• Holli Gipson

The Dance of Discipline & Nurture.

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

As compassionate and thoughtful teachers, we are partaking in the age-old dance between discipline and nurture. What are these two actions? How can the philosophy of yoga and our own yoga practice strengthen their choreography.

As teachers, we run into the conflict of and need for disciplining our students. Anyone reading this blog has a story or two (if not a dozen or more) of tricky situations with students' behavior. Having also been students, most of us have had unpleasant, sometimes frightening, experiences with discipline.


This is because all too often we have substituted discipline with punishment, which is an egregious disservice to the power of discipline.


My own early experiences with discipline were negative, rooted in the ill-interpreted ignorance of a Baptist church where the very essence of the creator is love through punishment. Not to mention all the refuted methods for disciplining athletes, which I identified as through college. I imagine this is similar, albeit to a lesser degree, to how our military student-body is taught, a framework of “we'll break you down to build you up.” Needless to say, I had a grudge against discipline for a while. Personally, I found clarity and the redeeming qualities of discipline through yoga. This system has a high propensity toward connecting discipline with nurturing energy.


This dance between the two became more clear to me after an in-service discussion with Eric Larsen, founder of Discovery Program, and the teachers of Wilson River Alternative High School. We were problem-solving behavioral issues and how to address them while remaining true to the school's culture of restoration. I walked away with a profound feeling of this dance all teachers, if sincerely interested in the student's growth, must practice.

Without the foundation of nurturing intentions, discipline becomes punishment. If discipline rises from the arm of anger, fear, or shame, however conscious or unconscious, it will send the Self and the student down a wormhole of hate. With support from nurturing energy discipline becomes the engine for growth.

Defining Nurture within Yoga Philosophy


There is a self-care system in Yoga called the Niyamas. These are duties humans can uphold as well as qualities we can align with in order to achieve optimum health and happiness. Self-care has become all the rage in psychology and counseling these days. Self-care is basically taking actions to nurture yourself. When someone is vulnerable or dependent, like a child or a patient, we must provide care for them, but as we grow independent this exceedingly becomes a personal responsibility. The Niyamas are as follows:

1. Cleanliness (Saucha) -- we have a duty be clean inside and out.

2. Contentment (Samtosha) -- we have a duty to be grateful & joyful with life as it is.

3. Rigor (Tapas) -- we have a duty to focus and spend our energy on progress.

4. Self-Study (Svadyaya) -- we have a duty to learn and inquire about our thoughts and behavior and to study how other humans have learned and inquired about their existence in this world.

5. Surrender (Isvara Pranidad) -- we have a duty to acknowledge and feel the truth that something greater than ourselves controls life.


Now, all five of these duties could use more explanation but the combination is the way to nurture the individual. Notice each one is a responsibility; when the individual responds in these ways they establish health and peace. As teachers, we need to be doing this for ourselves, but we become a pillar of these actions for our students.


Defining Discipline with Yoga Philosophy --

Discipline often is a combination of rigorous energy (tapas) and self-study (svadyaya). Discipline is becoming a co-creator, through actions and inquiry, of our own health and freedom. We've all heard a version of Aristotle's timeless truth: "Discipline leads to freedom." This paradox resonates as true when you find a profession or practice you believe in.


My teacher -- Melissa Spammer -- also helped me to think about discipline this way:

Discipline asks us to become a disciple to yourself. This is a calling to find, follow and believe in your own needs, and to take steps, everyday, for your own evolution as a human.

You can imagine this kind of discipleship will require those two qualities of rigor and self-study. It's not easy. This is often why we also seek teachers and a community of like-minded people, doing similar practices.


Understanding Steps to the Dance


Here are three combinations of nurture and discipline to think about and exercise when working with students or clients (or even yourself!).


