Taking the Seat of the Student: Can Teachers Allow Themselves to Be Students? ~ Julie Dohrman

Via Julie Dohrman
on Sep 2, 2013
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yoga teacher

A student walks into the classroom unassumingly and sets up her mat in the back.

She’s familiar to me. I know her because she’s a well-known yoga instructor with national fame. She’s headlined all the major festivals and conferences, been on covers of yoga magazines and offers whisks of yoga-advice on social media. She sets up, closes her eyes while I begin and offer the path of today’s class. Eyes closed, I offer a quiet centering, surrounding the theme. We Om. I cue down dog.

Soon thereafter, this student picks up her phone, which I realize she has tried to carefully hide behind a block.

I think:

“What an amazing picture that would make, a student texting in class.”

I’m instantly reminded of the delightful Sarah Court and her Yoga Thugs videos outing such outrageous yoga class blunders. This wasn’t just a student; this was a teacher as student texting in class.

Yoga-teacher-as-student continues to receive and send texts in class. She manages to follow along in class though and I hope, takes a couple of good ujjayi breaths along the way. There was a vibe created that she was not really present, separated somehow by a lack of full attention to class. Our class ends, she thanks me and laughing it off, apologizes for texting with the excuse of trying to help some out-of-town friends meet up with her. I’m mixed on whether that’s a good enough excuse but leaning on “it’s not.” I am left really pondering, teacher, how could you do that? Be that student in class, texting?

Cut to another well known yoga-teacher-as-student months later, who also sets up unassumingly in the back. This teacher doesn’t follow along and instead does her own thing throughout class, adding on to certain poses or even doing a different pose altogether. This also set up a dynamic of keeping separate from the class, with more of an “I don’t need to hear your instruction” type of presence.

Hmm, I think:

“If you have particular needs today physically/energetically/spiritually and I assume, being the experienced teacher that you are, you know how to meet these needs. Then why are you in a public class willfully?”

I’ve seen this with local teachers, as well as those with larger fame.

I’m not impervious to such things and at times, I make exceptions to add a little something to a pose while in class. As often as possible, I try to be conscious of how it may affect those around me. As a teacher of teachers, one of the first things I teach my trainees is the beauty, benefit and necessity of remaining a student, even though they are learning to take the “seat of the teacher” with dignity, confidence and humility.

It’s the basic teaching of “beginners mind” and the humbling component of becoming a leader and guide to others.

Even as a teacher, we don’t know everything—the reality of what’s happening at any given time is so vast. Knowing that I also know there are a ton of different variables involved in why teachers—or any student for that matter—do their own thing in class.

As a teacher, taking a class is a sacred, personal and gifted time. Oh, to have time to actually take class!  Besides just practicing, it’s a chance to hang up the teacher/leader hat and simply allow yourself to be led. Allowing yourself to be told what to do, trusting that the teacher—essentially a peer—will guide you well.

Why aren’t more teachers able to do that? I want to start this important conversation.

I’ve witnessed and experienced other examples where teachers, as students, “un-seat” the teacher and chime in, uninvited, to offer teaching or sequencing suggestions while a peer is teaching. I am open minded, I can hear a suggestion with no problem, but why do this to a peer in the middle of his/her class? It creates subtle doubt in the teacher, sets up a power play between teachers and more importantly, sets a potential tone of distrust from the students toward the teacher leading the class. Perhaps a private chat after class would suffice.

Why is it so difficult sometimes for teachers to just be students?

Photo: Ben Gerstein
Photo: Ben Gerstein

When it comes to phones in class, there are also variables and exceptions. I teach a lot in Brooklyn, a haven for families and new moms. Most of them respectfully let me know before class that they have the phone nearby because they hired a new babysitter or they are staying alert with a sick or elderly parent/relative they’re dealing with. I’ve even had a student say before class they’re waiting to hear back about an interview and it was time sensitive.

Totally respect and understandable.

They agree to take the call outside of class. I’ve toured parts of Asia to teach and an alarming number of students text during class. For whatever the reason it’s accepted there, it’s not really accepted here to Instagram, Facebook, Tweet or chat during class. There are times where it is necessary—and I understand that.

Practice is sacred time to connect inside and cultivate greater awareness altogether. 

To me, it’s a chosen time to unplug from devices, responsibilities and be with yourself and others on the path for a mere 90 minutes.

