teacher responsibility

by blogasana on May 20, 2011

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I recently attended two workshops with seasoned teachers who approached student disclosure very differently:

One teacher spent 10 or so minutes going around room for introductions and sharing of any injuries or health issues. This teacher actually wrote down participant names and considerations.

The other teacher gathered everyone at the beginning of the workshop and stated very clearly that disclosing health information would not be necessary, saying: I don’t want to lead you to believe that I can remember all of your injuries and illnesses, let alone help you with them. Please take care of yourself.

The first teacher did not claim to be able to address every issue that might arise, but did offer individuals brief suggestions about what to do or avoid related to their situation.

The second teacher didn’t ignore students and added a few bits into the teaching about taking care of hamstrings or lower back.

Two very different styles, two different approaches.

where does your apple fall?

So much juicy potential here. Topics like students being reliant on teachers, how teachers are trained to offer suggestions on how to care for the body (or not), expectation, and how to handle it when a student does gets injured.

Before I weigh in with my practice and how I teach, I’d love to hear how you feel about responsibility in a yoga class — that of the teacher and of the student.

Teachers, how do you approach this topic in your classes? Do you speak specifically to responsibility? How did your teacher training address this? Have you had an experience of student injury — and if so, how did you feel?

And for all of us as students, what is your sense of responsibility for your own body in class? Does it depend on how the teacher sets up the container? Does one approach appeal to you more (or a middle-ground blend) as a learner? And if you’ve been injured in class, how did you react?

Thanks in advance for sharing and happy weekend!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

bachatero80 May 20, 2011 at 10:03 pm

I’m just thinking about aloud this… I would many of us–and especially us as beginners–have no idea what an injury in progress feels like. Lord knows we become aware when things snap or fall or burst. Or when a couple hours later we feel that bad kind of ache and twinge. So I think one thing teachers need to be mindful of is to help students know how to understand and be aware of the signs their body is giving them. The body is such new territory for us in Western culture, especially those subtle signs and sensations. This awareness can be actively cultivated by the teacher: “When you’re in this back bend, feeling X might be a sign that you need to back off or come out.” It is also making sure that students feel safe enough to ask in class, “I’m not sure if I’m actually just feeling my knee ligaments for the first time, or if I’m in danger of snapping them in two.”


blogasana May 23, 2011 at 5:04 pm

so much about this that i love, ryan. head nods to resounding YES’s… this comment has it all. thank you!


Nancy Alder May 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I struggle with this issue b/c I teach a lot of older students. I feel it’s super important to give permission to students to move in any way that feels ok for them. So with that in mind I announce at the beginning of EVERY class that they have permission to come out of poses, take different poses, etc. I also offer a boatload of modifications and often demonstrate them as well before doing the poses.

I was taught in YTT to announce :”does anyone have injuries I should know about” but to me that seems very impersonal and also asks people to reveal things they might not want others to know about. So I try to let students know that a.) it is their job to listen to their bodies and b.) i specifically state that if they have something going on that it is something I should know about privately. They almost always tell me.

One teacher who is really great about injuries that I’ve seen is Ana Forrest. She makes EVERY person in her workshops put a sticker on their mat with their names and their injuries. That way assistants and she can be aware of how to assist (or not) and what modifications to give the students. I like this idea but it’s not really practical for every student.

I’m looking forward to what others say.


blogasana May 23, 2011 at 5:09 pm

nancy – i love the sound of your approach – very similar to mine.

one thought on the ana forrest sticker (i studied with her for 5 or so years..) that comes from something david life said at the start of a workshop: i don’t ask people about their injuries right before a class because i don’t want that to be their defining thing in a practice…or maybe it’s an old story that doesn’t apply anymore, but they’re still telling it.

this seems like another set of extremes… and can’t there be something in the middle? :) i don’t want people hanging on to a story about the shoulder, fearing every move… nor do i want them throwing information they know about their bodies out the window.

another balance… thanks so much for sharing your take.


Monica May 21, 2011 at 12:42 am


This is such an important issues, thank you so much for bringing it up! During my teacher training we really used check-ins at the beginning of every class. We practiced as instructors turning to each student and individually asking them, by name, how they are today. What I love about this is that it is a space for students to let the teacher know about injury or health concerns, but it is not limited to that. It also is an opportunity to share what is going on emotionally and recognizes that every time a student comes to class, they are in a different place physically, mentally, emotionally. This is also great for students with health concerns that you see regularly, it’s a space to check in with any changes or developments.

As a student, this was difficult at first for me to catch on to, and I needed some prodding. I think our automatic response to “How are you?” questions is to say something simple, positive, vague. Throughout my training, I learned both to more clearly asses where I was, how I really felt, and to feel comfortable sharing that honestly.

