Creating the Compassionate Safe Container by Amy Weintraub

Integral Yoga Teachings   |   October 17, 2014

Compassionate ContainerWhile leading a five-day LifeForce Yoga® retreat at a large conference center, I met a woman whom I shall call Janet. A licensed social worker, she had a private counseling practice in a large city. Janet was tall with a broad-shouldered, athletic-looking body. She had taken a Yoga teacher training program the year before, but was not currently teaching. Shame, she said, was the reason she was not only not teaching, but also no longer practicing Yoga. She said she’d felt humiliated by the teacher-trainer when she’d asked him to wear a special microphone device designed to amplify the sound for the hearing impaired and he’d refused. Her mat was placed near the back of the room, so a great deal of the program content was lost to her. The training, she said, was all about perfecting the posture— “getting it right.” She often left the sessions in tears. Janet is a woman who is slowly losing her hearing, and the Yoga training reinforced her sense of social isolation.

The “big stick” approach to mind-body trainings in meditation and Yoga is not uncommon. Many of these teaching methods arose from a culture where people felt secure in their identities and comfortable with their place in their families, communities and in the world. Children grew up in extended families, where attention was paid to their needs, not only by mother, but by grandmother, uncle, older brother, neighbor and priest. Perhaps a child was born into a family of textile merchants or goat herders where, for generations, each family member knew her or his role and played it without question. Unlike our Western culture, where there are multiple caretakers, multiple choices and much more uncertainty, children in traditional cultures develop a strong sense of self and a basic security in knowing who they are. As a result, it becomes the teacher’s role to shake up that security, so that the student may begin to question her identity as an individual “I.” In such a cultural context, it may require a harsher style of teaching to strip away the roles, so the student begins to glimpse the reality beneath the façade—the knowledge of her deep connection.

Academy 1But in our Western culture, where we are born into families split apart by work and divorce and separation from caring relatives, we have a harder time developing the identity that spiritual practice in traditional cultures seeks to break down. Even as adults, we in the West are often in the formative stage, developing a strong sense of self, particularly if we’ve been uprooted, abused, or traumatized as children. The harsher methods, though well-intentioned, rather than stripping away the false self, can further damage that emerging sense of self.

It may take years of psychotherapy and spiritual practice to feel a strong-enough sense of self for us Westerners to ask ourselves, “Who am I?” and be ready and willing to experience the answer—that we are both less than and greater than who we think we are. And for us to believe that the “greater than” has nothing to do with how much money we have or the awards we’ve won or what we’ve accomplished. That, in fact, the “greater than” has nothing to do with you or with me as individuals and everything to do with the you and the me that is not separate from the cosmos. “Wisdom tells me I am nothing,” says Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. “Love tells me I am everything. Between those two my life flows.”

Janet’s trainer had been a senior student of one of the most famous “big stick” teacher’s in India. Her teacher led his training sessions the way he had been taught. I don’t for a moment believe that the teacher-trainer leading Janet’s sessions set out to humiliate his students. Those of his students who could hear him learned proper alignment in the poses, but something was missing in that training. Compassion. The teacher did not create a sense of safety. He did not cultivate that compassionate container wherein students feel seen, heard and acknowledged even as they learn how to “get it right.” I often tell people who come to my workshops that if you leave a teacher feeling embarrassed about your body or unseen or not good enough, you should find another teacher.

Spiritual practice, be it Yoga or prayer or chanting or meditation, should remind us of our wholeness, of who we really are—vessels of energy and love connected to the healing energy and love of the cosmos. We should put away our malas or get up from our meditation cushions feeling more connected, not less. Teachers who cannot create a safe container where we feel willing to risk the self-disclosure involved in emotional and physical and mental transformation should be avoided.

Amy WeintraubAmy Weintraub, MFA, E-RYT 500, is the founding director of the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute and has been a pioneer in the field of yoga and mental health for over 20 years. She is the author of Yoga for Depression (Broadway Books) and Yoga Skills for Therapists (W.W. Norton, 2012).  She offers professional trainings and workshops for health and yoga professionals and speaks at medical and psychological conferences internationally. She is involved in on-going research on the effects of Yoga on mood.  Amy’s evidence-based LifeForce Yoga protocol is in use in health care settings worldwide and is featured on the award-winning CD and the DVD series LifeForce Yoga to Beat the Blues. She edits a newsletter that includes current research, news and media reviews on Yoga and mental health, archived on

(by Amy Weintraub, E-RYT 500, from the August, 2009 IYTA Newsletter )

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