I also acknowledge there are many variables surrounding a student bypassing teachers’ instructions and doing their own thing in class. I’m referring to that student who takes the advanced form of the pose automatically, doesn’t wait for the teacher to finish his/her instructions explaining what to work on in the pose or simply does a different pose altogether.

Barring a need to modify due to injury, a student who rushes into an advanced form or ignores the use of props to teach a particular action borders on disrespectful. More importantly, these students are missing the link of yoga’s message:

“To align with what’s being offered—especially if you chose that offering by stepping into class.”

Bottom line, it is a question of respect—for the teacher, the class and yoga as a whole. In my book, fellow teachers are peers regardless of the style, especially seasoned teachers. As a teacher, living a lifestyle steeped in awareness (supposedly,) you should not just know better, but do better. I was always taught that the best teachers are the best students. If you show up to take a fellow teacher’s class, you’re there to be led in and through the path they’re offering that day and to have your experience of it.

Even with a newer teacher, if I am in his/her class, I keep “beginners mind” and I usually learn a new way to teach a particular action or different use of a prop and always hear a wider perspective of the practice.

Part of the practice of yoga is empowered embodiment. However, if you don’t get what you want, it’s not an excuse to just do what you want instead. I think teachers of all people should know this and practice it while taking the seat of student. When the teacher-as-student creates division in class it also disrupts another valuable gift of group practice and that is creating energetic community.

A regular student and good friend of mine offered the perspective that a balanced yoga classroom is similar to a circuit board, with each person aligned, yet separately charging to create a stronger overall charge. This is part of what bonds people in communities, aside from satsang, pot-lucks and other such gatherings.

Some students innocently do their own thing because they practice in a variety of places where teachers are just guiding and giving options (“maybe you’ll want to do this”) whereas others actually teach actions, methodology and how to do poses. I understand that style of teaching, but I fall in to the second category. I can suss out those students and I always kindly invite them to stay with the class and instructions and that there’s a reason I’m teaching it in this way.

I’ve examined another fascinating thing that happens in the class when students do what they want—aside from breaking the circuit board of energetic connection and they usually don’t realize it. Other students near them get confused into thinking they’re doing something wrong, in addition to distracting the teacher. In a mixed level class you commonly have a beginner student next to a more intermediate or advanced student.

The beginner student probably isn’t ready physically to take an advanced form of the pose, but also energetically with prana. 9 out of ten times, if they see someone next to them doing it, they’ll try to follow. It could be that as a less experienced practitioner, they haven’t developed the awareness to move in stages and steps of opening and they impatiently rush ahead. They may be having anava mala flare ups of

“I suck at this and if I don’t do that more advanced pose, everyone will think I suck more.”

Sometimes it’s from an ego that wants to show off a bit. They’re all present in a class and the teacher patiently asks students to slow down to learn.

Usually beginning practitioners are simply and innocently eager, and don’t want to fall behind pacing. They’ll scramble to keep up simply because that’s what they’re working on; endurance and balancing breath and movement. I don’t think there’s intentional disrespect in these cases with experienced or beginner students, but it’s a deep opportunity for them to learn, slow down and listen.

And maybe there’s no intentional division either when an experienced yoga teacher does this stuff too. But I think teachers should know the difference between a teacher who guides and a teacher who teaches; if they are in that latter class, honor and respect the seat of the teacher.

Every teacher should be a great student.

Every teacher should also know what they need that day, and choose accordingly how and where to get it. If none of this can be done, then maybe “home/self practice” is the answer. Yoga teachers should—of all people in class—be an example of studentship.

So let’s have a dialogue:

What kind of student is your favorite teacher?

Teachers, how do you respond to students or teachers who do their own thing in your class?

Teachers, can you take a class and fully take the seat of the student?

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Assistant Editor: Gabiela Magana/Editor: Sara Crolick


About Julie Dohrman

Julie Dohrman, is one of New York’s most sought after yoga teachers for her intelligent, spirited and clear classes. Known for inspiring classes filled with insight from deep studies, Julie creates an environment where everyone can connect the practice of yoga to the pathway of personal growth. Her experience teaching for the past 12 years has been filled with immense gratitude and a heightened commitment to living yoga more fully every day. Julie lives in Brooklyn teaching public classes, workshops and therapeutics and runs 200 hour Teacher Training under her school Shaktiyoga New York.


