Have you ever walked into a class and looked around nervously at all the other students? Everyone quietly stretching, meditating, or laying around, intently focused on their tasks at hand. Have you ever wondered if it’s appropriate to strike up a conversation with the person next to you? Or if it would be appreciated? You’re not alone.
Despite yoga’s natural ability to cultivate community and get us out of our shells, classes can sometimes be quite intimidating. Particularly when we’re practicing with strangers and we don’t know whether or not they're friendly, or welcoming.
Here’s a hint – usually they are.
However, unless teachers (and students) explicitly recognize and address the natural tension that exists, it’s very hard to break.
When I’m not in the studio, a big part of my job is facilitation. Managing group dynamics during workshops and dialogue sessions is very similar to teaching yoga. This is because the job of the facilitator or yoga teacher is to provide structure to the experience. Whether it’s through activities and guiding questions, or a series of postures, the facilitator/teacher is giving participants and students the path they need to discover something new about themselves and the surrounding world.
The first part of this structure is building emotional comfort and setting the tone for the experience. In facilitation, we often call exercises with this aim “ice-breakers” or “energizers”. This same step is needed (although often forgotten) in public yoga classes. Taking a small amount of time, maybe even just a few moments, to build camaraderie and familiarity between students breaks that tension that inhibits us from freely expressing ourselves. It calms nervousness and sets the tone for a productive practice. So with this in mind, here are a few “yoga ice-breakers” that teachers can use at the start of class to cultivate community before starting to move.
Catching Eyes – Ask students to gaze around the room, noticing and becoming aware of the space around them. Encourage them to briefly catch the gaze of other practitioners and smile.. This works particularly well if you're practicing outside the studio or in any non-traditional setting where there is also some beautiful scenery to observe and take in.
Shake it out – If you’re beginning your class in a standing position, get everyone shaking before beginning the asana practice. Encourage practitioners to wiggle and jump, so they feel each of their muscles bouncing as they relax. This not only gets people laughing and smiling, but also serves a double purpose as it loosens and warms people up. If you don’t like to shake, maybe just go straight for a pre-practice dance party!
Lion’s Breath (Simhasana pranayama) – Lion's Breath is a great way to relieve tension in the neck and face, while building energy and more importantly for this purpose, laughter! Particularly for new practitioners, Lion’s Breath requires us to get over our desire to appear “cool”. It forces us to let our guards down simply through its appearance. To cultivate lion's breath, have practitioners sit on their knees (ankles can cross under the seat if comfortable). First, open the chest with the hands on the knees. Inhale through the nose, then exhale forcefully through the mouth while making a “ha” sound. As you exhale, open your mouth wide and stretch your tongue out and downward towards the chin. Repeat as desired.
Do you have any other great ideas on breaking tension and building community? Have you seen any of these “ice-breakers” done before? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!