Holding space is a term used frequently to refer to therapeutic contexts such as counselling or the intention to create a healing environment in a yoga class. But actually it can also be used to describe the more day to day experience of deep listening to a friend who needs to talk or when we hold our own space to notice what we are feeling.
In this post I am talking about authenticity not to describe content (e.g. the authentic yoga teachings), but rather the personal qualities of the person holding space. Whether they really shows up, are as present as they can be and delivers something that feels authentic to them and that person/group, in that moment.
This week I attended an amazing gathering called Compassionate Mental Health. I arrived with the sense that I was going to learn something professionally to aid me both as a yoga teacher and in my other job as an occupational therapist. But I quickly realised this gathering wasn’t about roles and labels, and I was going to learn things for my whole self, not just the parts I box up and label as a professional.
Two things particularly struck me at this event. Firstly that it is a real practice to hold space skilfully. Secondly that to show up as your full self, authentically, is incredibly powerful.
Terms like holding space can easily become just more jargon and buzz words. So I like Jade Lizzie’s blog which talks about holding space in terms of support, care, preservation matched with a sense of freedom and expansiveness. Practically I think what is meant is a balance of structure and openness which creates a feeling of safety.
The concept of space is particularly intriguing to me on a personal level too – what does it mean to create that space for myself for example with my own yoga and meditation practices? To ensure there is time and room for these daily spaces to explore. Take a listen to Godfrey Devereux podcast discussing just this.
In another way I have been creating space by choosing to take some time away from full time work this year. This choice to create a lacuna aka an unfilled space (thanks for the word Andy) is the polar opposite of my default mode of over filling each hour, day and week to bursting point. Not everyone will be able to quit their jobs, but the general principle of making more space I do think is possible for most people.
Beth Gibbs talks about holding space in terms of mental space to allow anything and everything to arise. At the compassionate mental health gathering there was an encouragement to be with discomfort – whether that was witnessing someone else’s grief, pain and sorrow or experiencing your own emotions. Really being with it. Not pushing it away, rationalising it or trying to do something to shortcut to a quick fix resolution. Culturally that feels like something we don’t encourage or allow to happen too often
It is so easy to play a role or portrait a sense of the perfection in our lives. This distorted sense of idealised self is projected visibly through the world of social media. But faking it is a disservice to yourself and those around you.
I recently stumbled across a theory from the 1980s by Hochschild called Emotional Labor which essentially states that in many professions people create a sense of acting which can impact on their stress levels and contribute to things like emotional dissonance (an internal conflict between how you really feel and what you are required to display externally), numbing and disconnection from your own feelings, and in the long term burnout. So there are very real consequences for ourselves if we don’t feel authentic.
It also doesn’t work, other people feel it. I might be emphatic towards a yoga teacher that is tired and trying to put on a show of being overly energetic but I think often subtle cues give the person away and on a intuitive level I feel that inauthenticity.
Then there is also an impact of modelling. When someone really shows up for me, it makes me more inclined to really show up in my life too. One of the most popular TED talks ever is Brene Brown’s Power of vulnerability which clearly illustrates that whilst we often feel we should be guarded and controlled, actually showing vulnerability is hugely empowering. She argues it is the cornerstone of connection to show up wholeheartedly, courageously and authentically.
I vividly remember many years ago meeting the wonderful yoga teacher Leila Sadeghee who addressed a room full of yoga students, many whom were as new to her as I was, and laid bare where she was at on that day. It was raw and real, she wasn’t in a good place but the class she went on to deliver was wonderful. She didn’t need to slap a fake smile on to be a good yoga teacher that day. She could be real and still provide that safe container for students to practice in.
Ultimately yoga is about connection to life, other beings and the self on all its many levels. The compassionate mental health conference was a wonderful reminder to me to show up as best as I can and to be real, whatever is going on for me on any given day. I might not always get it right, but it’s certainly something to aspire towards.