A Response To “I Was Fired From The Facebook Gym For Asking A Student Not To Use Her Phone During Class.” ~ Eleni C. Kotsonis

Via elephant journal
on Jul 12, 2012
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The story of the yoga teacher fired by Facebook over a cell-phone ban is the most recent headline to invade the yoga community.

It presents two issues: yoga studio etiquette and the expectations of a yoga teacher.

Most yoga studios adopt a no-cell-phone policy…but the important distinction to make here is that Alice Van Ness’s policy was her own—not the studio’s.

It was the Facebook corporate gym.

And when the studio belongs to a corporate client, it’s free to determine the policies, which means teaching yoga in a corporate setting often curtails some of the yoga studio “feel”—no incense or altars—for example. This is why it’s imperative for teachers to choose the spaces they teach in wisely, to ensure the environment and policies of the studio align with their personal values.

However, enforcing policies is secondary to a yoga teacher’s prime responsibility…which is to teach yoga.

What disappointed me about Van Ness’s behavior (I’m basing my opinion on events as described in the San Francisco Chronicle’s article and her post on elephant journal) was that she felt it appropriate to enforce a policy—that in a single moment—completely isolated and alienated her student.

As teachers, we do not choose our students—they are not there to serve us or to be judged by us. We must accept them as individuals and they should be treated with respect. This is human decency…and thereby an extension of yoga.

Teaching an all-levels class to a diverse group of students is challenging and one must teach to the group as a whole in a manner that seeks to benefit the entire class. Interestingly, little in the Van Ness story has addressed whether the student with the cell phone severely disrupted the class as a whole—the focus has been that the student didn’t live up to Van Ness’s expectations.

Van Ness judged the student for her failure to stay present, which ultimately got her fired.

“More importantly, yoga is your time to pay attention to yourself,” Van Ness wrote in her article. “Connect you to you.” While I happen to agree with her, who is she to judge a student for failing to recognize this?

It’s a great teaching goal to offer tools to students on how to be present (for example, focusing on the breath and the effects it has on the body with each inhale and each exhale.)

However, you cannot strong-arm a student into being present.

I also was disappointed by Van Ness’s observations of another student’s meditation practice:

“One student was completely incapable of sitting still and closing her eyes for those three minutes. She fidgeted and looked around, visibly uncomfortable with those few minutes of silence. The more she resisted, the more uncomfortable she seemed to become. Her behavior was similar in savasana.”

The observations may be true but Van Ness uses them not to help the student improve her practice—she uses them to scrutinize the student.

Has Van Ness forgotten the first time she tried to meditate? It’s not an easy practice, even for a mere three minutes.

Is it necessary to use these few minutes as an opportunity to judge a student in a practice that takes years of discipline?

This is not the practice of yoga.

Yoga is an accepting, fluid practice, not rigid with boundaries and rules. Above all else, it is a practice that encourages great compassion, for oneself and others.

A great teacher once told me that I have to “get out of my own way as a yoga teacher.” To recognize that as yoga teachers, we are there to serve the community, to offer clear and safe physical alignment cues and to provide a secure environment that offers students the space to explore whatever purpose yoga serves them, in that moment.

We must respect each and every purpose that yoga serves—meditation in movement, mind and body connection, physical exercise—every purpose. We should never seek to limit the benefits or meaning of yoga, for anyone.

This, to me, is a universal truth that binds all yoga teachers—and in my experience an empathetic response is always the right response.

As a student, my focus has wavered in many moments during my more than 10 years of yoga practice. There have times when I was unable to sit still, my frustration was palpable and perhaps, I have even left the room.

During all those years, I’ve only had one teacher reprimand me for being fidgety—in savasana—no less. I won’t get into details of the situation, but her judgment of me in that vulnerable place was a shaming and I chose to never take her class again.

Aside from that one person, all of my yoga teachers have given me the space for my practice to take shape and each day, sometimes it’s a completely different form.

Some days messy and erratic, others clear and steady but each practice has benefitted me because I’ve been given the space and ability to assess my practice, on my own.

As a yoga teacher, I see this process unfold for my students but it’s not my responsibility to control what’s happening on their mat.

My role is to give them the space to discover their own practice.

Eleni C. Kotsonis has been practicing yoga for over ten years. A vinyasa yoga teacher and corporate lawyer, living in Portland, Maine, she’s constantly working to create the equilibrium between the two. She credits her yoga practice with singlehandedly helping her to pass the bar exam (…maybe bar prep helped.) She teaches creative and intentionally sequenced vinyasa flow and is grateful for her family, love, and the coast of Maine.


Editor: Bryonie Wise

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45 Responses to “A Response To “I Was Fired From The Facebook Gym For Asking A Student Not To Use Her Phone During Class.” ~ Eleni C. Kotsonis”

  1. Danielle says:

    Well said Leni!! I couldn't agree with you more.

