Tips for Dealing with Difficult Yoga Students.

Via Amy Cushing
on Mar 5, 2013
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I’ll never forget teaching my first yoga class.

I spent hours the night before double-checking my terminology, choosing the perfect music and practicing the poses so I could make sure I was giving the correct verbal cues.

My mentor had gone out of her way to get me the job. I had just finished my teacher training and was unsure if teaching was my forte. I had always had a fear of speaking in public, even though I had a day job that required me to speak in front of large groups of people.

Add postures, Sanskrit and injury prevention to the already anxiety-ridden act of teaching a class, and my head was ready to explode.

Thus, the all-night preparation. One thing I refused to do was let my mentor down.

The time for my first class arrived. I took a breath, entered the yoga room and laid out my mat at the front of the class. A few students had already found their spots and were settling into the space. Two older women sitting at the front of the room were chatting away, oblivious to their surroundings.

I nervously fumbled with the CD player. After a few deep breaths to calm my shaky hands, I finally figured out its quirks and soothing music filled the room.

I took out my notes and set them to the side of my mat where I could easily access them. Within minutes the class was full and my heart was beating a hundred plus times a minute.

I took another much-needed breath and asked the students to take to their mats. I went through my introduction and asked about any injuries. No injuries…good. I finally started to settle down.

Then the nonsense began.

As I was beginning to discuss my theme for the class, I happened to glance at the two older women at the front of the class and caught them rolling their eyes at each other and shaking their heads in condescension.

I was completely taken off-guard. A billion thoughts ran through my head wondering what I had said to make them consider my words so ridiculous as to warrant an eye-roll. Somehow, I manged to finish my thought, albeit clumsily, and transitioned directly into the asana practice.

They don’t teach you this in teacher training.

I’ll never forgot that moment. It stuck with me for two reasons:

1. It never occurred to me that students wouldn’t have an interest in what I was teaching. Even in those times that I’ve found a teacher doesn’t present his or her class the way I’d prefer, I always show respect. Often, it’s the teachers who teach different from what you’re used to that have an important nugget to share.

2. I was frustrated with myself for altering my teaching plan because of the immaturity of two women. Yes, there will be times as a teacher you will have to tone it up or down depending on the level of the group, but you should not feel compelled to change your teaching style.

Since that day, I’ve had students who have laughed at me, rolled up their mats and left when they realized I was a sub and others who did their own vinyasa flow completely different from my instruction. I also experienced a disrespectful student who entered an introductory class late and proceeded to do headstands while I was teaching Warrior II to a bunch of beginners.

But by the time these self-centered students entered my class, I was already seasoned enough to know to whom I should focus my attention—the students who do appreciate you.

Here are a few thoughts for those teachers just starting out in the field:

>> When you’re new to teaching, you’ll inevitably have to do a lot of subbing. Don’t be discouraged by students who walk out on you because you’re not the regular teacher. It’s them, not you.

>> Teach what feels right to you. You were drawn to your teachers and your style because it ignited a spark in you. Keep that spark alive in your teaching as well. Don’t let a scornful student snuff it out.

>> Trust that what you’ve prepared is enough. Yes, you will have to learn to adjust to the skill level of the group, but don’t feel compelled to appease a show-off.

>> Don’t be discouraged by students who have difficulty sitting in meditation or surrendering in savasana (unless it’s physically uncomfortable for them and they need adjustment). Continue to make it part of your class. Their busy minds need it.

>> Often the frustration you will see in students is with themselves and their own internal dialogue. Don’t take it personally. Briefly offer your help. If they don’t accept it, smile and move on.

>> Don’t be afraid of criticism. Feedback, given in a constructive way, is a powerful learning tool. Even those comments that may seem insulting can be a moment to reflect. Take what you need from such assessments and move forward.

I’ve had the privilege of teaching students from the age of nine to 90. I’ve taught beginners, athletes, injured students, retirees and pregnant women. I’ve had the honor of being part of people’s journey through life changes and new beginnings.

I’ve seen some amazing transformations.

I often feel like I’ve learned more from my students then they have from me.

The bad-mannered, contemptuous students don’t affect me anymore. Instead, I focus on those who are there to learn something and who have respectfully given me their time. I find those with attitudes quickly learn to either climb off their high-horse and join the group energy or leave.

It’s a shame, really. I’m well-trained, experienced and love what I do. I take the seat of the teacher seriously. It’s unfortunate that some students don’t reciprocate that respect.

But there are many students who will appreciate your efforts.

And they will make your teaching worthwhile.

Like elephant yoga on Facebook.