15 Responses to “Taking the Seat of the Student: Can Teachers Allow Themselves to Be Students? ~ Julie Dohrman”

  1. Tom says:

    NICE, Julie! I can so relate as a teacher and student. To me, the truly advanced students and beginners are the easiest to teach. It’s not about asana ability. Some intermediate students (including teachers), however, can be impossible. It’s like yoga adolescence. I’m guilty of over-modifying as a student, so I try and stay in the rear of the class. As a teacher it’s frustrating, but once I understand they’re not cooperating, it’s my practice to let it go.

    Meanwhile, you’ve inspired me to be a better student, and thank you for teaching me how to teach. I love it!!!

  2. befunknote says:

    Honestly I get annoyed if I even hear someone's phone vibrate during class. I can not imagine someone texting or taking a call during class. It's disrespectful. If it's so important don't come to class. My teacher would probably scold someone who did that and i'm grateful for that. How can you be present and actually practicing yoga if you're thinking about your phone?? It's complete nonsense.

  3. Melanie says:

    Love this article, and it is a topic my husband I speak of often. Personally, I really like taking class as the student, being in the back and allowing myself to be led. Just the other day, I taught a class at Lululemon, and some local teachers from another studio participated. I was really caught off guard by their behavior and lack of studentship, not paying attention to what was being taught, etc. I am perplexed as to why one would go to a class and have no interest in being a part of the class. Why not just do your own practice at home? As it was not my studio, I just chose to ignore it.

  4. yogateachernyc says:

    as both a teacher and a student i totally agree with everything you say here. it is completely disrespectful for people to either do their own thing or have their phone out and watch it as class goes on. as a teacher, i tell those students to leave, no matter who they are or who they think they are. if they are doing their own thing i call them out. every time. i have no problem with that. i find that if people don't like it they dont come back to my class and that is just fine with me. as a student if i find myself next to someone doing their own thing it is an opportunity to focus myself. and if they are texting or using their phone i usually say something. i don't care. there is no place where this is acceptable behavior. work, personal, spin class or yoga class. what is happening to people in the world today?? good article thanks

  5. Julie says:

    Hi Tom,
    I love your perspective on "letting it go". That definitely becomes my practice as well. I even feel a little conundrum involving letting people have their freedom in practice, vs feeling the boundary when its divisive, and distracting. I invite these students in, and if they refuse, I leave them alone. Ignoring students is against my grain as a teacher, and I still keep up with them if I see they need an adjustment. It's still a good idea to teach students to slow down and listen though!
    Thanks for the feedback Tom,

  6. Julie says:

    Hey befunknote…
    My thoughts exactly! If its so important, don't come to class. Home practice is the answer.

  7. Julie says:

    Yes Melanie–to me, the answer is home practice for teachers who, for whatever the vast reasons, can't be a student in class.
    Years ago I was 'scolded' by a teacher for chatting and laughing during practice. While it was embarrassing, and I was pissed, years later I see how annoying and distracting it must have been. Lesson learned. I respect the seat of the teacher.

  8. Julie says:

    Hey fellow NYC yoga teacher,
    I admire your righteous commitment to listening during class. I wrote this article with a similar commitment in mind and heart. You're setting the example in class when you practice and follow the teacher.
    Another commenter on Facebook acknowledged that even if the teacher as student doesn't agree with the sequencing or technique being taught, they follow along and maybe modify in small ways. It's about respect, and even there, sets an example of studentship.
    Great comment, and thank you for joining in–

  9. Ellen says:

    I get the point of your article. I am both student and teacher. I find in a class, I almost always learn something new in practice. Sometimes i get caught up in the “right.” way to teach or practice, and have to remind myself that there are many right ways. I sometimes have critical/ competitive thoughts about other teachers. i try not to act on any of these thoughts. i remind myself that as a teacher i can still ask the many questions i have. i want to learn/ grow and i value collaboration. Perhaps I have not had the students you have had, so perhaps this is why your article causes me to wonder why it seems you want to have such control over the students. i have not had students who use phones during class, and when students have “done their own thing” it has not been to a degree that disrupts the energetic flow of my offering (their flow hasn’t been so radically different to throw me or other students off course). I did have a student teacher instruct a line in class over me when i stumbled over some words once… that was very strange. I do not know what the students thought, but i felt annoyed and distracted. So I do agree, let others be in the teachers seat when they are the teacher. As a teacher, I was trained to respect each practitioners process as their own yoga. I think this is a good guide for teachers (me) in classes as well. Respect each teachers process and practice. I value teaching and guiding in the methodical way you described, but in the end, each student chooses what to do with their body. Isnt that the point? I can integrate their choices into the class so that my teaching reflects their movement. It shows I am paying attention to what is in the room. I can encourage students to join and support each other in breath and synchronized movement ( that may foster empathy- a good reason to come/ go to a class). I can even describe the stages of development that show up in yoga students! I agree with your message. I think respect is important & awareness is important. And, I think we can be students and teachers in a way that supports ( our own and others ) growth from practice. I suggest that there is a reason the yoga students who do their own thIng in class are there. Have you asked them? I am a better student/ teacher when i am curious.. And, as teachers we need to set those boundaries. in my classes I want to spark freedom and joy within the structure. That means its my job to show what the structure is. That is what you did here in your article!

