Q: I am a yoga teacher on the East Coast & have been teaching for 6 years. Last week, I found out a young student in one of my gym classes died (suicide, 2 weeks ago). He had been attending this class fairly regularly for the past 2+ years. The class is small, but it is not the type of environment where the students have developed close relationships with one another. They show up, practice & leave (it’s an evening class). We would have a few minutes before class to sit & wait for the earlier class to finish, but that’s the extent of any interaction that I’m aware of taking place.
I am struggling with whether or not I say anything to the group or let it go. He occasionally attended the class with a young woman, who it seemed he knew from outside of class, but I'm not sure how.
Any words of wisdom would be appreciated!
A: Firstly, let me express my sadness at your loss. Although I have not lost any students to suicide, I have had students who died suddenly, and found I was impacted by the loss more than I would have anticipated. Then, of course, there are two questions that seem to arise: Do I share this with the rest of the class? And, from a teaching perspective, how do I cultivate community in settings where it does not yet exist in a very tangible form?
I don’t think there is right answer to the first question, as many variables might influence the decision to tell the group of the death of a fellow student. But I, too, teach in a gym setting twice a week and have done so for almost 10 years now. I sometimes feel a lack of community there as well, although in reality, I have some students who regularly attend these classes, some for many years. Remembering this encourages me to speak with this group in the same way I do my studio students where community is perhaps more obvious. And every time I do share some difficult or personal information that has some relevance to our work together, I am invariably delighted with the feedback that I receive, and the interactions amongst the students that ensue. So, if you’d like a greater sense of community, situations like this and many others are perfect ways to get students connecting in ways beyond just their asana, pranayama and meditation practices.
One of my favorite sutras, which I have probably alluded to before, but which has some relevance here, is 1.33, where Patanjali gives some of the only guidance in his collection of sutras about how to behave and interact with one another.
1.33. By cultivating friendliness towards happiness and compassion towards misery, gladness towards virtue and indifference towards vice, the mind becomes pure.
Here Patanjali suggests practicing compassion, karuna, when encountering suffering (misery in this translation), dukha. How one applies that, he does not say, but the reality of this loss to suicide, shared and discussed openly, may have the beneficial effect of making all of your students feel more connected, less lonely, and perhaps could conceivably prevent another such loss. All the best to you, your students and all of our readers this holiday season!