Thursday, April 23, 2009

What Would Yoga Teachers Do?

Let's just say I'm collecting war stories...war stories about, uh, difficult students. Perhaps the biggest challenge of teaching yoga is not demonstrating Bakasana or keeping your sequences fresh, but maintaining harmony in the class room.

Inevitably, a group of people in a yoga class will have some conflicts, whether philosophical, personal, or physical. One person wears too much perfume, another not enough deodorant. One person wants to breath noisily and sigh heavily during difficult poses and another needs a quiet practice space. Some one modifies their poses appropriately when they have an injury, some body else forces themselves forwards in Paschimottanasana with a humped upper back and cringe on her face. People show up late and distract everyone during the opening Ohms, other people clump out of class loudly during Savasana.

What's a sweet, little yoga teacher to do? You don't want to introduce a feeling of persecution by embarrassing any one, but you owe it to your other students to discourage disruptive behavior. You don't want a smelly studio. Students should be able to make the class work for them, but no one wants to watch a smug yogi showing off when the teaching is trying to demonstrate a new pose.

The one bright point in all of this is that these problem students can often reveal biases that you, as a teacher, are holding. Why does a certain behavior bother you so much? It can be a disconcerting realization, but it's a good exercise in self-awareness. Doesn't kill ya, so it makes you stronger, right?

So, my dear yogis, share. How have you dealt with troublemakers? How have you dealt with yourself? Please feel free to register as Anonymous if it makes you more comfortable to discuss. It think it is good for all of us to compare notes, and if you want to be discrete, that's cool.



Anonymous said...


Thank you for bringing this topic up. I could certainly use some suggestions and comparisons.

Cell phone gal - another student actually took it upon themselves and turned to the student and asked, "You turned that off, right?" She hasn't brought it since.

Latecomers - I keep class moving and apologize quietly to the students I have to shift around. Or I put late person right. in. front. Usually they are embarrased enough that they try to be more timely. But schedules are what they are and I hate to turn people away.

But what to do about a class that has become so familiar with you as a teacher that they actually start spotting or offering advise to others in the room?

Or how can I reach those couple of people who just don't listen and end up falling on their face - literally? (Has happened twice now.)

As for myself, I've been trying to ask myself, is there a problem with the class helping each other or is my ego today? And for those who don't seem to listen, I try finding a different way to phrase what I am trying to convey, or to keep the whole class together at one level and not encourage multipule levels for that pose.

I am a regular poster, but opted to be anonymous. Thanks. said...

Hey Brenda!

Great post. When I started teaching, I didn't enforce any rules at all in class, in case people didn't like me. Sad but true.

I have since become more assertive, and will often use humour to bring people back into the practice - for example, if there are new students in the back of the class giggling and being disruptive, even though I know it's probably nerves, I will say something like, 'Hey, naughty kids at the back, teacher is watching!'
Said with a wink, but it tends to do the trick.

That seems to work very well, and I have of late been very lucky with students - nobody pushes themselves too hard, nobody disrupts their neighbor's space...Maybe Australians are just very considerate people?

But I have recently been a student in a room with a woman who groaned and grunted like she was having, um, you know, and that, that I found EXTREMELY disconcerting. The noises kept drawing my attention to her, almost like she wanted all ears on her, you know?

Dear Yogi said...

Such a rich topic. As far as late comers and early leavers, if it's chronic I try to approach them and find out the situation - is it a work thing and otherwise they wouldn't be able to come at all? A child care issue? If so, I make it clear I'm okay with it and if necessary I'll talk to the whole class (generally) about how the practice begins when you enter the studio, we create our sacred space by honoring others, neat props, no cell phones, etc and so this is the best way to come late/leave early (for me I ask late peeps to sit quietly and quickly as soon as they enter the room, get props and set up mats later when everyone get;s moving, and for early leavers I ask that they do it BEFORE savasana and explain why that matters).

If it seems one or more people just leave early regularly because they don't think savasana matters or because they want the dressing room to themselves, I will try to do a teaching around the value of savasana and of ease and letting go in the practice, etc.

In the past I've made some mistakes in my effort to create a protective mandala for all . . . such as talking to a student one-on-one after class, which left her feeling singled out and uncomfortable or being too insistent at the beginning of class when a totally spaced out person came late and was very disruptive. I needed to let go a little. However I'm often a student in class and wonder why the instructor isn't doing more to take care of the group as a whole . . . .So overall I'm okay with being clear and precise as a teacher about all that stuff, even if it means some students don't come back. Easier said than done because in the moment you don't want to alienate anyone. It's a delicate balance.

Lynn Somerstein said...

"I didn't tell you not to hiss."

Once upon a time there was a handsome snake who wanted to be loved. He asked his guru how to make people stop hating him, and the guru said to stop biting people, and then people would love him. The snake slithered away.
When he returned several weeks later he was battered and bruised. He could no longer slither, he kind of limped and rolled to get where he was going.
"Oh Guru," said Snake. "Look at me. I stopped biting like you said, and people threw rocks at me and now I am broken."
The Guru said, "I didn't tell you not to hiss."

Somehow, yogis and yoginis feel they are not allowed to feel anger, so they often suppress their feelings, and feel uncomfortable and powerlesss.
It's important for the teacher to let the students know that there are guidelines and limits to preserve everyone's good practice.

I wrote a longer version of this for Integral Yoga's teachers' newletter.

Brenda P. said...

