Safe space is not really a place. Getting the right pictures and statues in the room won’t help. It’s more like space happens in time, as a result of conscious action. In yoga, safe space arises as a meeting of the consciousness of a teacher, the consciousness of a student, and the consciousness of an organization. Three supports.
It’s rare. And it is needed for a subversive reason – not to ensure we never feel uncomfortable, but to empower us to go to places of intense internal discomfort without external distraction. This post focuses just on the consciousness of organizations, the third support, because it’s part of a series on the business of yoga. And because this is the foundational safe space that organizations, even cultures, can generate.
The other two sources are individual. The student aspect – the ways we contact safety within ourselves – is primary. Wherever you go, there’s usually a loner with sick technique who shows up first to practice and is out like a ghost, who loves everyone and has no taste for drama. This is the lucky Jedi, who knows nothing but safe space. The only reason she bothers to leave the house is to contribute her energy and goodwill to whatever community she can find, and to use the environment’s challenges to hone her own mastery.
As for the teacher aspect, so far I’m learning two skills: (1) being a trustworthy source/storehouse of information and (2) holding space. Put those together, and teaching is not helping people do backbends or drill into their one-pointed awareness: teaching is generating safe space. Lesson number one upon starting apprenticeship 8 years ago was waking up to the relationship of trauma and privilege: it is the the charmed who have not been somehow harmed. I expect lifetimes more learning in trustworthiness and holding space.
Back to organizations. First, here is a disposable spectrum to organize ideas (disposable because only true for a moment). There are yoga schools; and there are yoga stores. I’ll come back to this at the end.
In safe space, nobody makes your experience an object of conversation, speculation, or promotion. Photos of your practice don’t show up online, and you aren’t asked to buy things/experiences tangential to your learning. If you’re going through something, the organism can hold that – because it understands your process is your own. It doesn’t even make sense to discuss/analyze the intimate hivemind time outside of that context.
In this setting, the feeling of mutual respect predominates, and the practice is treated as sacred. The fact that you habitually check your ego and go there – to the vulnerable nonperformative delicate interior – earns you respect. You are one of the humans who is going to take self-understanding and healing to a high level in this life, and the space comes alive to support this. Evolution is thrilling. The crumbs of commercialism are no temptation when evolution is humming.
In safe space, you will not be attacked with unsolicited advice. Trust is mutual; and it’s built over time. New information, or postures, or feedback, is given as an expression of this mutual trust. Teachers are responsible for the long-term effects of what they offer. They get that teaching creates karma, and that is best avoided unless they HAVE to play the teaching role because the student has asked. So, there is a culture of consent.
Lesson number two in my apprenticeship training: only the amateur covers a drop-in student in touch and instruction. (In Mysore, RSJ is so clear about this: he does not “try to impress” people he’s just met with adjustments or new instructions.) If you drop in to a safe space, your nervous system doesn’t have to stand vigil. Rather, your organism decides how and when to wire up with the larger group. Meantime the teacher does not dilute her instructions by giving them out at random.
The old tenet here is that “two teachers will kill one student.” So you have an established practice, and a teacher you have chosen. Nobody tries to “kill” you with new instruction or (worse) changes to your practice.
Different teachers (especially the very developed teachers) have VASTLY different interpretations of practice. Trying to integrate conflicting instructions within one’s own body leads to confusion and injury. This confusion is a major source of harm in our time. Not so much because the individual sources, whatever they may be, are wrong. Because mindbodies need clarity, and consistency, and trust in order to self-organize. We grow according to predictable rhythms.
Interpretations of practice are grounded in distinct states of consciousness, and stages of consciousness. It’s good that this diversity exists. For example, one interpretation will begin with physical alignment, teaching the mind to see the body as if from the outside, cycling through checklists of what muscular actions to perform. By contrast, other approaches prioritize breath awareness on the level of the emotional body, or closing loops within the nervous system, or the development of extremely clear interior perception, or high precision linking of breath and movement. Practitioners trying to do a bunch of practices at once will not rest in any of the mental states being trained, and may show the same tendency to shuttle between teachers as between thoughts. Lots of noise, little signal. The practitioner is starving on tons of food he can’t digest.
“Two teachers will kill one student” isn’t a comment on pair-bonding (at least not anymore). It’s about focus. Safe space holds together because of a continuity of transmission, no matter who is in the teacher role. The organization does not give random teachers access to the group. What I’ve seen is that the proprietor holds space; or he entrusts the teaching to someone in his line of study who has a blessing to continue the work; or the group practices without a teacher. Maybe that’s all parampara is: continuing the work.
The people who end up in the teacher role can hold up the work because they’re accountable to others. They fully disclose their training and the limits of their knowledge. They don’t think they know your future path; they are learning with you. They do not use charisma to control, and they do not allow people to treat them as the only one who knows things. Safe space is empowering like that.
I really like global community, so have a hobby of dropping in to studios everywhere. My practice is that if I’m choosing to visit another’s room, it can only be in the spirit of gratitude and love of community. Provided I’m not harmed (which has never occurred), if I have any distraction or internal commentary on the experience, then the practice is to notice and neutralize any ego charge in those vrittis. What works, personally, is to pack a breathable golden bubble along with my mat, and not to open on a subtle level unless I’m with my teacher. In the first five years of this, I learned something important about filtering my awareness and taking responsibility for my own distractions, and in the meantime forged loving friendships around the world. (I may have had more ability to generate safety from within a bubble then; now I feel entirely permeable, more apt to benefit from the unique safety of brahma muhurta.)
