I’m not sure how long I’ll teach yoga—it could be two months or 30 years—but I’m sure the class I taught in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, on Saturday, October 27 will be the hardest class I ever lead.
I’m okay. The students I’ve checked in with are okay. We will get better and be better, as people, as a community, and as a city.
When you find out there is at least one active shooter in your neighborhood, whatever instincts you’ve cultivated in your yoga practice kick in. My students’ instincts kicked in as well, and the eighteen students who attended my 10:30am Yoga 1 class were amazing. It’s the first time I felt the importance of sangha (community) in a visceral way. The even temperament of my students allowed me to respond, rather than react.
I’m writing this with two hopes. The first is that nobody has to contend with an active shooter in their neighborhood, or their world, ever again.
My second hope is for movement and meditation teachers: I hope this recap provides some guidance if you need to lead students through an emergency like this. I’m definitely not an expert. This is my narrative of that day, of my best attempt to deal with an act of terrorism.
10:10am (twenty minutes before class)
A few emergency vehicles sped down our street. As I’m signing students in, everybody assumes there’s some accident at some intersection.
10:20am (ten minutes before class)
An increasing stream of fast emergency vehicles continues. I ponder if there’s a politician in town and this is a security detail, but a student remarks the vehicles were too random. My students are worried about the scope of what is going on. An apartment or bus fire? Some gas-based evacuation of a building?
I text my wife and ask her to send me information about anything on the news in Squirrel Hill. I also put a Google alert on, set to “squirrel hill pittsburgh.”
10:30am (class start time)
At this point my students and I know this situation is exceptional. I let people know I’ll be checking my phone for texts and Google alerts, and will update them whenever I get relevant information.
- Text somebody and ask them to send you information. Set a Google alert on your neighborhood.
- Tell your students you’ll be checking your phone during class. Keep them in the know.
- Invite everybody to keep their phones next to them and check it whenever they want to.
- Some people didn’t bring their phones to the studio. I offered my phone to anybody who wanted to text or call during class.
My yoga teaching focuses on mindfulness and self-study, but it won’t work in this case. If we don’t know what’s happening in our neighborhood, we need to incorporate awareness practices. I guide my students to notice the emergency vehicles outside when they screamed past, and rest assured that these first responders are doing their best with whatever is going on.
They have plenty of opportunity to practice this: Around 80 vehicles scream up Murray Avenue.
I let the class know what was happening. We are on lockdown. I asked if they would like to continue. The few students who spoke thought we should practice since we’re here.
The front door is locked. I teach eighteen students yoga while a terrorist shoots people in a synagogue a few blocks away.
- Give people explicit permission to check their phones, make phone calls, take phone calls, and text whenever they need.
- Remind them they should let their family and friends know they’re okay.
- You, the teacher, will also get texts. Let your students know that your texting family/friends.
- Let students know they can opt out of the practice and tend to themselves in any way that works for them.
I don’t tell my students seven people died. I only relay information relevant to our safety. Everybody will find out the horrific details later.
There is another yoga class next door. I let my students know I’m going to check up on it. I ask the other yoga teacher if she needs anything. She is aware of the situation and has it under control. So I return to my students.
I had a backbending practice prepared. In this situation, backbending would feel way too vulnerable, so I discard my sequence.
I pivot to a breath-based moving practice by Max Strom. I practice his Inner Axis Well-Being sequence regularly. His practices involve constant motion and breath, and aren’t strenuous.
- Predictability calms people. Guide several of the same postures or movements so people can develop a predictable rhythm with their breath.
- Keep your cues in the room. Often I will say “reach to the sky” and “press your heel out the door.” But today, I keep the language within the four walls, the floor and the ceiling.
A student announces she received a text: The shooter is in custody. The police are now confirming there are not multiple shooters. I thank her for updating us and look out the window: there are people waiting for buses. People are casually driving up the street.
I wind down the practice with some supine poses and some myofascial release practices. Then I ask them to lie back for about 30 seconds and try to relax, which is impossible and not the best idea. So I have them sit up.
Instead we practice a loving-kindness meditation for 2 minutes. Taking cues from a meditation by Norman Fischer, I instruct the class to breathe kindness in and out of their bodies. This kept students breathing, and focused on the one thing we could have a say in: our attitude. I encourage students to infuse their own bodies with kindness. I then guide them to breathe kindness toward other students in the room. Finally I guide them to breathe kindness throughout Squirrel Hill.
There is no official word that it’s safe to leave, but people are walking down Murray Avenue. I let everybody know I’m available to drive people home. I’m also willing to stay in the studio until we receive word. Everybody packs up and heads out.
A father of one of my students arrives to pick his daughter up. I cancel my 12:30 class and head home to my wife.