“Holding space” is something we often first encounter in our yoga community. It’s hard to describe. Perhaps it’s during Savasana when we sense a stillness supported by our teacher that allows us to surrender more deeply. Or perhaps we know in ourselves that this is what we are called to do when a fellow classmate is struggling—to just witness them with a loving heart. We may experience or offer this expression of support and love in our local yoga studio, practicing outside with a friend, or at a festival or gathering with our tribe.
If someone has ever held space for you, then you know it has a quality that is incredibly subtle and hard to quantify. “What did this person do?” You may be asked.
“Well, nothing,” you respond. “They were just there.” But in their being ‘there’ and doing ‘nothing’ something very beautiful happens—we gain a sense of peace or clarity; we feel loved and supported. And because of this person holding space for us, we feel we can move through the experience we are having instead of pushing it away—and in that moment we can feel like a profound healing is taking place. This is why it’s worth getting to know on a very deep level what it means to “hold space,” and how we can do it more often.
How We Hold Space
Coach and mentor Heather Plett has sought to get to the heart of what it means to hold space. She describes it as what we do when “we are willing to walk alongside another in whatever journey they’re on, without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome.”
It is very Taoist in its essence—that in doing nothing we do everything, that in being empty we allow space to be filled by something beyond us—yet many of the yogic teachings of the Yamas can also provide guidance on how to hold space. When we hold space we are bringing the loving kindness and compassion of ahimsa to a situation. That’s far beyond sympathy. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön reminds us: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.” In that moment of non-judgment, the person we are with can have their experience without feeling ashamed or inferior.
Holding space is, therefore, not just a beautiful gift to another, it is an opportunity for self-exploration.
Holding space also contains the very essence of asteya (non-stealing). It reminds us that when we worry about someone, or when we think we know how to advise them, we are in fact taking their power away from them. When we trust that they are their own best guide and don’t fill the space with our words, we bring to the other the chance to hear their own intuition.
And finally, holding space incorporates within it aparigraha (non-grasping). When we hold space for another we come with no expectations of an outcome. As Pema says: “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. … The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
The Challenge of Holding Space
This doing ‘nothing,’ and remaining empty is uncomfortable for many of us. For one, we often equate showing we care with some tangible demonstration of words or actions, or even just sending loving thoughts. This may be what is called for, but this is not holding space. But even beyond that, we have to ask ourselves: Why are we not content just to sit still with someone in their suffering?
Often when we dig deep we find it is because we wish to avoid our own intense feelings—the discomfort that can arise when facing another human being in their rawness, and in ours. We find it hard to let ourselves be empty because we are afraid of what may come up. We fear our hearts will break if we have to sit with suffering. Holding space is, therefore, not just a beautiful gift to another, it is an opportunity for self-exploration. It is a spiritual practice in itself.
When we hold space we make more room in our hearts so that others can be in theirs.
The Zen Peacemakers Foundation runs “Bearing Witness” retreats where the sole practice is to sit with others in their suffering and to allow our discomfort to arise and to be moved through. Krishna Das, who sometimes attends the retreats, describes the practice as a way to “clean your heart of fear.” He explains: “When you bear witness to another in their pain or suffering, many emotions arise, but the practice is not to indulge in them, but rather to recognize them, to bear witness to them, and in processing them you reach a place where you can be present to comfort another.” When we hold space we make more room in our hearts so that others can be in theirs.
The Chain of Holding Space
Holding space can happen beyond our studios and our mats, beyond our practice and in our day-to-day lives. Personally, the power of holding space has struck me most deeply through my volunteer work at a hospice. It has become clear to me that holding space creates a chain reaction.
I had been visiting a patient over the course of several months—she was without family, and so ravaged by cancer that she couldn’t move more than a hand. We spent our time together mostly talking, or with me brushing her hair, and had formed a tender bond. But then the day I had known would come, came. When I arrived at her room, I could see she was still awake, but she could no longer move her hand, or even her eyes, nor could she speak, and—even as a new volunteer—I knew that she would be passing that day.
In that moment, all I could think about was not screwing up. I knew she was scared, and I wanted so much for her to feel safe and at peace, and to know she was loved and supported—that she could let go and be free. But try as I might to sit quietly, hold her hand, and hold space for her—I couldn’t. I was so deeply overcome with sadness, I couldn’t even bring myself to look in her eyes for fear I would fall apart in front of her. So instead, I fussed around her, with a lump in my throat, chatting away, and brushing her hair.
“Without opening a door we can open our hearts to the world” – Lao Tzu
And then it happened. A doctor came in who I had never seen before. She took the brush from me, held my hand, looked into my eyes, and didn’t say a word. And in that moment I gave myself permission to be broken-hearted and I cried. And when the moment passed—which it did shortly—I took a deep breath and then was able to sit with my friend, hold her hand, gaze into her eyes, sing to her, tell her I loved her, and then hold space for her to go through her own experience.
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says: “Without opening a door we can open our hearts to the world.” Indeed, while it may feel like “doing nothing,” when someone holds a space for us or vice versa, we take up our place in a chain that allows others to do the same—that allows others the opportunity for peace and clarity, the chance to feel loved and supported, and the possibility of experiencing a profound healing.
Who do you hold space for?
Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.