Anyway, circa 2005 one day when the conditions were right, safe space happened for me on Broome Street. I still had not met a teacher I fully bonded with, but finally I was able to detect and enjoy a safe space. For the first five years of practice, I did not know it existed. I say this because it seems safe space is extremely rare, and it seems authentic practice can get going without it. May Broome Street’s work be continued.
In safe space, you will never be a leader’s love interest or sexual quarry. So you don’t have to shield against that, or to move your body as if under the sexy gaze. Meantime, teachers don’t want you to think they’re hot. They’ve decoupled their ego needs from the sensation of being beautiful to others.
Again, safe space is rare. I wish it could be discussed without bringing up the birds and the bees, but that wish comes from my own cowardice and for a minute I’ll set it aside.
The idea that I need the perfect mate to mirror me back to myself, to be whole: this is narcissism. Maybe we start practice with this belief; it’s just an accepted thought form in the culture. And, with a certain orientation to yoga (i.e. an ethical, intensely self-aware orientation) we can get over it. Teachers who are not over might be able to keep their sexual energy clean most of the time, but there is still a background scanning for the practitioner who has just the right stuff – right energy, right body, right star chart – to be a consort. It’s palpable.
There truly are people – a lot of people – who have done the work to clean up their sexual boundaries, even as the intensity of their subtle energy increases. I see a few wonderful, healthy role models out there. And I’ve learned from one strong woman and two alpha males who get it. Clean energy can be cultivated through mentoring, when there is the possibility of directness and no compromises.
For people who wish there was more safe space: I promise, this work is happening authentically around the world, in a way that is not obvious in internet yoga, and in a way that builds foundations for future safe space.
Back to yoga schools and yoga stores.
Here’s the thing. The political economy of safe space strongly favors the yoga school. By contrast, yoga stores in and of themselves can’t generate safe space. Capitalism’s game is to commercialize space and to create consumers. The store sees you as a number. Class size matters. Your practice may be an object, and can be used to attract new consumers. Particularly if you have a body that looks conventionally beautiful and sexy in 2D. Ultimately, the yoga store views you as a perpetual consumer – new products/experiences will be pitched at you although these things directly, relentlessly undermine your chitta vritti nirodha.
By contrast, schools see you as a student whose activity is learning and healing. The school says bring whatever awkwardness, incompleteness, confusion you’ve got. We welcome your ratty clothes, haphazard hair, and that halting morning zombie walk (no, it’s not just you). That’s exactly what belongs. Not to complicate the badass self-mastery story that helps people get out of bed for practice, but yoga schools are shrines to the awkward.
Organizations tend to maximize whatever it is they measure. Want financial profit? Keep complex money metrics. Want to maximize student numbers? Count heads. This is yoga store logic.
Because it’s unhelpful to just theorize safe space, I’ll share that I run a yoga school, and take care not to let my ego default to the surrounding capitalist logic. Okay, my mentality is a product of my dedication and devotion and my prayers of thanks and highest possible intention; but also, my mentality is just a product of my metrics. So our daily sign-in sheet has a studiously unknown number of lines, and if they fill up people just write their names in the margins. I give them a sign-in so they can note their presence to themselves, but for me, counting heads feels like counting postures. And I do not believe that the quality of this organization’s work is expressed in quantities.
Instead, one metric for this organization is how many days I actually see and get to work with the students in my care. I ask specifically how well this school is doing by them over time – if practitioners report, or I see evidence, that yoga is improving their lives. I account for how equally I distribute my attention across the student body, running my mind over each individual member of the school and systematically wish them well day by day.
When I am done with this daily accounting, I count blessings. On days my mind despises the idea of blessings, still they get counted. It’s just organizational bookkeeping. Counting heads and money might feel safer. Marketing might seem to give us an ace in the hole. Oh well.
Organizations – stores, schools, whatever – have a kind of momentum. For a store, the imperative is to increase profit. Quarter by quarter, year by year, there is a drive to make more money now than before. I didn’t understand until I took Econ that capitalism does not abide a flatline. But schools have their own drives – they’re not docile entities. Learning must increase. If one is not deepening their understanding, then for better or for worse, this is kind of a problem. “You should always be growing in your practice,” RSJ tells the ashtangis in conference. This is something I’ve learned to be very careful with, because when my mind is curious and hungry, it isn’t necessarily perceptive. Growth can be invisible. The school may be doing its job well not only when there is dramatic change, but when students hold steady, or when they integrate practice into a life that is subject to the forces of chaos.
To the degree that safe space may arise here, in this school, the organization itself is not a direct source of chaos in practitioners’ lives. But when the time is right, safe space can be the place to touch in with that which is chaotic in consciousness – that which is so scary, hard, ugly or just awkward that the ego will not go there without respect, privacy and safety.
Safe space isn’t spa yoga, and it won’t channel the mutual appreciation society to shield us from feeling weird about being exactly who we are. There is this thing in yoga about taking action in the face of fear. It conditions us to open, to reconcile apparent opposites, to see and step away from harmful motives. I don’t know… maybe perfect, limitless love arrives on a flash of light and lasts forever. All grace, no work. Do tell me if that’s the case. Meantime, safe play and practice in territory the ego deems dangerous is one long slow boat to Love.
P.S. Insideowl sends a short newsletter, insideout, 12 times per year.
P.P.S. As for the last post, the image is from emprints and used by the artist’s permission.