I don't know if it's the Midwesterner in me, or that I just hate confrontation, but I am often a hiss-less, bite-less snake that just holds a grudge. Great for whiling away the hours in the middle of the night.

Nadine, I usually use humor too, as a way to scold gently.
Anon., "There's only one teacher in the class," said teasingly seemed to fix the intra-student corrections.

I cornered a late-comer after class, and that fixed that problem for a month. Back to square one.

I use the situation to it really a problem, or just my ego? But I try to sense when some one is annoying everyone else. It reminds me of classes in college where there was a collective gritting of teeth when some body was showing off or being confrontational and the prof. didn't do anything.

Thank you for all the testimonial...I laughed, I cried, I hear ya!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, When i first started teaching about 12 years ago in an area that was very Yoga "popular"and my classes were 20-25 ppl deep, I was a lot stricter about things like late comers and would not even allow them into the room until the beginning centering/ meditation was over. However since moving to my current part of the country 5 years ago when there was no Yoga studio within less than an hour drive, I've lightened up a lot b/c when your classes are very small and you are trying to teach very, very, very new students you can't alienate them.
I explain the importance of the space to the group as a whole and hope it sinks in
I am a very punctual person and it used to bother me A LOT when students were late, I have let that go and a funny thing happened the class has become sort of like a self cleaning oven if someone arrives late and is very loud getting organized another student will sigh or cluck and let it be known that this is disruptive. I actually had a new comer answer her cell phone about 5 minutes into the centering and a veteran said, loudly " oh my god!!"... Never happened again.
As for students that don't listen and fall on there face, I always demonstrate these challenging poses and give different stages of the pose and tell them (very strongly) that if this stage of the pose already feels like a lot of work they should not go further b/c they will fall over, usually that is enough and if they go deeper and fall, they were warned so they feel a bit embarrassed and will honor the limitations of there body next time.
As far as intra-student corrections i usually say something like "well u could try that if u want but I recommend....." with just just a slight " i have more experience" tone, and that seems to do the trick.
Great blog BTW

Jen said...

Great post! I'm really enjoying the comments.

I am very fortunate in my current situation in that my students are very respectful (no cell phones, chatting, etc.) It is hosted through a university and many of the faculty/staff occassionally come in late but are very conscientious of being quiet.

But at a previous teaching gig I had a student who used a lot of negative language about herself. She'd frequently say she couldn't do a pose because she was too fat/old/etc (her words). I tried very hard to explain that yoga was available to EVERYONE, no matter what our physical condition. The worst part was that her negativity was contagious - when she was in class other students would start belittling themselves, something that had never happened before. I can't say I was heart broken when she stopped attending my class.

Kristin said...

What are your thoughts regarding when a student asks you for your notes or "lecture" material after class?

Perhaps this was selfish, but I did politely decline one students request for a copy of my sequence (which I had photo-copied from a book I own), but pointed her in the direction where she could find all sorts of material. She just wanted to have something to follow this summer while on vacation.

I also told her I would be happy to provide her with the names of some good resources/books.

My reasoning - I spent quite a bit of money attending the workshop where I got the material and quite a bit of money to buy the instructors book. I don't always feel like I have to share everything buy. There are so many resources out there if a person takes the time to look - especially when we have a large Barnes and Noble in town.


Lynn Somerstein said...

Re: Students who ask for notes.

You could, if you like, make an audio recording available for free or charge if you feel more comfortable that way. Or you could write up a class in a pamphlet and sell it. Or you could direct the student to the place where you got the information in the first place. It all works.

My practice is to encourage my students to do yoga on their own. The first 20 minutes of my class is a complete class, in miniature, which I tell them in order to make it easier for them to practice at home, if they want. I don't hand out notes, but I do verbally review the sequence if anyone is interested.

I'm happy to share- information is for everyone, and the world is open. Charging for it is fine too. It's an individual decision.

PetalsYoga said...

At the end of each of my classes I like to express gratitude for my students and especially for their kind and considerate attitudes in class. I rarely have a problem in my class because we are all "practicing" and certainly not "perfect". If someone manages to ruffle my feathers during a class I realize that I have more mindfulness practice to attend to so I can begin working on healthy responding instead of reacting. Today a new student arrived a bit late and with much noisy clumping into class. She was elderly and simply had no idea. I singled her out later and thanked her for coming to class and her whole attitude softened and blossomed. She added a lovely energy to the class and I doubt she will be late again.


Jen said...


In response to your question about sharing notes with your student, I would have done the same, especially with photocopied material since that gets into the muddy area of copyright law. And I would do the same just with my own yoga notes that I bring to class. I think of that as my own personal space and am not inclined to let others page through it.

I often suggest our local library system which has a really nice selection of books and dvds. And I share some of my fave yoga web sites and blogs, too.

Anonymous said...

One of my first really uncomfortable yoga teaching dilemas was in a small class (about 5 - 8 people) of women and one man.

Can you see it coming?

At the end of the class during relaxation the one man would lie in corpse pose - but err... the flagpole was still standing. Every class.

He was the kind of guy that made everyone a little uncomfortable. I'm not sure if the other ladies in the class knew what was happening - but no one mentioned what was happening - just that they thought he was strange.

I ended up phoning him to delicately discuss the ...point... with him. I referred him to a class with a male teacher who may better understand his issue.

Although I do wonder if I should have taken another teacher's suggestion I got later - 108 repititions of Frog Pose - which balances the sexual energy.

Hopefully it won't come up again!