Ed: Brianna Bemel


About Amy Cushing

Amy Cushing is a stay-at-home mom and E-RYT® 200 certified yoga teacher pursuing her passion for writing. When she’s not chasing around two small tots, she can be found lost in a good book, cherishing quality time with her husband or having a much-needed laugh with her girlfriends. She’s on a mission to find simplicity in life so she can spend less time pulling out her hair and more time appreciating those who matter most. She loves yoga and music and has been known to bust out a mean rendition of Itsy Bitsy Spider in times of chaos. She holds a B.S. in Political Science and an M.A. in English from Northern Arizona University. Connect with Amy on Facebook or Twitter.


27 Responses to “Tips for Dealing with Difficult Yoga Students.”

  1. Nichole says:

    Good article! Teaching can be discouraging sometimes. I am thankful for my TT as we were prepared for challenging scenarios in the classroom. We role played many, many times addressing all sorts of issues that can arise in the studio. At the time I wanted more asana, but now that I am teaching I am so very grateful for the way my teacher prepared us. Thanks for sharing! It is encouraging!

  2. AnnMarie says:

    After teaching for 20ish years, i can completely relate to this article. Yes some will roll their eyes, suck their teeth, make sniper comments under their breath during class etc. some have entered like that but left class with joy and light. ( amazing to witness! I truly love what i do and appreciate those who come in with open honest effort. Being a part of the student teacher process has been the greatest gift. Thank you for your open expression off the mat and on paper… Blessings

  3. Amy says:

    Hi Nichole! We did practice scenarios in my teacher training too, but I was taken aback by the level of disrespect I encountered at the start of my teaching. Kudos to your teacher for preparing you well. We need confident teacher like you in the field!

  4. Amy says:

    Hi AnnMarie! I'm coming up on 9 years of teaching and, like you, still find the student transformations to be the most amazing part. Even the little accomplishments, like helping to drop a student's stress level from a tough day, make me feel like I've succeeded in my task. You said it perfectly, "the student teacher process has been the greatest gift." Thank you for your comments!

  5. Rick says:

    Very well written Amy! When I first started teaching–and after a class with one particularly frustrating student–I started a journal that I titled “What My Students Taught Me Today.” It helped to encourage me in my belief that if I stopped learning my teaching would not progress. My students have continued to be excellent teachers.

  6. Lauren says:

    When I took ballroom dancing lessons, I always learned more from subs. You get into a rut with your regular teacher – a sub can help you see things from a different angle, and maybe the light bulb goes on.

  7. Amy says:

    Hi Rick! Journaling is a great idea—helps keep things in perspective after a tough day of teaching. And I agree, students are the best teachers. Thanks for your comments!

  8. Amy says:

    I hear you about getting into a rut, Lauren. I can sometimes be a creature of habit. Taking a class from a new teacher is the best way to get a fresh perspective. Thanks for sharing! One of these days I'll have to try ballroom dancing…sounds like fun!

  9. Ebs says:

    I really enjoyed your article – just what I needed today! I'm a relatively new yoga teacher and in my class last night had my first experience with a student who rolled up her mat and walked out halfway through the class! Another thing that throws me off is when the occasional student just sits and stares back at me after I've invited the class to close their eyes during the meditation portion. More humorous than off-putting but still… I'm learning! 🙂

  10. Jim says:

    I just started my teacher training and this will help me alot! Thank you.

  11. Amy says:

    Ha, ha, yeah, I've experienced the stare too. Not sure why they'd rather stare at my mug than sit quietly with themselves, but to each his own. I've learned that some people have a difficult time letting go and find meditation and savasana awkward. It's almost like they don't trust what will happen when they close their eyes and turn off their busy minds. I find if they stick with it long enough, they eventually find solace in it. Thanks for your comments!

  12. Amy says:

    You're welcome! Glad I could offer some help. Enjoy your training and good luck with your teaching!

  13. West Anson says:

    Well, there are many ways to deal with "Difficult Yoga Students". Give a couple of these a try, some are very "un-Yogic" but I have used them to get my point across when lesser measures have failed.

    "The Professional Student who does their own practice"~ I have dealt with this in this manner and it works every time. Change your sequence to follow theirs for a time being. Then stand right next to them and make alignment and adjustments to maximize that students position in the posture, I mean REALLY maximize to the point the student gets "your point". After a few poses of being put to the extreme and shown "their shit stinks like everyone else" they will either leave never to return or understand who the teacher is in your class.

    "Eye Rollers who also think your sequences are boring"~Similar approach to the above by focusing on them putting them to the extreme. For instance, in Virabhadrasana II make them align themselves perfectly and deeply into the pose. As teachers we know every student "cheats" and relaxes during certain poses….don't let them. Make them "fully engage" the pose until they get your point.

    Now, with that said, as teachers we shouldn't "actively" seek out and be aggressive towards our students but remember you are the teacher they are the student. As a teacher, you have to have a presence in the room and your students must know that you are in-charge and the Alpha. Don't put up with no BS, the ones who are really interested will respect that. The others will seek out lesser teachers who pander to their egos. Good luck my fellow Yogi.

