Making It to the Mat: What Yoga Teachers Need to Know About the Most Difficult Part of the Practice

15-Aug-2017

Making It to the Mat:

What Yoga Teachers Need to Know About the Most Difficult Part of the Practice

By Sam Jacobs


How many times at the beginning of a class has a teacher stood up and said, “You made it to your mat.  The hardest part is over.”  Yes and no.  Many barriers to students finding a steady practice schedule are practical: time, cost, and convenience.  There is a growing body of research to suggest, however, that the key to students finding a sustainable practice runs deeper than managing logistics; it cuts to the heart of what differentiates yoga from other exercise choices.  Students are more likely to return to class when they find a connection to a teacher’s holistic presentation of the mental and physical aspects of yoga.


Why Do Students Choose Yoga?


A 2013 study, “Yoga in the Real World: Perceptions, Motivations, Barriers, and Patterns of Use,” authored by researchers at the Boston Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Yoga Yoga LLC, and published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine (available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.7453/gahmj.2013.2.1.008), attempted to quantify why people practice yoga, and what keeps students coming back to the mat.  The study was conducted over a one year period in five different studios located in Austin, Texas.  Many of its findings are intuitive, and support what many instructors observe and report anecdotally.  When asked what yoga is, 92% of respondents considered yoga a form of exercise; 73% viewed it as a spiritual practice; and 50% considered it a way to manage a health condition.  The top three reasons students began to practice yoga were for general health and wellness (81%), physical exercise (80%) and stress management (73%).  37% of respondents sought a spiritual experience, and 28% turned to yoga to alleviate a health condition.  For students seeking therapeutic benefits, the most common conditions reported were anxiety, arthritis, back pain, depression, diabetes, and high blood pressure.  The first take away: students choose yoga for reasons as diverse and varied as they are, and there is a perception among most class-goers than yoga provides both physical and mental benefits.


Barriers to a Regular Yoga Practice


The most common reasons students fail to maintain a regular yoga practice are scheduling, cost, and the location of classes.  These logistical barriers are true not just of yoga students, but of American adults seeking to begin any regular physical exercise regime (see, for example this survey by the Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/fitness/art-20045099?pg=2, and a recent study of barriers to exercise among college students https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/EbbenJEPonlineOctober2008.pdf).  


What is unique to yoga students is that their reasons for ceasing to come to class, like their reasons for attending in the first place, encompass more than purely physical factors.  Students are more likely not to return to a class if they do not connect to the instructor, the style, or the class environment.  These findings reflect a potential double barrier between students and their mats: it is not just the difficulties of creating time for a practice that prevents newcomers from becoming regular practitioners, but also how they perceive the openness of the space, the tenor of the class, and their personal level of comfort with the invitations for physical and spiritual exploration.




A Teacher’s Role in Holding Space


Not every teacher will be the correct fit for every student.  Teachers should be mindful of balancing their desire to create an inviting class where all feel welcome, and holding true to the foundations of their individual style and approach to class; the most effective teachers teach from what they know.  The balance comes in inviting students into the practice in a way that honors their individual motivations and goals with the integrity of the offering.  A few suggestions on how to invite students into a regular practice:


  • Recognize the effort it takes for students just to show up.  The desire to congratulate students for making it to the mat aligns with the research: logistics are often the hardest part.  Not only is it almost universally applicable praise, that recognition helps motivate students to do it again.  


  • Be honest about what grounds the teaching.  When teachers are transparent about what drives them – whether it be their overall style, or the theme of a particular class, students are empowered to think for themselves; a lesson is not thrust upon them uninvited, but carefully considered and presented as one way to look at things.  Such an approach honors the diversity of reasons students have for practicing yoga.


  • Explicitly recognize difference.  The more teachers talk about the varied reasons people might practice, and the diversity of people’s experiences, the more they are able to build community across difference, and keep students coming back.  Currently, the demographics of the majority of those who do yoga (white, college educated folks at the mid to upper levels of socio-economic standing) do not reflect our greater communities at large.  Yoga has the potential to benefit so many people.  Be the change you wish to see by talking about what is happening in the communities in which you teach.


  • Be open to helping students find a practice that is right for them, even if it is not in your class or studio.  Make yourself available to students after class; seek out those who appeared to struggle through the practice, and speak with them.  Educate yourself about other studios or home practice tools that might help students uncover the benefits of a yoga style that could be right for them if the one you offer does not resonate with their expectations or abilities.


Students overcome a host of logistical barriers to make it to a class.  To eliminate that final potential barrier – lack of connection between the instructor or practice style and the students – teachers must remain mindful of the diversity of their students’ motivations for doing yoga.  In the end, the yoga does the work and the students create their own power.  Open, honest teachers can provide that little extra nudge between a day without yoga, and someone deciding that it is worth it to hop on public transport or sit through traffic, leave work a few minutes early or come in a few minutes late, juggle family and relationship obligations, for the pleasure and solace that comes from the union of breath and movement on the yoga mat.



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