Empathy (Nurture)

High, yet Practical, Expectations (Discipline)


Step One

Empathy is a huge buzzword these days. In schools, we're starting to appreciate that humans have emotional value as well as intellectual value to our society and perhaps we've neglected the emotional health and value of our people. The indicator is that kids these days are having such a hard time with empathy -- understanding how someone else might be feeling. They may display it superficially, but fairly soon the facade fades. One way to help is not only to ask them to think about how others feel, but we must show them that we are doing it ourselves, that we are wondering how they are feeling. We must put our feet in their shoes first.


Step Two

In the first week, most classes establish classroom rules. Thanks to my studies with Katie Dawson, I now see this as a contract. Every relationship has a contract. Hopefully, this contract is explicit and transparent (read Invisible Contracts). For example, at Wilson River each student takes a Discovery Class before they enter any other classroom at the school. This entry course teaches them the rules and expectations of the school. They are made aware of the contract and they agree to it.


At Bija Yoga Tasmania, each member literally signs a contract and we explain how we expect them to inhabit the space. As teachers, it is our job to make the contract as transparent, practical and yet challenging.


Active Listening (Nurture)

Accountability (Discipline)

Step Three

Active listening is a discipline for the caretaker and is nurturing for the student. The term active listening is well established in our lexicon and seems like it should be simple, but for many of us, it's not innate.

Really listening is actively receiving what is being said, rather than being distracted by other things, including your own feelings, thoughts and interpretations. There needs to be a pause before you respond to actually take in the information. In yoga, this pause is called mouni — one who reflects before talking.

Basically, it is a meditation, a receiving of information. However, you are taking in information from a human being, not from a computer; so, it requires all of your senses. You watch, you hear, you give eye-contact, your whole body is pointed in their direction, relaxed but yet alert, and all of your mind is focused on what they are saying. This is why it is pretty much a yoga practice.


Every now and then you may need to give assurance (to both the speaker and yourself) that you are present: "yes," "hmm," "okay," etc, but not interrupting too much as to take away from receiving. This nurtures the speaker's voice and individual expression.


Step Four

Accountability dances with Active Listening because it helps in the response of what you have heard. You must be the one to hold the truth and standard of your established contract. Therefore, this dance-step is building on the above expectations.

The step now is to uphold those expectations, especially in the tough times. In the long run, you are actually helping the student even if it feels like you are hurting them when you tell them they've fallen short and ask them to account for why. They must process and problem-solve why they've fallen short of their agreement otherwise no learning will take place.


Compassion & Love (Nurture)

Inspiration & Motivation (Discipline)


Step Five

Compassion is slightly different from empathy. They require two different mechanisms in our bodies and minds. I prefer Pema Chodron's explanation. She describes it as a “stirring of the heart toward another being that makes you ask, 'How can I help.’” It's not the action of helping, and often times it's better not to act. More so, it is the witnessing of someone suffering and the desire for that suffering to be healed. We recognize the darkness of another, which requires us to know our own. It is a profound connection to our human condition -- suffering. By witnessing, giving attention, letting your heart be stirred, you are loving them. This love will do wonders for a student. Truly, when I have loved students with compassion it feels magical.


Step Six

In harmony with the fifth step is inspiration and motivation tactics, which is both the call and "buy-in" toward certain actions. This step is a doozy as my Nana would say when teaching me how to country dance. Inspiration is like a bright light that pulls the student toward it and then fills the student with that light. Motivation is the turn of an ignition, it is a drive. You can inspire students by being that bright light yourself and/or finding content that is a beacon to the student.

Lastly, in yoga, we believe the best motivator for students is through the voice and language. This is how you ignite and move something within the student. As a teacher, your voice is your primary tool.


Enjoy the Dance!

All of you are already participating in this dance if you are teaching, however consciously or unconsciously. My hope is that this might bring a little support and clarity to the steps. We hear this metaphor all the time in different ways but of course, it is important to enjoy the dance, to bring in that nurturing niyama samtosha (contentment).


If you don't like the dance, I would suggest finding a different profession, as I find that this dance is pretty essential to self-learning and inner dialogue. In fact, that is the note I'd like to leave on. In what ways could you start to employ this toward yourself and your own life? Leave comments below!


Love & Blessings to your work!

© The Yoga Lobbyist 2018