Ep 146: How to Empower Your Yoga Students with Yonnie Fung

As yoga teachers, we want our classrooms to be safe spaces that empower our students and maximize their choice, but this may not always be the case. People may come to our classes wanting us to tell them what to do and trust that it’s our job to know better, and also, some practices in yoga may erode empowerment, take away student agency, and undermine safety.

Yonnie Fung recently wrote an article on this topic, and what it means to teach inclusive, safe and ethical yoga. She is the founder of Yoga with Yonnie, an award-winning yoga and movement space in Beijing that focuses on small classes, non-commercialism, integrity and cultivating real human connections. Yonnie values a collaborative learning environment over authoritative styles and seeks to help students and clients in discovering what they need to feel well and whole. 

Some common practices in modern yoga fall short of what we want to achieve. Yonnie and Shannon dive into why replicating inherited behaviours and practices from past generations may not necessarily be appropriate, and how yoga teachers can move away from dis-empowering their students.

This episode is in no way about shame and blame. We often look back at the things we could have done differently as newer yoga teachers, and that work is sometimes uncomfortable. Listen in if you would like to learn more about how we can move forward as yoga teachers to empower our students and increase their agency in our classrooms.

Key Takeaways:

[4:59] Shannon introduces her guest for this episode – Yonnie Fung.

“Yoga at its best is an empowering path.” ~ Yonnie Fung

[6:15] Where did Yonnie’s journey with yoga begin?

[9:44] What made Yonnie decide to become a yoga teacher?

[12:05] What is the work that Yonnie does now?

[18:53] What prompted Yonnie to write her list of how we might be unintentionally harming our yoga students?

“Having the question is so much more valuable than having the answers all the time. Answers are just easy ways to shorten the lifespan of the inquiry.” ~ Yonnie Fung

[23:16] Did Yonnie expect her article to go viral? She shares her experience with publishing her article.

[25:36] How did Yonnie develop her list?

[26:21] Shannon highlights some of the things that stood out to her from Yonnie’s list.

[26:43] One of the items on Yonnie’s list is participating in power structures. Shannon and Yonnie discuss the power dynamic that exists in a yoga class.

[34:06] Yonnie shares a powerful experience she had during her yoga teacher training that has influenced her way of teaching yoga.

[37:37] It is a common thread in many settings where the teacher is expected to know the student better than the student knows themselves!

“You can have all the best intentions in the world, but if you are not empowering them to make choices for themselves, you will have impeded their recovery.” ~ Yonnie Fung

[38:26] This week’s hot top from Schedulicity!

[39:15] Yonnie highlights how teachers making adjustments to students’ postures is not empowering.

[41:28] What are some of the ways that yoga teachers can move away from dis-empowering their students? Yonnie highlights how the language we use can be the simplest place to start changing.

[48:37] What is Yonnie’s response to yoga teachers who want to say as few words as possible in their classes?

[50:10] It can be challenging for students to learn how to listen to their body. Yonnie explains more about interoception and how this ties in with trauma and yoga.

“We’re practicing disembodiment from a really young age.” ~ Yonnie Fung

[53:45] Yonnie and Shannon talk through an example of how this might play out in a class.

[57:19] It takes a lot of pressure off the teacher if we understand and accept that the students are the experts of their own bodies.

[1:02:01] Yonnie has subsequent follow-up articles that she has written on this topic.

“We are actually experts of ourselves.” ~ Yonnie Fung

[1:05:26] Get in touch with Yonnie via her website or on Facebook.

[1:06:18] What are some techniques you have learned to empower your yoga students? Share them with Shannon!


Gratitude to our Sponsors Schedulicity and Pelvic Health Professionals.


Yonnie’s articles and this podcast were inspired by a list that she wrote in November of 2018 in a Facebook group for yoga teachers. Here is that original list:

So I’m thinking about ways we as yoga teachers and yoga therapists can unintentionally harm students – even when we mean well and these are some initial thoughts.

Some are real conundrums that can feel quite impossible either way. What else would you add to this list? What would you take off this list?

  1. Passing on information that we believe might help them, but fails to consider their emotional needs, or undermines their sense of agency in the process.
  2. Offering advice on nutrition – juicing/ fasting/diets when we are unqualified to do so or have not been asked. Not realizing that our relatively powerful positions as yoga teachers means that some people will make the assumption that we know what we are talking about and take that advice to possible harm.
  3. Advertising techniques that suggest the most physically demanding yoga asana is the most ‘advanced’ thereby encouraging practitioners towards attaining these postures as the goals of yoga. Our advertising could also reinforce the view that certain body types are ‘yoga bodies’, at the exclusion of other body types, or encourages feelings of inadequacy.
  4. Offering advice as to where others should put their bodies in a way that sounds like a top down instruction, or direction – reinforcing a top down power structure which excludes a student from the decision making process as to what they might do with their own bodies.
  5. Participating in power structures where students believe that the right to practice certain yoga postures is one that belongs to a teacher, and that teacher has absolute authority over what you may or may not physically practice.
  6. Encouraging fear in a student by cautioning them to not move in certain ways we might believe are detrimental to their specific conditions – and undermining their trust in themselves.
  7. Offering practices in class that are beyond the abilities of students without options for modification, silently encouraging them towards injury.
  8. Teaching physically demanding classes that are very large, setting the stage for higher injury risks by being unable to monitor what is going on and being unable to offer helpful modifications.
  9. Encouraging people to explore the edge of their physical limits without equally encouraging the validity of backing off, at best short changes people from discovering the depths of subtler sensations, at worst, fosters a mentality that will inevitably lead to injuries.
  10. Omitting to provide an appropriate opportunity for participants to refuse physical adjustments in a class where adjustments are present.
  11. Claiming our classes are for the general public without equipping ourselves with the means to accommodate the general public.
  12. Touching students, when the effect of that touch is experienced as harmful or by not touching students, when the effect of that non touch may be perceived as also harmful.
  13. Persistent marketing and overt pressure to sell products to students.
  14. Suggesting to students how to feel – ie, to ‘be positive’ to ‘stay happy’ etc, which negates their actual experiences.
  15. Acting beyond our scope as yoga teachers and yoga therapists. Diagnosing or leading students to believe that we are competent to diagnose if we don’t hold professional licenses to diagnose health issues. This opens the gateway to a range of problems that compromises a person’s wellbeing (misdiagnosis and mistreatment, discouraging them to seek medical attention when it’s needed).
  16. Praising and encouraging so-called ‘advanced postures’ or ‘success’ which fosters an attachment to certain outcomes, impeding detached observation of present moment experiences.
  17. Not providing relevant information in teacher bios and being unclear in our teacher bios in relation to our teaching experience and qualifications making it difficult for the community to make informed choices.
  18. Promising particular outcomes through yoga practice – ie, that yoga will ‘fix your back’, ‘change your life forever’.