If you’ve ever found your eyes wandering around the room during a yoga class and wondered “Why can’t I do that???” This article is a good starting place for you!

The truth is our bodies are unique in BOTH structure and daily living patterns so our experience in postures will vary widely. There’s a long and complicated answer to why you might feel a posture differently than your yogi neighbor or your favorite teacher. What you should know is when your experience doesn’t match up, it has nothing to do with your ability, your self worth or whether or not you are “good at Yoga”.. As humans, we often observe, compare and try to adapt to what we perceive as the norm. In doing so, we can create unreasonable expectations and miss the chance to go more deeply into our own experience.

Teachers: it’s time to take a look at our language and our approach when we teach group classes. It’s impossible to teach to the individual in a group setting, but there are small things we can do to start opening up this conversation and normalize variations between bodies. Try these three tips to start changing your class culture.

  1. Invite your student to consciously explore in their bodies what they are feeling. Again and again and again, ask students what they are feeling. They don’t need to answer, but in asking you can point them to where the real magic of asana can be found, noticing the different ways our bodies respond to movement and stillness with equanimity.
  2. Offer options, encourage all students to try and decide what’s best for them. Study and try out these options for yourself so that you can be well versed in the choices you present.
  3. Modify your cueing approach. Instead of saying “and if you can’t try…” use language that minimizes a hierarchy of postures. During Sun Salutations with a long hold in downward facing dog it’s not uncommon for students to overwork dog or be downright miserable. Instead of saying “And if you need a break, you can come to child’s pose,” try something like “consider subbing in puppy pose or child’s pose here if you find this to be the shoulder or low back stretch you need right now.” This empowers students to make the best choice for themselves in the moment rather than making them feel like they can’t do what’s expected in that moment.

Practitioners: I’m not a firm “keep your eyes on your own mat” kinda teacher. In fact, I think observing others is one of the primary ways we learn and thus, can be a useful tool in understanding what’s happening. It’s a slippery slope because it takes a strategic mindset shift to really get the most out of your group class experience.

  1. Adopt the mindset from the get-go that we are all different, we will look different when we practice and IT’S A BEAUTIFUL THING. It’s like going to the botanical gardens. Even if it’s a rose garden, there are many varieties to enjoy and it’s the slight variations in each that make the garden complete.
  2. When you see or hear a variation TRY IT! Try out the new positioning and really go into feeling mode. Ask yourself what do I feel, where do I feel it and is this useful for me?
  3. Don’t expect that the group experience will be tailored for you. The teacher is doing their best to meet the needs of the group but take ownership of your practice and experience and make the most of your practice by being willing to try new things, go deep into your experience and make choices that serve you. You won’t hurt your teachers feelings if you don’t take the shape they’ve cued. The truth is, if you show up and lie in savasana for the whole class, a good teacher (and everyone around you for that matter) will be jealous, not irritated.

Yoga teachers and practitioners each have their own role to play in normalizing variations between bodies in yoga classes. When we each do our best to encourage focus on the present experience of each body, we can make the most of our mat time and move into the true essence of yoga; coming home to our true selves.