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Yoga teachers' scope of service: Healthy boundaries for safe practice

If you practice yoga, teach, or are thinking about starting it's important to understand what most instructors can and can't do for you.

A large proportion of yoga students come to the mat with some sort of physical problem, be it an injury or illness, chronic pain, a tight neck and shoulders, bad knees, a hip replacement, or a sore back. Many have heard that yoga can help relieve physical issues like back pain, or reduce stress and ease emotional problems. But when it comes to instructors, many students aren't sure what their teachers are qualified to do.

At a minimum, yoga teachers are expected to provide a safe context for students to explore their practice. Beyond that, we're often asked how to handle physical and emotional concerns. While it is natural for teachers to want to help, both instructors and students need to understand and respect teacher's service limits, and be aware of the scope of practice that yoga teacher training equips instructors to provide.

Scope of service (sometimes called scope of practice), refers to the procedures and actions that are appropriate for an individual to engage in when working in a given context. It is based on a person’s education, experience and demonstrated competencies.

Yoga teachers have their limits

Most yoga teachers do not have the skills or training to properly evaluate and diagnose physical or psychological complaints, or to recommend a course of treatment. The exception would be instructors with advanced degrees in a medical or mental health profession. When working with students it is important to discriminate between teaching yoga and offering helpful suggestions that can be construed as medical advice.

Teachers can provide support and encouragement for those facing challenges, and share yogic teachings and philosophy that will aid students in their journey. This service is invaluable.

They can also serve as models of acceptance and grace as they navigate life’s obstacles and pitfalls. This may be as simple as getting up and laughing after falling down during a demonstration, or offering a smile or a gesture of caring. The scope of service that yoga teachers provide is like no other, and it is important to stay within it.

Navigating emotional and psychological issues

Most if not all yoga teachers take up the call to teach out of a need to be of service. They tend to be empathic, compassionate, and are typically good listeners. They are also dedicated to wellness and healing in some capacity, and care for their students.

Although yoga asana (posture-focused) practices may resemble exercise, most students will attest to the fact that their experience on the mat transcends stretching, strengthening, and a cardiovascular boost. Namely, yoga practice can be a psychologically altering and potentially transformative experience.

One explanation for this psychological shift may rest in the fact that the mindful attention to the breath that typically occurs during yoga practice directly impacts the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is divided into 2 branches: the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight freeze), and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, digest and repair).

Whereas activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) mobilizes our body’s systems for action, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) tends to elicit calm, receptivity and space for introspection. This can tap deeply into emotional states that may otherwise be inaccessible in our daily lives.

Somatic Experiencing pioneer, Dr. Peter Levine and Tom Myers, integrative manual therapist and author of the acclaimed, Anatomy Trains, concur that the body’s physical structures are often repositories for unexpressed emotions including traumatic experiences.

Levine believes that, “painful symptoms associated with trauma are the result of ‘fragments of sensory body memory that become trapped”. Both experts concur that yoga practices have the potential to release a breadth of emotional energy that has been stored in our tissues. This can range from intense anger, frustration or irritability, to joy, sadness or grief, or even be a trigger for traumatic memories or sensations.

When students encounter difficult sensations or emotions, it is incumbent on yoga teachers to understand what, if any, guidance they can provide. With the exception of trained mental health providers, yoga teachers are not competent to assess, diagnose or treat psychological problems, and should never attempt to do so. What they do have is the ability to provide support and encouragement for those facing emotional challenges, the ability to refer individuals to appropriate care providers when necessary, and the wisdom to impart yogic teachings and philosophy that will aid students in their journey.

Knowing a teacher's scope of service

The process of svadhyaya, or self-reflection is a critical component of teaching and practicing yoga. It involves being aware of the scope of service that one is trained to provide, or the limits of one's personal practice.

Svadhyaya also involves examining the behaviors, motivations and habitual thoughts and actions that influence our self-image. As teachers, we may see ourselves as healers, karma yogis, or the like, and our actions will reinforce this ideal. But these beliefs may not be in the service of students.

As teachers (and students) it is important to engage in continuous self-examination to assure that we have a clear understanding of how instructors can be of service, as well as their limits should you find yourself in need of guidance, or are asked to provide it.

When a teacher is approached with a situation, he or she should consider the following questions:

- Am I sufficiently trained and qualified to address this student’s needs?

- Would an experienced professional be better qualified to serve this student?

- Am I responding in a way that serves the best interest of my student or am I responding from a place of ego?

It is good practice for teachers to maintain a referral list of trusted professionals in their community. That list may include physicians, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, mental health professionals, Ayurvedic practitioners and others who may be able to address the specific needs of your students. This list is an invaluable tool, and allows the teacher to be a resource to students in the context of their scope of service.

It is important for all those involved in yoga to engage in regular and honest self-reflection to assure that we have a clear understanding of how to best serve each other when called upon. That is, after all, the essence of teaching and practicing yoga.

Adapted from an article originally published at YogaU Online


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