Creating a safe classroom: Engaging reflection and response


There are many ways in which yoga has a place in western culture and in which this informs what yoga is. Individual people with different life experiences and backgrounds have had different experiences that they bring with them to the learning environment. These inevitably interact with all of the other cultures represented. However, if there is a system of hierarchy that does not invite discussion, “different” approaches may merely be seen as approaches that need to adapt.

What is interesting to note about responses of yoga practitioners to questions about their experience of yoga and of yoga classes (and I did some of this sort of research when I did my Master’s)  is that many speak of a profound or deep experience with yoga on a personal level despite the fact that some of them have experienced uncomfortable, unsafe, or unfamiliar setting(s) in the classroom. However what also strikes me about these (and other) responses I received in my research is that while yoga has a deep meaning for people, many respondents did also mention issues they’ve had with yoga classes or trainings. However, not one single respondent mentioned having had a dialogue or discussion or interaction about this with a teacher.[2] Many individuals did comment about how they sorted through what wasn’t appropriate privately, or took something from the experience and left other parts. While this is a common approach to daily life—to take some elements of a given experience to heart and let others go—it does illustrate a silence. These individuals had these experiences, but the teachers did not know of them.

Investing in creating more sharing about our students’ experiences can create a more balanced learning environment. O’Reilly (p.8, 1998), writes, “when students engage actively in reflection and response—merging in their inimitable way the contemplative and active vocations—they often take a direction we might not approve or affirm. Their inner teacher may speak differently from ours: surprise us, amuse us, instruct us, and anger us. In such circumstances, we need that closing of dialectic of speech and silence; it constitutes a liturgy of assimilation and forgiveness.”

There are surely a myriad of reasons why people teach. The significance of those reasons could be judged according to a myriad of angles and perceptions. I teach because teaching feels natural, because I love the liveliness of daily interaction with students, and the way that I come to understand small parts of the universe through each interaction. Students and my relationships with them hold me accountable to my actions and the interactions make me stronger, more sensitive and more aware of myself in a larger context. Teaching helps me to articulate questions about the practice, about the dissemination of knowledge and about group dynamics. It is the interactions I have had with students that has called me to the work I am doing now. Over and over again, students have shared their stories with me of feeling pushed out of the yoga scene.

This has called me to look closely at those students who choose to stay with me and those who don’t. I have learned a lot about myself from that and a lot about my training, my privilege, and my cultural biases. I have made changes in my teaching and in my life as a result of what I have seen (and not seen) in my classes. I am still seeking to understand how to make more space in yoga for more diversity. I have caught myself being pulled into a disappointingly easy role of self-righteousness that has helped me to understand how I am prone to believing that my way is right. And I have also seen that changing my approaches merely to please students or to make them like me does nothing to serve either of the parties involved. Only when I have been able to be honest and engage in dialogue with students have I found that meaningful and trusting relationships have formed on both sides.

As I have already mentioned, and as the quotes shared from my research may begin to make clearer, many people have had profound experiences with their practice of yoga. As one individual told me: “For me yoga is the only way out. It’s the only thing that really is of interest to me. I mean, I seriously considered suicide for myself. I couldn’t find meaning in my life. And yoga is the only thing that held my interest– that holds my interest. And what holds my interest about it is that it takes me away from myself, it takes me away from myself, my small self and connects me to the universe and to other human beings. So that’s really, yoga’s kind-a my salvation. Like when I take a yoga class with [my teacher], it’s like going to church. I want to be the best I can be and I feel the closest to god or whatever. Whatever it means to move out of yourself into something larger, that’s when I can contact—when I’m practicing yoga I want to be alive.”  This individual also teaches and he says,  “ I think the teaching helps deepen my practice.”

The man above, is not alone is saying that his personal experience of yoga also informs and deepens his personal practice teaching of yoga. In this way, the personal spiritual becomes relevant to teaching and to the relationships formed in the classroom. In such a deeply interconnected and profound relationship, it makes sense to take time to hear and to see and to communicate (in varied ways) about the shared experiences, about the points of contact and the places where individual’s experiences overlap. This is essential in the personal lives of all teachers and in the actions and approaches of an institution that seeks to train them. One way to begin to peel back the layers to this complex situation is to begin to look at the goals and intentions of institutions, of training programs, and of teachers themselves, by asking, again and again: why and how do we teach?

