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Being asked to smile in yoga (Guest Post)

One of my strategies for supporting my mental health, lower blood pressure and dealing with muscle fatigue from triathlon training is to go to yoga classes and do short routines at home.

There are many schools of yoga, some focus on flowing through postures, others holding postures for long periods of time. I like them all because I always learn new things from each instructor through their approach and methodology.

The one thing I struggle with is being asked to smile during yoga. A few weeks back I was having a run of very stressful days. They were days where it was all I could do to get to work, not cry, then come home and support my family. It is those kind of days where yoga helps me stretch my clenched muscles and relax my face. My typical yoga face is expressionless, flat, and slack-jawed. I feel serene and beyond the stress of my day in that face.

On this night I was in a new class with an instructor I didn’t know so I had no expectations. Her approach is from a restorative yoga perspective and she focuses on alignment. I learned a great deal on how to move my feet to take pressure off my knees, how to use the creases in my wrists to align my arms in plank, really good stuff, then she asked us to smile.

I was so grossly unhappy that day I had used up all my energy just not crying and presenting a neutral face to the world. I have epic grumpy faces and I sometimes post them on my facebook feed because I’m a big drama queen. For example, I made this face once simply because I had to make my own coffee at work one day:


So here I am, barely keeping it together, when the instructor asked us all to smile then went from person to person gently chastising those who weren’t then insisting we smile. She uses this technique as a measure to see if a student is pushing themselves too hard in class. Her thought being if you lose your smile ease back on the stance. It’s a great idea. That night though the effort to try and even gently turn up the corner of my mouth was painful. I was truly sad and the small smile seared a tunnel down into my well of unhappiness and I started to cry. Tears streamed down my face. I just wanted peace that night and here I was openly weeping in front of strangers and an instructor I didn’t know. It felt terrible. I was embarrassed and sad and thankful the lights in the studio were turned down low. I was able to keep myself from sobbing and I went through the postures, tears soaking my mat during child’s pose and downward dog. I got through the class and thought, that will never happen again.

The next week the exact same thing happened. The disconnect between smiling and not feeling happy was just more than I could bear. This was not what I was looking for from my yoga sessions. I stopped going for a couple weeks.

Part of what bugged me was my personal history of receiving messages that, as a women, I ought to always smile, that I should smile to be more pleasing to others, to hide my feelings and be less scary. I think I have a great smile because it is genuine and I don’t stretch my lips across my teeth in a weird, fake way. I am not stingy with my smiles but I also don’t throw them around willy-nilly. More simply put, if I’m happy, I smile.

Fast forward to this past Monday, the smile asking instructor was subbing in for my usual power yoga instructor and I was nervous. It turned out Anita, who runs with Tracy, goes to my gym and was coming to this class. We chatted a bit before class and were laughing at the absurdity of our lives as we grapple with growing humans. (I think we both agree that parenting is, like, way hard.)

Class started and I realized I was a bit self-conscious doing yoga alongside Anita. (Huh, wonder what that was about.) I don’t remember who laughed/groaned/admitted distress first  but I had a lot of fun and when it came to asking us to smile I did and felt great. Maybe I was having a better day, maybe it was being relaxed with my new friend, who knows, but it felt genuine and awesome and that is pretty cool, in fact, it felt a whole lot like this face:


16 thoughts on “Being asked to smile in yoga (Guest Post)

    1. I’m gifted with emotions that are two sizes too big for my body. I tried for a long time not to be so expressive but that makes me really unwell so now I try to find the humour in my cartoony face.

  1. I’ve cried epic tears during yoga, it has a way of reaching deep into your soul and pulling crap up to the surface. But in the end, I always feel like I had a week’s vacation.

  2. I’m a yoga instructor and, prior to certifying, was a fitness instructor. I’ve always hated the “smile” command too and never asked my classes to smile. It occurs to me, however, that in this instance, the smiling resulted in, perhaps, one of the best benefits of yoga…knowing more about yourself, delving deeper. Great piece – thank you!

    1. Yoga class never goes how I expect it will and I’m learning to let go of those expectations but sometimes I only appreciate the learning after I’ve had time to reflect on it. She’s a great instructor and I fell really uncomfortable in class. I’m learning those two things can happen at the same time.

  3. I find sometimes the instructor uses this as cue to bring our awareness back to our body. I also have a blank yoga face I think….I don’t notice my facial expression unless I’m biting my lip or the instructor says something like this.

    I would, however, prefer it left at that. Calling attention to each individual is unnecessary, and very anxiety provoking.

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  4. OMG, I could relate as soon as I read the title of your piece. I once complained to the owner of a studio about an instructor who used to do this. I felt totally oppressed by her insistence that I smile and so judged. It was an awkward exchange with the owner because, as I said it out loud, I realized that I had to provide some background that didn’t make me sound like a miserable bitch (how dare anyone ask me to smile?!). Anyway, I love reading your reflections on this and yes, alongside Anita, it’s easy to smile, but if you’re not in the mood she’s never going to shame you into it!

    1. It’s interesting because you describe appropriately asserting yourself and feeling the need to hold back. I sometimes wonder if it would be read as assertive from a male identified person or is it that we get told that assertiveness is “bossy” or “bitchy”. More things to think about.

  5. I don’t mind when my instructor reminds me to smile (usually it’s something, like ‘connect with your body. Breathing in I smile, breathing out I let go.’). But I can’t image an instructor pestering you to smile. That would also make me very grumpy

  6. I agree with everyone else – it can be helpful for instructors to remind us to smile, but they really shouldn’t call people out for not smiling. I think it is equally therapeutic to cry during yoga sometimes.

  7. Such an interesting topic. I’ve only been practicing yoga for a few weeks, and yesterday. the sub asked us to smile. First time ever. Interesting the reaction you had. We as women easily bite back our true feelings and like you, when asked to smile, you do the opposite. Now that I’m retired at age 55, I frikken smile all the time! Even in yoga. That was a great post and thanks for sharing 🙂

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