  10. Kirstie says:

    As yoga teacher and student, I find it so important to leave our personal lives outside the studio. As a mom and with all my responsibilities it is a time to be quiet and forget about phone calls, obligations etc. So, hats off to you Julie for calling this out.

    One of my yoga teachers said "Every teacher has a gem to teach us." I always try to respect the teacher and look for the gift in the gem when I have the rare opportunity to be a student. Namaste.

  11. Anon says:

    I recently had a somewhat well known teacher attend my class and she proceeded to chat with her friend on and off for the entire 90 minutes. I was so taken aback by it that I honestly didn't know how to react. It really threw me off of my center for the class and was a deep learning experience for me. She also started to instruct her friend at one point after I had given very specific instruction on what we were about to do. I was floored. It is so important for us to check our behavior both as students and as teachers when we walk into the yoga space. I felt super disrespected by this and was baffled when she came up after class, hugged me and said how great the class was. Really?!

  12. julie says:

    Hi Ellen,
    I appreciate you joining the conversation with such clear, defined thoughts.

    I'm also grateful you brought up the notion of control – something I deeply ponder and examine about myself when it comes to this topic. There is a fine line though between freedom with no boundaries, and freedom fully expressed within boundaries. As teachers, we create those boundaries through thoughtful sequencing, topics of contemplation, alignment cues, adjustments, etc.

    I contemplate this: when I'm teaching, when is it the student's who need to soften and listen, and when is it me that needs to soften and listen to them? It's always both, I know. But at times, it's not. We're talking about very quick moments that need to be processed quickly, and then acted upon — or not! Am I just being controlling? Or is the student's moving outside the boundary of what I'm teaching throwing off the energy of the room that is building power/charge? Or, maybe that student is inspiring the next move, the next avenue for the entire class to shift upward, even if it means shifting downward (like, they take a childs pose!).
    What I'm doing more in classes is adding more free-flow options, so students that want to go deeper, can.
    Yes, I talk to students regarding 'doing their own thing', and again, huge variables.
    It boils down to the students being free to choose which classes to attend, and which teachers will offer them what they're seeking that day. I embrace this freedom, and if I do not offer students what they seek, they will find it elsewhere.

    The bigger topic to me is about teachers attending classes and un-seating the teacher in the ways I mentioned. Happy to hear from this post that in general, teachers agree to the respectful nature of holding the seat for a peer, and that public class practice is a gift.
    Great dialog – thank you.

  13. julie says:

    Hi anon…
    yuk. And confusing. Dripping with strange passive-aggression, and definitely a learning experience. It's happened to me too.
    Do you think that if it happens again, with any teacher, you'll be able to kindly and directly say something? Kindness breeds awareness, and you could spark an awareness that wasn't there before. Call 'em out, in other words, in a direct way.
    Like I said, I was that teacher chatting in class also, called out afterwards. It woke me up!
    Wake 'em up!
    thanks for commenting,

  14. Martha says:

    I am in teacher training right now, and a life long student. I find it distracting if students totally do their own thing in class, totally ignoring the teacher. Of course, I have had to modify poses, or use props when someone else might not need it, but I always keep to the teacher's script while honoring my body. (Who among us hasn't needed to take a child's pose during a class?) I think unless there's a really good reason to keep a phone nearby they should be banned. I don't know how I'd react to the teacher in the room who was so disrespectful. But a friend of mine who's also a teacher suggested announcing her presence to the class and requesting her to come up and lead a sequence. That might do the trick!

  15. Anon says:

    Hi Julie,

    Yes, I definitely will be saying something next time if I ever have an experience like that in my class again. I replayed it a lot in my mind and I feel I need to pass on the awareness, as you mentioned, and also assert myself. I felt pretty weak in the moment and don't want to let that happen again. Thanks for this article. So important.