"Holding space" has become something of a buzz word. It’s a big deal in the world of therapy and, increasingly, it’s being taken seriously in the world of yoga too. But what does it actually mean to hold space and why is it so important for yoga teachers to develop this skill?
What 'Holding Space' Means
Breaking it down, the word holding has connotations of care, support and preservation. To hold something is not to grasp, manhandle or caress it. It is to meet its current form and maintain it, without changing its shape, damaging it or allowing it to fall.
The word, space, on the other hand, implies an expanse, a capacity and a sense of freedom. A space is a place of potential, a place where things can happen and a place where something can expand.
Together, "holding space" encompasses some very important concepts. To hold space is to create and maintain a place where things can exist, expand and grow.
When you hold space for someone, you are doing something very beautiful. You are allowing them the chance to feel safe and supported in being exactly what they are and allowing whatever comes, to simply happen. You are protecting their ability to exist and to experience their reality, without judging them or attempting to alter this reality in any way.
Holding space for someone is not about changing or fixing them. In many ways it is the opposite. It is actively creating a safe place for them to be whatever they already are and to experience whatever arises in that moment. You acknowledge that their existence will change from moment to moment and allow them the space to simply stay aware through those changes.
It is clear that holding space is a powerful tool in many forms of therapy, interventions and any area where it is important that people are able to be honest about who they are. For exactly this reason, yoga classes are an ideal place to enact the practice of holding space.
5 Key Aspects to Holding Space in Yoga
Creating the physical environment.
It is important that whatever venue the yoga class is held in, the conditions are conducive to mindfulness, concentration and awareness. No, this does not mean all yoga classes need to be held in beautiful, whitewashed studios miles from noise and distractions. However, it does mean that interruptions are minimized and the teacher is able to guide the students back to their own focus if there are distractions.
Setting an atmosphere of non-judgment.
Every yoga practice is different and every student’s experience of each practice is different. To hold space in a yoga class is to allow all of these experiences to be perfect, valid and free from judgment (Learn why you also shouldn't judge your meditation practice here.). This means helping students to accept wherever their physical bodies and minds are at that moment. It means steering clear of trying to influence what their experience “should be.” References to how something should feel need to be approached with caution or eliminated altogether to avoid invalidating other experiences that may arise for individuals.
Balancing the group dynamics.
It is one thing to hold space for one person and to encourage them to be present with whatever comes up for them. But to hold space for a group of people requires another level of skill. How, for example, do you hold space for the one person who has dashed in late, flustered and interrupting the warmup, while simultaneously holding space for the experience of the rest of the class? It requires sensitivity, intuition and exceptional communication skills.
Encouraging presence and mindfulness.
It is all very well holding a space, but if no one is mentally present in it, this is a futile exercise. Holding space is about so much more than bringing people physically into a place. It is about guiding them to be in their bodies in that space. And given the mind’s tendencies to wander when bored, uncomfortable, stressed or excited, this is a task of careful and continual instruction.
Creating a safe environment.
Yoga can bring up a whole range of unexpected and difficult emotions. It is said, in fact, that we hold “issues in our tissues.” One of the beautiful things about yoga is that it can be the perfect place to become more aware of those and to begin to work through them. But this work can leave people feeling raw, emotional and vulnerable. It is vitally important when holding space to ensure that people feel safe enough to go to their difficult places, to breathe into them and to begin to process them from a state of heightened awareness (Learn more about yogic breathing here.). Then, when the time is right, they may be able to let them go.
To hold space for anyone is both a privilege and a responsibility. The best yoga teachers are able to rise to the challenge and, in doing so, they make their yoga classes a sacred space to be.