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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