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yoga teachers: are we teaching presence or inviting dissociation?

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

In my last post, we took a look at what we’re actually trying to accomplish when we sit down to meditate. TLDR (too long, didn’t read?): Complete embodiment is impossible. Dissociation is normal and healthy. And mindfulness meditation is a means to train ourselves to be more embodied and present, which can have some pretty cool repercussions. This post is a continuation of that conversation for yoga and meditation teachers, or other practitioners who want to invite mindfulness into their practices.

As practitioners, one of our main goals is to help our students/clients to be stronger, calmer, and more resilient. We incorporate meditative awareness, breathing, and other tools into the practice because we know that the physical experience of yoga (or whatever discipline we’re engaging in) is beneficial, but that the mental and emotional skills cultivated can be even more important.

While our intentions are good, there are a few common pitfalls that we fall into as practitioners. Some of our most common cues and instructions can inadvertently encourage disembodiment or dissociation rather than teaching present-moment awareness, mindfulness or embodiment. While disembodiment itself is not a bad thing– in fact, it’s an important adaptive skill– we should be discerning about what we’re teaching, and why.

down-regulation isn’t always best

One of the key things we can recognize as practitioners is that down-regulation– that is, soothing, calming, or settling the nervous system– may not always be the best choice. Activation isn’t a bad thing. For example, consider the importance of being angry in the face of injustice; the necessary urgency of a parent protecting a child; or the joyful excitement of laughing with friends.

There are times where down-regulation may not even be possible. If I am working with someone who is agitated or angry, I often find it most effective to engage in purposeful movement to first discharge that energy, rather than trying to breathe or relax it away. Asking an angry person to sit down and meditate is just as effective as someone telling you to “just relax” when you’re frustrated– it’s never going to work.

but is it even equanimity?

Occasionally, as teachers, we may find ourselves encouraging students to calm or relax themselves. The intention here is benign: we just want people to learn to relax chronic tension in the face or jaw, for example, or we’re trying to teach equanimity. In order to truly practice equanimity, however, we must first acknowledge the totality of our experience. This includes thoughts, sensations, and yes, even angry emotions.

Seemingly innocent cues like “smooth your forehead,” “soften your jaw,” “relax your face,” or “deepen your breath” can invite the participant to override a natural reaction to whatever they are experiencing. Rather than inviting presence, we are encouraging “regulation;” bypassing emotion and inviting dissociation. This can be a very potent suggestion, especially when given by a person in position of power.

If we haven’t learned how to experience their own emotions, this process will strengthen patterns of mind/body fragmentation.

However, if folks haven’t learned how to experience their own emotions, this process will strengthen patterns of mind/body fragmentation. This isn’t real peace, mindfulness, or equanimity: it’s the somatic equivalent of spiritual bypassing.

an opportunity for larger-scale change

If we’re always aiming to soothe, calm, and down-regulate, we’re missing an important opportunity for real change, not just in our own bodies, but in the larger systems that hold us.

Consistent reinforcement of down-regulation keeps us locked into larger patterns of dissociation. Power imbalance, systemic injustice and social inequity thrive when its citizens feel that the solution to any discomfort lies in learning to tolerate it better in their own bodies.

In our bodies, as in our culture, pushing something down, or denying its reality, only increases its power. By inviting participants to notice whatever is present– including their own reactions– we can normalize emotions like frustration, powerlessness, and anger. If we don’t make room for these experiences, we will find them leaking out, erupting, or constellating into feelings of shame, disgust, or depression.

“good vibes only,” or “all vibes welcome”?

Incorporating mindfulness into the practice makes our classes more affirming, accessible, and inclusive. Rather than asking students to immediately adjust or change things (like their expression, patterns of tension or breath, or even their physical posture), we can invite them to notice what they’re experiencing. We can encourage them to be aware of anything that feels unpleasant or frustrating, and give them space to change what they need to for themselves.

Of course, relaxation is so important. Ease, calm, relief, de-stressing– we want our students to have this experience, too. My suggestion is that when we are inviting relaxation into the practice, that you make it a choice rather than a mandate. Creating the internal conditions for relaxation and ease in our bodies feels very different than following external instructions to settle ourselves. If we’re practicing real mindful presence, relaxation can be a natural result.

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