  14. M.C. says:

    Wow. I hope I never take a yoga class from you.

  15. Jgridley says:

    Wow, ditto.
    Attitude and judgement does not make a yoga teacher! More like a drill sergeant!
    I too would run a mile, and not because I'm being disrespectful, but because I too want to be treated with respect and your comments here do not echo that sentiment.

  16. Amy says:

    Hi West. Thank you for sharing your opinion, but I have to respectfully disagree with your suggestion to "maximize that students position in the posture…REALLY maximize to the point the student gets 'your point.'" I find meeting aggression with aggression solves nothing. Essentially, you're feeding into their need for attention. In my opinion, leading with calm confidence is more effective and honors those who are respecting your role as a teacher.

  17. West Anson says:

    Interesting as you must have overlooked my comments about teachers not "actively" being aggressive towards students. But so be it.

  18. West Anson says:

    Interesting you think leading with "calm confidence" is more effective, yet complain that students don't show you the respect you desire when engaging in that type of teaching. Curious.

    Anyway, as I stated in my previous comments I do not "actively" seek to be aggressive towards students but will when all else has failed. Good luck.

  19. West Anson says:

    Really? Are you saying you are one of those students who "does whatever they want" or "rolls your eyes"? :-).

    To be honest, I am a very passive and caring person. However, I do not tolerate disrespectful students when it comes to teaching a class. It is your class, not theirs. Yes, we are in this journey together but someone has to lead otherwise we go nowhere.

  20. Ann says:

    Are you familiar with the concept of Ahimsa? It’s a big part of the practice of yoga. And as far as I can tell, it applies at ALL times, even when “all else has failed.”

  21. West Anson says:

    Of course I am very familiar with Ahimsa~to do no harm or violence against a living being. Apparently you extrapolate my suggestion of "focus and maximizing the students posture" as being violent and harming towards the student. I believe that would be an incorrect assumption. The point is to bring attention to the disrespectful student letting them know their behavior is unacceptable. Take a read of this article from Yoga Journal about "disrespectful students".

  22. Amy says:

    I don't feel I was complaining in my article, rather providing advice to new teachers through my own personal experiences early in my career. I've been teaching for nearly nine years now and have found that showing your presence as a leader through kind, but assertive, action and by being true to yourself is what works for me. If you choose to react in a different manner, that is your choice, I simply don't agree with it. Thanks again for your comments West. Good luck to you as well.

  23. West Anson says:

    Thank you for bringing this issue up. I think this issue of "disrespectful students" is more prevalent in today's Yoga Classes then in the past. With so many young, inexperienced teachers out there teaching classes when they are not ready it is ripe for problems like this. I can't even imagine being disrespectful to any of my past teachers as I am "Old School" and they would not tolerate any sign of disrespect. Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

  24. kim says:

    wow…i am amazed that as teachers and students this is an issue! what happened to the concept of "everyone gets to have their experience??? Some teachers need to teach yoga… not life's lessons… let the us, me the student learn what i need to learn in my time however that may be….! In fact mabey the teacher needs to leave their ego at the door!!

  25. Amy says:

    Hi Kim! Thank you for your feedback. With all due respect, I do leave my ego at the door as a teacher. Unfortunately, some students do not and disrupt the class in the process. Teaching is a difficult endeavor for anyone who chooses to pursue it. My article was an attempt to provide new teachers with positive ways to deal with unexpected situations. Again, thank you for your comments!

  26. Brittnay says:

    Great article! I have been practicing yoga as a student for almost 10 years and as a student I have witnessed A LOT of rude people in class. I was an athlete in college and witnessed a lot of unacceptable behaviors but was surprised to see it in yoga. Yoga is suppose to be a peaceful place where everyone gets along and respects one another right! Well I learned fast that there is that small few that are always going to be the same in whatever you decide to do. As a student I try to ignore those people not going with the flow, or talking through the teachers starting and finishing words, but it does get hard. I truly thank you yoga teachers because when you respect the ones that are there for a purpose it makes our days so much better. I have a very bad back problem from all my years of sports and at the age of 26 it gets hard tor realize I can not do everything that I want too. But my yoga teachers even if they do not know me allow me to work through class on my own level and it makes my day so much better.

    Don't let those few people stop you teachers from helping the rest of us!

    thank you for everything!

  27. Maria Writer says:

    I don't really like yoga classes for a few reasons the most important being that beginners or unfit people are often left behind or are completely over looked even in a beginners class and I have rather big self esteem issues so I don't go to a class and privet instructors are far too expensive. I worry a lot that I'm not practicing a pose right but it never occurred to me to draw stick figures! Thanks for the tips 🙂

    Regards, my college writing blog buyessayfast