I personally am of the academic tradition that O’Reilley refers to as the antithesis to deep listening: critical listening (1998, p.19). With this sort of listening, ‘we tend to pay attention long enough to develop a counterargument; we critique the student’s or the colleague’s ideas; we mentally grade and pigeonhole each other” (p.19). I am very talented at this way of thinking. Give me time (not even that much of it), and I can counter most arguments, especially those that I feel are directed at me. Thus it is tempting to think away those accusations or points that students bring to the table (either verbally or otherwise), much easier than stopping and hearing them.  This means not thinking up a response as a student is speaking. This is hard work, but it is critical, especially in light of the fact that our students will come to us from similar and from different histories, and failing to listen to them (without forming a response simultaneously) will be disempowering and overbearing for them and, ultimately, for us.

“Whether we are aware of it or not,” O’Reilley writes,  “professional life tends to be dominated by one or another set of metaphors. We have to be conscious about the metaphors we choose to describe our relationship to students, and resist those thrust upon us by the marketplace. Will you slide into the role of friendly shopkeeper, or will you choose to situate yourself in a tradition that calls the best in you and your students into account?” (p. 23, 1998).

O’Reilley evokes the image of a spiral when she equates teaching with a contemplative or spiritual practice, and believes that transformation is the goal of the relationship of teacher and student. Even if one doesn’t agree with this perspective, that teaching is a spiritual practice, the goal of creating some sort of transformation (or change) through the process of learning/ educating, is at the heart of all teaching. O’Reilly writes,


“By ‘transformation’ I mean movement toward truth, true self, authenticity. Transformation occurs in a kind of spiral. At the outer whirl of the spiral, a lot of analytical activity may occur; the badgering and bossing of certain Mother Superiors and Zen masters, therapy talk, analytical discussion, the passing on of the precepts of a tradition or the practical application of them to daily life. At the innermost point of the spiral, though, is a silence: a place of presence. Transformation happens in the badgering and bothering (and correcting and grading)[3]; it happens as well on the ground of silence. Good teaching or counseling—and I am thinking here more of what goes on in individual mentoring than in the classroom- -begins in the contemplative presence of both companions, although this inward attention may not enter explicitly into their time together; the session may be devoted to analyzing an essay or sorting out a financial crisis. And the teacher may be more ready to center than the student (or vice versa); for our part [as teachers], it’s helpful to signal by our greeting, our office arrangements, and other nonverbal cues, that the seeker has entered upon some kind of holy ground “ (p.10, 1998).


This is another place to point out the importance of radical presence—learning to provide space for dialogue, and mutual exploration. There is no patent approach to this, as personalities and backgrounds may make different approaches to communication more or less effective. However, working towards this sort of openness would serve to make the classroom a safer and more equitable place for students and teachers.


Considering and incorporating the five principles of learning that Nieto presents can serve as a way of creating accountability in the classroom or training environment. For more about these read Teaching: Multicultural individuals, relationship and radical presence,  and How do we create more equitable and sensitive classroom settings?

© Traci Childress, 2013.


O’Reilley, M.R. (1998). Radical presence : Teaching as contemplative practice. Boynton/Cook Publishers, Portsmouth, NH.

[1] Piagetian developmental theory which is the basis for much of modern approaches to teaching.

[2] I did not include a question that spoke directly to this issue, a question such as, “if you ever had issue with an experience in a class, did you discuss it with the teacher or did you feel safe discussing it?” It would be worthwhile to include this in related research.

[3]Badgering and bossing may or may not be the more “positive” type of transformation that some individuals seek in educating themselves. This sort of hierarchical “I know better than you” approach may indeed limit outward, upward, positive transformation and may result in a transformative experience that is more downward spiraling, one that evokes/encourages silence, repression, and exclusion for some people.

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