When I go to classes where the teacher dives in, allowing students to judge their own injuries with suggestions for adjustments, I personally know my body well enough to work where I am, but I am not sure all other students do. So I am wary of that approach. Of course, in a large class, it could take all hour to check in with everyone, but then, I am also an advocate for smaller classes in general!


blogasana May 23, 2011 at 5:12 pm

hi monica!

how great to ask people how they are *right now* — not usually or yesterday or how they wanted to be. and to address it on all levels — so important. just lovely. thank you!!


emma May 21, 2011 at 2:47 am

it’s so situational, there’s no one right answer.

in my 40-50 person class, id be spouting contraindications all day if i really heard everyone’s body stuff. so, like nancy, i tell people that they can do whatever they want in my class as long as they breath and feel safe. i tell folks that if they loose the easiness of the breath, they are moving into unsafe territory.

in smaller classes, i ask what they would like to work on to the whole group. no one is forced to talk. if something is tweaky or achy, they bring it up then.

and, of course, sometimes someone just walks in…and you know a physical issue they are working with (hello, pregnancy, for example). then you can check in, one on one, assuming nothing.


blogasana May 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm

wow – 40-50 people! nope, probably not doing individual check ins :)

ya, completely on board with your approach too!


Leili Learning Life May 21, 2011 at 3:16 am

Thanks for posing this discussion, Michelle. I, too, have been thinking about this.

I have to say that I really respect the second instructor’s approach. I was curious to know when he was going to ask me about my practice, if I had any injuries, etc. But when he announced that he didn’t want to lead us to believe he could keep all of our injuries in mind, I totally understood.

My greatest fear as a new teacher is that I will hurt someone in class. But just taking this statement alone, I’d never intentionally hurt anyone. More clearly, I fear that someone will get hurt in my class. While I do check in with students before class, hearing students’ special considerations can be overwhelming — as in, I sometimes don’t feel that I have the experience or capacity to handle these issues (but then again, what is there for me to handle?). What I end up offering to the student is something like, “I hear that you’re taking care of your _____ right now. We’ll be doing ______ pose/movement, so please respect your limits and I’ll offer some suggestions to modify.”

Relating back to this fear that I’ll hurt someone, something that really stuck with me from TT is Havi’s emphasis on students being sovereign beings. As sovereign beings, we are all free to care for ourselves in our own way. Along with this, it’s through the practice of yoga that we learn to tune into the physical body and show compassion for ourselves. Sovereignty really speaks to me as a student, and it’s because of this that I’m drawn to the workshop instructor’s approach.

Reflecting on my experience during this workshop, I might also add that I felt very “held” by the instruction. If a certain shape wasn’t accessible, we were instructed to continue to work from a previous shape. I thought this worked well. But then again, I remember looking around the room at one point, noticing that I was the only one who continued to stay on the first “level” of a shape — I had a hard time believing that there weren’t other people who would have benefited from modifying this particular pose, too. So maybe that speaks to this question again of teacher vs. student responsibility.

Looking at Ryan’s comment above about needing to connect with beginners, I think one thing to consider — and Michelle I don’t know if you’ll agree on this or not — is that this particular workshop was perhaps geared towards more experienced practitioners. Maybe it was safe to assume (literally) that students attending this workshop would have the awareness and mindfulness to take care of themselves.

This particular instructor was a very skillful teacher (in my mind). He offered reasons why one might not go into a particular shape, along with demonstrations and explanation of the risks around pushing oneself into a shape (i.e. certain movements that would strain the knees). I hope to one day be able to teach with this level of detail AND clarity.

I’d say that the experience level of the teacher may be a factor in whether the teacher addresses injuries before class or not. The masterful teacher who can speak to subtleties and cautions in a pose may allow for students to make safe choices in each moment. The newer teacher may serve students better through brief discussion on injuries; both student and teacher have a mind on what may need extra attention.

A couple of other things I’d like to add:

I dislike it when an instructor asks an entire class if there are any injuries/considerations he or she should be aware of. I think it disrespects each person’s privacy. I as a student may not even want to share my ailments with the teacher, let alone anyone else; and I as a student also do not want to know personal details about fellow students. There is always time before class to speak to at least some individuals, and the offering to have students give a wave if something in particular doesn’t work. I like Nancy’s approach of inviting students to share privately.

Reading Monica’s comment, it’s so true that each day we’re different physically, emotionally, mentally. This is something I try to convey this to students in encouraging them to listen to themselves. I, too, like the personal check in. So maybe for me, my approach will be to touch base with students but also continue to emphasize that they are (say it with me now) sovereign.

Lastly, there are always caveats and extremes. A few years ago, I went to a new yoga class with my mom. She was wearing a wrist brace. While she was obviously taking care of her wrist and doing her best to avoid poses that would aggravate injury, I’d expected some acknowledgment from the instructor. I was practically fuming by the end of class that the teacher never once moved from her spot at the front of the room to offer my mom a suggestion or modification. One could argue that if she were injured, she should be familiar with modifications before coming back to class. So if you as the instructor have chosen not to check in regarding injuries, what then? That doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t offer an assist or helpful instruction to a struggling student during class — after all, that’s teaching, right? Same with the workshop instructor, he offered individual instruction and adjustments when appropriate.

There are definitely so many things to consider. Thanks again Michelle for this space to discuss and sort through my own thoughts. ;)


Leili Learning Life May 21, 2011 at 3:16 am

Damn, that’s long.


blogasana May 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm

YAAAAY! let’s just all get together on this and have a brainstorm!

these are such great ideas/thoughts, leili. no, really… can we get together?


Leili Learning Life May 23, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Yeah! I’d love to continue the conversation.


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