It’s been nearly four years since lululemon ran their much-maligned “What’s your intention?” ad, in which a lu-clad yogini is seen chatting on her cell phone to the chagrin of other students in her yoga class.
Despite the many critiques and fierce upheaval the ad elicited at the time, it seems that we’re still light years away from treating yoga studios as cell-free zones.
I base this observation on personal experience, after returning to taking studio classes following several years of practicing pretty much exclusively at home. I’ve been pretty astonished by the number of yogis in my classes who bring their phones to their mats, positioning them strategically so that they can sneak a peak at an incoming text message while in uttanasana or upward-facing dog.
It used to be the norm that if you arrived early to a yoga class, you might stretch out in savasana for a few minutes, or do a few easy movements to wake up the body.
These days, it seems that nearly everyone is furiously rushing to squeeze in one last e-mail or catching up on voicemails in those precious quiet moments before the teacher arrives.
I had the experience last week where the front-desk guy at my studio made an announcement that our teacher was running a few minutes late, and instantly, a couple fellow yoginis hoofed it to the back of the room where we keep our bags, whipped out their phones, and went on a digital binge as we waited for the teacher to arrive.
Thankfully, once the teacher was present, all phone-related activity ceased. This isn’t the case everywhere; a friend who teaches at a studio-that-shall-remain-nameless here in Los Angeles has told me that it’s pretty common for students there to text or e-mail in class, and some will even take important calls while hanging out in downward dog.
I’d love to see teachers be more proactive about encouraging students to leave their phones out of sight during classes, but this would only work if teachers were totally committed to staying off their phones, which sadly I have learned may not always be the case.
This past week, I was in a class that was otherwise fantastic, except that when I lifted myself out of pigeon pose to take a little twist, I caught our instructor in the midst of what appeared to be a mini texting session.
When I saw this, I did a double take. Being someone who always likes to give the benefit of the doubt, I first assumed she was maybe searching for a song on her iPhone to play for the conclusion of class. But, it turned out her iPad was being used to control music that day, so there’s no other explanation for her behavior other than that she couldn’t go a full 90 minutes unattached from her phone.
I still like to hope that perhaps she was dealing with some sort of personal emergency and this was a one-time thing (and I’m grateful she chose to do this at a time when she assumed no one would see her), but it has me wondering how many teachers are sneaking glances at their phones once they get the class settled into deep restorative poses.
Ultimately, whether one decides to stay connected (and forfeit being truly present) in yoga class or not is really a matter of personal choice, and technically doesn’t have much bearing on other students so long as the phone’s ringer stays silent and calls are not answered. But, on a more subtle energetic level, I think there are repercussions of technology use in class that do affect everyone.
Namely, part of why we come together to practice in a communal setting is to share in a collective energy of concentration and mindfulness.
If you’ve done yoga as long as I have, you’ve had plenty of experiences where someone in the class decides not to take a single cue from the instructor and instead does his/her own entirely unique practice. While I’m all for people listening to the needs of their own bodies, the bottom line is that it is distracting when one person is radically out of sync with everyone else in the room.
In much the same way, when I can see the guy next to me picking up his phone to check a Facebook alert while we hang out in a pose, I feel that the collective energy a class works to cultivate suffers.
For so many of us, we are connected nearly every moment of our day to some form of technology (or at least have it within arm’s reach) and I’m continually shocked by how many people I know who leave their phones on even when they sleep. A yoga class offers the perfect opportunity to take a 75- or 90-minute technology sabbatical to practice being non-attached to being connected.
There is something extremely liberating about walking into a studio on a hectic day and knowing that I have complete permission to leave all my worries and dramas behind for a few moments; simply enjoying my breath and the movements of my body.
I teach meditation and mindfulness in various settings, including retreats, where we ask participants to unplug for the duration of the program. It’s always amazing to me that the people who initially arrive with the most resistance and anxiety are the ones who express the most gratitude for the opportunity to disconnect.