  2. yogasamurai says:

    This is a no-brainer and does not not really require an extended series of literary "asanas" to promote everyone's unmet ego needs and additional EJ page views. The students are paying $$$$ for classes. It's a sale. The customer is ALWAYS right. End of discussion. Grow up yoga. Grow up EJ. (not holding my breath, don't worry) lol – YS

  3. Scott says:

    Interesting that you take a judgemental and perfectionistic stance on the yoga teacher’s judgemental and perfectionistic behaviour?! Maybe we should all stop judging and criticising each others behaviour online and go practice more, change our own behaviour and stop publicly vomiting about other people’s. Off to do so now 😉

  4. Jess says:

    I heard about this situation, but didn't read Alice Van Ness's own version of the story, so I don't know whether she brought excessive judgement with her or not. There are some good points made in this article. As teachers we don't control the student's process, nor can we know what's happening for him/her or what needs to happen next. The best we can do is hold whatever is happening with compassion and in an attitude of not-knowing. I do feel, however, that it's part of the teacher's role to uphold reasonable boundaries in the classroom. These are there to ensure that all students feel contained and are able to practise without excessive avoidable disruption. Failure to hold boundaries on the part of the teacher can leave students feeling unsafe and angry. Compassion doesn't mean letting everyone do whatever they want. Sometimes the compassionate response is to remind a student of a boundary and insist that they respect it. At other times it might be to hold a boundary more fluidly. There's a whole practice for both teacher and student in how we work with these issues.

  5. Geoff says:

    What a shamefully judgemental piece of hypocrisy this missive is. The writer lays into the yoga teacher taking a holier than thou stance. Absolutely revolting writing.

  6. StellaT says:

    Personally, I thought the question is: is Facebook justified in firing a teacher for *simply* telling a student not to use her phone during class? The teacher made her choice because of certain assumptions – which is not that uncommon by the way. Or should Facebook have explained their policies to the teacher instead and allowed the teacher to either allow it, or leave on her own accord?

    The termination might be due to other reasons – but we don't know.

  7. Hypatia99 says:

    I applaud the yoga teacher. No matter if it's a yoga class or Bio 101' if the teacher requests "no cell phones" then students should show common courtesy and respect that. This girl has a tough life ahead of her if she breaks down over a simple social contract like this, or cannot endure the harsh burden of putting her impulses on hold for one hour. So are the FB execs ok with employees using cell phones during staff meetings, etc?

  8. Justin says:

    I agree with Scott and Geoff.

    “Van Ness judged the student for her failure to stay present, which ultimately got her fired.”

    Hmmm. I think that might be victim-blaming.

    (not that the student in question is 100% the ‘perpetrator’, and the yoga teacher is 100% a ‘victim’. You know what I mean.)

    Very sanctimonious.

    (Is this reply sanctimonious as well? Possibly. At least it isn’t hypocritical, advocating compassion at the same time as judging others for their judgements!)

  9. YogaBaby says:

    You say that Van Ness should have treated the student with respect, yet you fail to notice that by ignoring the teacher and playing on her phone the student was given absolutely no respect to her teacher, who is the one entrusted with keeping her safe (physically) during the class. We don't know what crucial information the student may have been missing, i.e. don't turn your head in shoulder stand.
    You go on to say that she decided to enforce the policy in the one moment – and by using her phone she did not live up to Van Ness' expectations, yet no other students were using their phones, so it would seem this is a common policy (whether it is mentioned or not) that exists in most spaces that are meant to help our spiritual and mental wellbeing, that one person decided to violate.
    And lastly you say "While I happen to agree with her, who is she to judge a student for failing to recognize this?" Who are you to judge Van Ness? This whole article seems massively hypocritical.

  10. __MikeG__ says:

    If you support this yoga teacher then you also support the following:

    1 Glaring angrily at people is a good thing.
    2 Ignoring rules you agreed to follow whenever you feel like it is a good thing.
    3 Starting a PR campaign portraying yourself as a helpless victim is a good thing.
    4 Only believing one side of a story is a good thing.
    5 Falsely agreeing to rules which violate how you believe a yoga class should be taught just so you can get a paycheck is a good thing.

    There are two sides to every story. Just because this woman claims she was fired for "one glare" does not make that claim true. Maybe there were other factors involved. Did she have a history of angry glares? Is she a crappy yoga teacher? Is she a whiner who does not take responsibility for her actions? Unless you were in the room and know exactly why she was canned then you have no real idea was to the why's and how's of this situation.

  11. Jenny says:

    There may be very legitimate reasons people need their cellphones on and available during yoga practice.

