I have slowly been inching back into teaching yoga, or rather teaching yoga has found me again. It wasn’t the plan, but in the midst of job-jobbing and 9-to-5’ing, I found myself craving movement and meaning. After all this computer work and ideas and theories, I’ve been wanting to do something tangible and body-centred. And yoga is what I know.
For six weeks this summer, I worked with C in private yoga lessons on my living room floor. She came to me with a specific goal: to reclaim her body. Actually, the word she used was “conquer,” but I don’t know how to teach that. I’ll just go with reclaim because that feels manageable and teachable.
I wasn’t planning on teaching C and I don’t think she was planning on taking private yoga classes during her summer stay in Victoria. It all started on a Sunday in July when I invited a few friends over to my place for a practice class. I was about to start teaching yoga at a recovery centre, where I would put into practice what I’d recently learned in a trauma-informed yoga training with BC-based service organization, Yoga Outreach. I wanted to refresh my skills and flex my latent teaching muscles.
C showed up for her first-ever yoga class, eager and receptive. I lead what I thought was an accessible “beginner-friendly” practice, but within 15 minutes, C broke into tears and left the room. Everything hurt, she said – standing, lying down, being on her hands and knees.
We had a short debrief after the class, and C thought she’d be more comfortable in one-on-one classes in a space where she wouldn’t self-conscious around other people. We decided to work together in private classes.
I don’t want to speak for C but I want to present her here so you can see her as human and not just an initial. C is an artist who was spending the summer in Victoria after burning out in her studies at a university in Europe. She’s brilliant, insightful, and highly sensitive. She lives in a fat body and admits to feeling disconnected from it and not always aware of where her body is in space. She was dedicating her respite time in Victoria to managing her physical pain and anxiety.
In the first session, I introduced a simple sequence that included standing postures, supine (lying on the back) and restorative poses, and a little self-massage (with my beloved Yoga Tune-Up balls). She managed to last the full hour and was engaged, curious, and expressive. There was room for dialogue and articulation of her experience. I worked with that basic sequence structure through the rest of our work together, sometimes modifying the basic poses or adding in similar adaptations.
I followed the process outlined in the Yoga Outreach methodology, which includes three steps for a yoga class: having a body (basic postures with little emphasis on breath awareness), befriending the body (paying attention to sensation), and body as a resource (inviting more body and breath awareness).
These steps are intended to support interoception, what trauma specialist David Emerson defines as “the awareness of what is going on within the boundary of our own skin.” When I told C about interoception, she was intrigued by the theory and seemed to want to experience this for herself.
I didn’t use the word again or even float the possibility of it. Instead, I tried to guide her into the experience of feeling sensation within her body, of being aware where her hand is placed, what is happening when the length of her spine makes contact with the floor, how one foot feels after five minutes of rolling over a rubber ball compared to the other foot (“puffy,” “full” or even words that don’t exist like “floofy”).
I began to wonder if interoception is a word that should never be used with students or in yoga classes. Maybe yoga teachers, trauma specialists, and therapists should just keep this word to ourselves. It’s a funny word because it’s a noun, but you don’t often hear the verb version of it – people rarely write about whether it’s possible to interocept or interoceive. It’s a thing that is talked about but not an active verb that is experienced. The Merriam-Webster dictionary only includes the adjective interoceptive, as though the word simply describes a state of being.
I left C’s interoception to her, and if she felt like articulating a sensation she was welcome to. But there was no expectation that she had to speak about what was happening. I also can’t speak for her experience (because I’m not in her head or her body) or even relay what she shared with me (for professional boundary reasons).
I can, however, speak to what I saw on an external level. First of all, she showed up every week and stayed for a whole hour. At the end of six weeks, C was able to place herself on her hands and knees. She was able to arrange her limbs into warrior one. She was able to lift up into downward dog and hold it for a minute. I saw more steadiness, ease, and confidence in how she held her body in space.
C has returned to Europe and my wish is that she will continue to occasionally arrange her limbs in space or break into mountain pose while waiting for the bus, that she will weave interoception into her art practice and her self-care practice. And myself, I will continue slowly inching towards teaching/guiding/offering whatever this is, this process that functions best beyond language.