So, if you’re reading this and think that leaving your phone in your bag during class is a crazy idea, I greatly encourage you to give it a try.
The idea of unplugging is far from new.
For centuries, Buddhist practitioners have engaged in Noble Silence, a time to not only refrain from speaking, but also from other sensory stimulation. In addition to helping to quiet the mind and relax the body, the greatest benefit I have found it offers is an opportunity to practice viveka, the Sanskrit term for “discernment” or “discrimination.”
Whether we choose not to speak, or refrain from checking e-mail for a set period of time, we slowly gather insight into the nature of what is necessary versus unnecessary. Our conditioned mind may tell us we need to wear our phones on our hips, lest we miss replying instantly to an important message, but over time as we create more distance between ourselves and technological devices, we realize that the sense of urgency we once prescribed to was all a choice, a story we had convinced ourselves was true.
We can begin to see that staying uber-connected all the time is in fact not a necessity.
Like the Buddha, the ancient yogic sage Patanjali would support cell-phone free asana classes.
The fifth of his eight limbs of classical yoga described in The Yoga Sutras is pratyahara, or sense withdrawal. He recommends disengaging the senses from all external stimuli as a means to redirect prana, or our life force energy, from scattering in all directions, and instead conserve it internally where we can draw upon it as we go about the various activities of other day, whether in the material or spiritual realms.
While some might see unplugging—especially from work-related communications—as a way of falling behind, it can in fact be beneficial to give the mind a break, and provide sustenance for making it through the rest of the workday without getting completely burnt out.
The practice of unplugging goes hand-in-hand with another valuable spiritual tool: non-reactivity (sometimes referred to as upeksha in Sanskrit).
So many of our electronic communications are knee-jerk responses to messages that trigger us emotionally in some way, whether it is through anger, fear or joy. We have all at some point experienced sender’s remorse after firing off a flippant or unkind text message or e-mail.
When we consciously take time to unplug, we become more comfortable with not responding to communications is purely automatic ways, and may in fact become more inclined to set aside dedicated periods of time when we can respond to the messages that await us, from a place that is truly present and grounded.
While I’ve never seen a studio take an active “cell-phone free” approach, I do hope that studios where texting and tweeting is as common as Ujjayi breathing will find ways to ask students to refrain from engaging in such practices while class is in session. Likewise, with workplace yoga on the rise, it will be extremely beneficial for companies who offer this perk to employees to be understanding that participants in a class will be off-the-grid for a short period of their day.
This wasn’t the case at Facebook, where last summer, a yoga instructor was fired for asking her students not to check their phones during her class, and friends who teach corporate yoga have reported that phone use is especially prevalent in workplace classes.
I’m hopeful that the spike in electronic communications that I’ve seen here in Los Angeles-area studios is only temporary and, that yogis here will take the opportunity to embrace the stillness and joy that technology-free practice can offer.
I’m optimistic that I won’t catch another teacher checking her phone in the middle of class. I’m convinced that the pose known as textasana will not make its way into our standard postural repertoire, and hope that anyone reading this will join me in actively using asana classes as a place to leave all our worries and technology behind.
Meredith Klein is passionate about helping individuals experience radical transformation through the practices of mindfulness and meditation. A student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Meredith teaches at retreats and workshops, in addition to offering one-on-one coaching. Meredith’s teaching is influenced by her studies of yoga, Ayurveda and nutrition, allowing her to help clients create balanced lifestyles that support their practice. As part of her business, pranaful, Meredith creates internationally-inspired, plant-based, organic cuisine for yoga retreats across the country, in addition to offering nourishment education workshops and consultations. It is Meredith’s deepest aspiration to see everyone she works with completely at home and healthy in their own skin, while thriving in the pursuit of passions that electrify their spirits.
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Assistant Ed: Denise Ferris/Ed: Bryonie Wise