    In my case, I am one of 12 volunteers for my union's crisis hotline, and when it's my turn to be on call, it's 24/7 for a whole week. We are going through very challenging times at my company, and that phone call might be a coworker contemplating suicide. I need to answer their call for help — RIGHT NOW. In addition, I am now a caretaker for my elderly mother and if she or my elderly father needs help, I need to know — RIGHT NOW.


    So, please try to empathize with the needs of some of us who really need our yoga practice, very badly, but who need to stay connected to the outside world at the same time. Because I DO respect the yoga practice, the yoga teacher, and the other yoga students. But this might be a life-and-death phone call that I need to take.

    Thank you– Namaste–

  12. honey_b says:

    Um…my understanding was that the teacher didn't enforce anything. She LOOKED at the student in a way the student didn't like. She didn't ask her to leave. The rest of her comments in her blog aside, I don't see this as a fireable offense. It makes me wonder if the woman was some uppity higher-up who had to be placated at any cost. Also, since when do yoga teachers not get to be human? And I agree, the woman could have explained the situation and not walked off in a huff to get the yoga teacher fired for LOOKING at her. That's ridiculous.

  13. Alice says:

    Wow judgey judgmental. I'm just making observations about the students, I'm NOT saying that they are "bad yogis". I stand my my actions, but of course it was not my intention to embarrass this student.

    When I was hired at Facebook the cell phone in class issue came up, I was told by my manager that I could ask the students to put cell phone on silent, off or "airplane" mode during my class. This is what I did and this student chose to ignore my request. To me that is rude.
    http://www.alicetheyogateacher.com http://www.facebook.com/AlicetheYogaTeacher http://alicetheyogateacher.blogspot.com https://twitter.com/alicevanness

  14. Julie says:

    It is rude. Obnoxious. Immature (if it wasn't life or death with that phone). It is a reflection of who we are and what Facebook has created in our concious minds. Instant gratification, quick messages, feeding our brain useless tidbits that encourage a chaotic mind. Firing the teacher was extreme and unfair. It is also her path of learning through teaching. I have taught classes where girls would giggle incessantly and I wanted to scream and throw them out. I couldn't. I just stayed present with being totally annoyed and watched my anger. It is so interesting to judge others and judge ourselves. So much of that starts in a yoga practice. Instead of the space between the inhale and exhale lies the truth of who we are, it's more like the time between this status and that other status there is a teeny wisp of silence in our jumbled minds.

  15. Edward Staskus says:

    When I contemplate the repercussions of a ringing cell phone in the middle of one of the Bikram classes I go to, I would not want to be the jack-in-the-box with the phone.

    Why would anyone bring a device to a yoga class, anyway?

  16. cathy says:

    ha ha ha a phone gooing off in a Bikram class would cause instantaneous death

  17. […] A Response To “I Was Fired From The Facebook Gym For Asking A Student Not To Use Her Phone During … […]

  18. David says:

    "However, enforcing policies is secondary to a yoga teacher's primary responsibility…which is to teach yoga."
    That's the way it seems to be for the majority of teachers. Luckily there is a new and growing wave of yoga teachers out there who take the perspective that their role is to teach…People!!
    Get to know your people, build connection, grow understanding.Understanding opens the mind, an open mind leads to compassion. And with compassion….

  19. Noelle says:

    Is it really that hard for people to unplug for only one hour for yoga class? What is the point in going to class if you aren't present?
    Remember the other limbs of yoga such as concentration and meditation. Also, what about non-stealing, in that you are taking away class time from others and yourself? One experience I had was before a class started there was a young hawk who had landed on the lawn of the center and us students went out to make sure it was OK and we were distracted, and thus came late to join the teacher. She firmly but respectfully told us it was unacceptable to be late, this was a lesson in asteya, non-stealing. I really got the concept after her explanation.
    Yoga class is a container, the teacher is the leader, s/he needs to hold this container for all of us. Rules help us hold this container, it's not an imposition. The main problem I have with electronic devices is the distraction, which also means you aren't paying attention to the teacher, to your own body and thus you are not respectful.
    Read Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together for more on this.

  20. Amy says:

    Someone who gets in a huff over a disapproving look really needs a yoga class…
    Seriously. It is selfish to assume that your personal cell phone use will not affect others'. Running in and out of class to take a call or text disrupts the mood. The student needs to respect the environment she's in. We're in it together, folks. Don't be an ass. And if you are, don't be a whiner when people don't like the fact that you're an ass.

    She "isolated and alienated her student?" The woman is an adult who should own up to her antisocial behavior instead of complaining to the boss that somebody gave her the stink eye.

  21. Betterdeal says:

    So there I was, just about to light my cigarette at the end of the standing sequence of a class and the teacher isolated and alienated me for it in front of the class by giving me evils…

    I felt violated.

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