Tracey L. Kelley
How to Really Piss Off a Yoga Teacher
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
There. I said it. With that exact language. When you read more, maybe it'll be easier to understand why.
(After all, yogini or not, I'm still human.)
In my community, I'll sometimes sub for vacationing yoga teachers. This is always a great way to maintain goodwill in the yoga community, help a teacher or studio support the yoga class schedule instead of removing offerings, and reaffirm a level of consistency for students.
No matter how confident a teacher might be, there's always a slight level of apprehension, because you want to assure students they'll still have the quality experience they're accustomed to with their regular instructor. If you're subbing in someone else's studio, you definitely want to be a proper representative for anyone--especially new attendees--frequenting that place of business.
There's a wonderful instructor who I sub for two or three times a year while she travels. The people in her classes are a little more familiar with me, and we always have a lovely time. It was for one of these classes that someone passing through town registered to come to the studio for a scheduled session.
This set-up is important.
I frequent many studios when I travel, as I love to experience yoga in other places and other teachers' methods. I never tell them I'm a teacher unless it comes up in conversation after class. I always take a spot in the back after I tell the instructor I'm just visiting for vacation and eager to participate. Then, I give myself over to the session, come what may. Not every experience has been a good one. Thrash rock music during final relaxation after a yin yoga class comes to mind. A teacher who forced me into Plow Pose, or Halasana, without first asking if I could do that pose or knowing about an existing neck injury--or even thinking to ask. But overall, I always learn something by being respectful and courteous to instructors leading the group sessions. I make modifications for my body as needed, but otherwise, whatever they say is what I follow.
So, while I'm subbing in a studio that isn't mine, a woman who registered online comes in. She's traveling from Los Angeles to New York City, stopping and practicing along the way. Great! Since she filled out the required paperwork online, I ask a few other questions: what's your level of practice? Any issues affecting your physical or emotional health I should know to ensure the safety of your practice? It's all good, she says. "I do Baptiste Power Yoga in L.A." Okay. She has her mat and is ready to go.
About five minutes into the session, she starts doing all sorts of other things. She flows through Sun Salutations at a brisk pace while we're holding Forward Fold. As we start a Sun Salutation flow, she's holding Side Plank and doing power leg lifts. Basically, everything I cued she completely ignored and proceeded to do her own sequence. A new person to the studio would listen to me but watch her, not certain of what to do. Another person alongside her stopped her practice and simply stared.
This studio offers a free session to anyone who wants to try it out. It was nearly 90 degrees by 10:00 a.m. My first thought is if she's traveling, she had to check out of her hotel but still wants to do yoga. Instead of asking for a time extension or unfolding her mat in a nearby park, she decided to take advantage of the free class offer for some air conditioning. But I don't know, so I move the rest of the class into a position and lean down to her. "Hi-is there anything I can help you with?" "Oh no! I'm just doing my practice." "I respect that, but it's important in this mixed level setting to stay with group. I'll provide some more advanced variations to you specifically, if you want." "Well, I guess that would be alright." Yep--she just wanted a free studio space to do her thing. Honestly, that's only happened one other time in class in all the years I've been teaching. I didn't allow it then, and I wasn't going to let it happen now. Why?
1) Ahisma in the Yoga Sutras means "do no harm." That principle applies to yourself and others. By not following the teacher's instructions, anything could happen to cause harm. 2) Safety. My insurance policy protects me and students to a certain degree. Even if someone chooses to completely disregard what I say and gets hurt, the carrier will have to pay out anyway, since it wasn't my waiver she signed. To directly violate #1 leads to a complication with #2. 3) Ego. I don't care if you learned from Krishnamacharya himself: if you choose to attend a group class where no one knows you, be respectful and follow what's going on, and ask the teacher for help to further your practice. Otherwise, you're just grandstanding. 4) Respect. See points #1-#3. As we progressed through this 75-minute class, this woman listened to me about 20% of the time. I ignored her for a while, because the regular students needed my attention. But she was still disruptive with her actions--even trying to go into a handstand when the rest of us were in Triangle! (Which she couldn't do well, and this kept me on guard until she decided to let go so she wouldn't injure herself or people near her.) After that, I leaned toward her again and said, "It's essential that you follow my cues now. If you're unhappy with the progress of the class, please move into Final Relaxation and you're welcome to end your session early." Which is teacher-speak for "Knock it the hell off!" After that, she acquiesced. Much to her surprise, the next few poses were ones she hadn't encountered before and had to concentrate on. I helped her with adjusts and assists, and she said thank you each time, focused on breath, even broke out into beads of perspiration. She nodded from time to time with happiness at the level of complexity each posture presented.
But in the last 15 minutes, she went back to doing her own thing. This time, I simply left her alone. My patience was tested and I didn't want to spread that energy to other people. When class was over, she simply waved and walked out the door. Some of the regulars said, basically, "What was her deal?" If you really want to piss off a yoga teacher, her attitude and actions are great ways to accomplish that. Mysore and free form movement yoga classes allow a lot of expression and variation. Often still supported by one or more teachers during the session, most participants will either follow their version of a standard sequence, such as Sun Salutation A or B, or make it all up as they go. Either way, teachers are available to guide and adjust, but don't cue. I often lead that type of session in my various classes to help people understand how to develop stronger at-home practices, work on poses and breath they need in the moment, let me help them with something specific, and have some fun. However, when you're taking advantage of a studio's free session for a set group class on the schedule, this doesn't mean you get to rent space for your own 75-minute wing-ding. This is a business-building strategy, and one you should respect. Keep your mind and heart open to the community extended to you. If you'd like to expand your practice, work with--not against--the teacher on what to do during class. In other words, be a yoga tourist, willing to accept what's new or different from your normal routine. Don't be a jerk.
Image: Artist Peter de Sève for the New Yorker magazine