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Comfort and Affliction
Comfort and Affliction
How can teachers fast-track students’ growth? By knowing when to push and when to pull.

Journalist Finely Peter Dunne famously said the job of a newspaper is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”This double-pronged purpose applies equally well to social activists, coaches, clergy—and yoga teachers. Each student needs a teacher who’s ready to remove unnecessary suffering, whether caused by misalignment in a pose or a misguided notion that says something needs to look or feel a certain way or proceed at a certain pace. Teachers play a powerful role in helping students feel comforted and comfortable. At the same time, students need a teacher who isn’t afraid to challenge them to see things more clearly, to break them out of mindless habits and help them move toward self-awareness. Here are some ideas for finding the balance between comfort and affliction as you help your students grow.


Talk from personal experience. Share stories of your own frustrations that your students will recognize and relate to. Explain what helped you supersede a problem—or how you cope when it reemerges. This could be as simple as explaining how you had to work on a certain pose for months on end, or sharing your experience developing a regular meditation practice. Include what worked for you if it will help your students, but emphasize the importance of the process. Assure your students that learning happens in the struggle.

Less is more. Even in a fast-moving flow class, periodically include restorative poses, guided meditation, or sequences that avoid advanced asana or lofty philosophical concepts. Invite students to enjoy a softer approach to practice. Removing some of the vigorous work in an asana class introduces a new challenge: being still and developing comfort with comfort.

Be quiet.“Less is more”applies to your words, too. Allow room for quiet in class; it gives students time to absorb what’s come before. Building in quiet and rest can offer comfort for students who need to integrate the movement and teachings that have provoked them to self-discovery.


Too much comfort can become complacency, stalling growth. But please don’t take affliction to mean ratcheting up the physical intensity of your classes. Rather, it’s a deliberate destabilization that brings students toward deeper self-awareness by moving them out of their mindless habits. Here are some ideas.

Challenge ingrained habits. Samskara—the habits we develop, even those that used to work very well—can limit our journey toward self-awareness. Encourage your students to try a new approach to familiar exercises. This might mean reversing the typical breath pattern in something as well-known as a cat/cow warmup, or starting with the left foot instead of the right. Try making transitions in slow motion, or moving into balance poses from a different starting pose. Even minor tweaks will encourage full presence.

Build on foundation concepts. Once you’ve introduced a concept—non-harming, for example—invite your students to take it a step further. How does it play out on the mat? In a different pose? In internal dialogue? In how students relate to the world at large? Taking yoga’s lessons off the mat can prompt students to investigate every level of their interaction with self and others.

Encourage exploration among styles. The Carolina Yoga 200-hour teacher training program I direct features guest faculty from a broad range of schools, styles, and approaches. Students hear one teacher explain how her style does it, and in the same days another teacher may give a completely conflicting rationale for doing the same thing in a different way. Learning to resolve this dissonance is critical for the student teachers’ understanding of how and what they want to teach—and what yoga means to them. You can encourage a similar intentional destabilization by pointing your students to styles that will offer a different perspective than what you have been teaching.

Finding the right balance between comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable as a teacher requires you to investigate your own habits. Are you falling into a rut of the familiar? Are you always making things harder, flashier, more challenging? Awareness of your own patterns will make you a better teacher.

Dr. Sage Rountree, PhD, E-RYT 500, author of several books on yoga for athletes and yoga sequencing, specializes in creating accessible classes for students from all backgrounds and has contributed essays on teaching to Yoga Journal. With more than a decade of experience teaching in both classroom and studio settings, Sage trains yoga and movement teachers from all disciplines at the 200- and 500-hour levels, in person and online, covering topics from sequencing to classroom management to professionalism. Her inclusive, enthusiastic teaching helps yoga teachers develop the skills to achieve their personal best while helping students grow.
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