s always more to learn, for everyone.

***

And there is one teacher (with their own complex backstory and their own current struggles), speaking to everyone in their class. The class consisting of random people who just dropped in out of curiosity, people who will be here once and never return, people who want to get back into this after a health-related time-out, people who have finally worked up the courage to deal with their bodies and all the history stored in them, people who have been here every single week for years, people who will fall in love with doing yoga instantly or slowly or not at all; random people who practice yoga every day at home, people who go to extra yoga workshops and yoga retreats and read books about yoga, people who will never get on a mat outside of this class, people who have acquired exactly the gear that works for them (this mat, these pants, that shirt; this color, that material) after years of trial and error, people who just threw on a band shirt and a pair of sweatpants because that’s what they had; random people who consider this a lifestyle, people who like the movement but can’t relate to anything woo-woo, people who consider this a sport like any other, people who have no idea what yoga will mean to them, what place it will have in their lives, but are curious to see where this takes them.

So the teacher has to adapt. To everyone. They need to explain in words, in technical terms as well as in metaphors and analogies, need to show how it looks and point out the important details, know the places people tend to not pay attention to, need to let people try it out and walk around to offer instruction, motivation, comfort, a challenge. They first have to make sure that no one is hurting their bodies, have to correct the twist of a torso, the placement of a knee, a distribution of weight, suggest a break. Then there is time for variations, further steps, background information. They have to remind everyone that yoga is not a competition, to stay on their own mats. They have to welcome the newbies and recognize the regulars, understand who needs a challenge and who needs an easy success today. They need to remember to ask people before they touch them — and remember who of the regulars already gave them blanket permission to adjust their bodies and who of the regulars prefer a hands-off correction at all times. All of us learn in different ways, and one is not better than the other. So the teacher has to teach in more than just one way.

The teacher also needs to question any assumptions they might make based on looks and other first impressions of their students. Because that super-fat person over there in the ratty old t-shirt and the neon-colored tights may be more experienced and well-balanced than anyone else in the room (including the teacher), and that skinny person with the flowing cotton shirt and the thermos of herbal tea who keeps talking about their amazing trip to India may be nothing but a clueless poser about to hurt themselves badly and alienate everyone else with their casual racism and gender essentialism. They need to be aware of their own biases (and every teacher has some) and be transparent about them so their students can contextualize what they are being taught. They need to be able to say “I don’t know,” and then ideally follow up with, “…but I’ll look it up/ask someone else and get back to you” or “…but you could look/ask for that information there.” They need to keep learning.

The students have to learn to stay on their own mats and to focus on their own minds, bodies, and reasons for being here in the first place. They need to face all the places in them that are stiff and limited for lack of use, uncomfortable for the history they hold, too unstable to safely carry the weight put onto them; that resist change, that open up only on the thirty-seventh try, that want more than they can take without causing damage; that bend beautifully, that stretch further and further, that sink steadily into the ground like an anchor, like roots to grow from, that are light and easy and just a complete joy to hold and move and relax. If the students stick with it long enough, everyone will struggle with something. This is a normal part of learning.

***

My intent behind writing the educational material on this blog is similar to these yoga classes. I’m trying to talk to everyone who shows up, offer something useful for the complete beginner, for the one who has done a bit here and there and now wants more, for the one who has taken a long break and is now carefully coming back, for the person who has been doing this for decades. I try to give you the information you need to avoid injuries and other harm, and to take calculated risks if you like. I try to share ideas for something new, for a different angle, for you to try out and play around with. I may offer a new perspective that you haven’t seen before. I try to be mindful of different backgrounds, different philosophies, different abilities so no one is excluded by default. I hope people learn enough from me to make their own adaptations and fill in the gaps I’ve left. I hope I’m not the only teacher they ever have (in fact, I encourage everyone to check the educational information I give here against the input of other educators and practitioners — after all, I will always have gaps in my knowledge and experience, I may be misinformed myself, or I may simply make an error, as much as I try not to).

That said, not every piece of information, not every example, not every idea in this blog is meant for everyone. I trust all of you to be able to make your own choices about how to engage with my material, to take what feels useful, to adapt what needs adjusting, to leave what isn’t for you. I trust you to figure out which is which for you.

What I offer here won’t be perfect for everyone who comes here. That’s okay. If you find something in this blog that seems way too advanced, scary, disgusting, or weird — or way too boring, cliché, repetitive, or uninspiring to you, please move on to something else because clearly that content is not for you, at least not right now. Find a different post on this blog that speaks to you more. Find a different blog, a different teacher. Write a comment or send me a message that points out or adds the pieces that are missing for you. Come back another time. Skip the educational bits altogether and just read the other parts of the blog. Do what works for you.

And if you don’t understand something I said, please ask for clarification in a comment below the respective article or in a message and I will do my best to answer.[2]

***

If this is too much for you today, only take it until here. It’s always okay to take a break.

If you’d like more of a challenge, try it this way. If you can reliably do this version, try out that one for variety, if you like.

When you start struggling, end the pose or take it back to a less demanding version. Find your own range of movement. Take breaks if you need to.

Listen to your body. Stay on your own mat.

There’s always more to learn, for everyone.

And that includes the teacher.


Notes

[1]  Please note that not every yoga class is like this. In fact, not every yoga class I took back then was like this. These are just the parts that worked well for me (and sometimes my ideas for alternatives to the parts that didn’t work for me at all), the parts I took with me as lessons about how to respectfully teach a body-and-mind-related thing to a group of random people who are all very different from each other.

[2]  This is a declaration of my intent, not a legal contract I’m making with anyone. If I can’t do it, or can’t do it quickly, I won’t. This blog is not the most important thing in my life, and even if it was, sometimes other shit just happens and gets in the way. I also reserve the right to shut down/delete, mock, or just ignore questions that seem to be asked in bad faith or that appear to be asked with the sole intent to hurt me or provoke an emotional reaction in me. I may also refuse to answer questions if the answer would compromise my privacy or that of the people who appear in my writing.


Image source: Pixabay

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