The Yoga User Experience

In my day job, I’m a User Experience Designer. It’s an umbrella term for all the activities necessary to find out about the users and design products that are most useful for them in their particular activities.

Every day, I see parallels in being a designer and teaching yoga.

Recently, I wrote a post in my other blog called: The Trouble with User Experience Design, where I talk about an experience I had in class one night while talking about svadhyaya. A student asked me if I’m talking about self-inquiry spiritually, and I professed to not being in the position to talk to her about her spiritual growth.

“In the context of this class, self-reflection is about knowing where your feet are and how you’re breathing”, I told her.

Highway to the Danger Zone

Talking about other people’s feelings and experience is danger zone for me. Some yoga teachers will go in what I consider “touchy-feely” territory, and I may have been to the border towns a few times in my teaching career. You know what I mean, it’s things like: ” feel grace pouring in” or “let the sense of calm wash over you”, and “feel so much light and love as if you’re going to explode in thousands of pieces of joyful stardust and become one with the divine spirit of the Universe.”

There’s nothing inherently crazy about these statements. They’re not even as over the top as they may seem here, written down in a blog. Sudden feelings of satori, for example, are entirely possible. What makes me weary of these statements in a yoga class is they may or may not reflect the actual experience of the students. They are imposed and suggested, something that’s well and good in the Marketing and Advertising department, but, as far I’m concerned, not the point of yoga.

Down in the Valley

In the User Experience Design field, the title presumes that we have so much control over other people’s experience that we can design it. It may be so, only to the extent that, in a way, everything is design(ed).

In yoga, I am aware that I am paid to provide some sort of experience as well. When I asked my students what the word “yoga” brings to their mind, the answers include: calm, flexible, destress, strong, and peace. That is a tall order for a yoga teacher to create in 75 minutes. Personally, it’d be presumptuous to think that I can single-handedly meet all these needs.

I remember very vividly one private session when I asked a student what he’s expecting, and why he has come to me. He looked at me straight in the eye and said, “You know, honestly, I want to learn to be a better person.”

I gulped. What do I know about being a good person? What do I know about telling other people to be a better person?

Luckily, in User Experience, I know a bit about techniques and principles of Design. In Yoga, I know a bit about where the hands and feet go in Trikonasana and Downward Dog; I know a bit about the kleśā and the kośa. My value is bringing what I’ve learned and personally experienced to create an space where my students can figure out their own relationship with yoga, and with themselves.

Judith Hanson Lasater once said, “We don’t teach the yoga, it’s the poses that teach the yoga.” I thought this was radical, but after reflecting on it, I realized it’s true. It’s in the poses where I learn to observe my own body and my own breathing, and by extension staying in the moment. That is the holy grail of this spiritual practice.

After two years of teaching, I still have moments where I feel the anxiety and pressure to “make students feel good”. In those times, I have to remind myself that I’m not providing a spa service. As the California Yoga Teachers Association Code of Professional Ethics states:

We believe that it is the responsibility of the yoga teacher to ensure a safe and protected environment in which a student can grow physically, mentally, and spiritually.

This is what I am fully committed to. Beyond that, the emotional and individual experience of yoga is not mine to dictate.