I’ve been practicing yoga about twenty-one years. I’m an old hat.
I’ve been to lots of classes – hundreds. And I’ve seen all kinds of behaviors from students and teachers alike!
But two of the worst behaviors I’ve seen, I re-experienced rather recently:
Snobbery and exclusion.
Yes, I attended a class where the instructor and the regulars didn’t make eye contact, ignored my presence, and rebuffed my general friendliness.
As practiced as I am – and as good as I am at finding joy on the mat – I left feeling dispirited and unwelcome.
Here’s the thing!
Social engagements are tricky. What someone might experience as snobbery from a class regular could be a regular who is shy, uncomfortable with new people – that kind of thing. So even with my recent unsavory experience, I’m keeping an open mind. Gee I sure FELT unwelcomed, but perhaps I misread the vibe.
But yes – it goes without saying there ARE people – including instructors – who are simply unwelcoming. They’re not likely to be reading this post and they’re not likely wanting to change.
I’m not here trying to change THEM.
I’m trying to help US build a better yoga community!
So here are some actions we can take to make sure we aren’t a yoga “mean girl” (/boy/genderqueer person, etc).
Learn about the specific purpose (and/or level) of the class.
Even terms like “beginner”, “intermediate” and “advanced” are hard for a new practitioner to interpret. So as a class regular, your job is to understand and, when you represent the class (for instance, sharing on social media) to describe the class accurately.
If you’re a student in a class, take note of the class itself – which starts with the instructor. What is the instructor’s vibe, attitude? Are they hushed and reverent? Are they feathery and New Agey? Are they athletic and aggressive? Are they strong, gorgeous, witty, urbane and playful? (that last one’s me!)
As an example: my Sunday group class is listed as “for all bodies”. This means ALL bodies are welcome as I can accommodate anyone who shows up with a pulse. (And if I have trouble, you know I will research and do better next time!). So for instance in my class if a student can’t or doesn’t want to attempt an asana, I include them verbally, with optional instruction, and I include them physically by mirroring their body.
Take note of the class accommodations and setting. Is the environment a calm one (private and peaceful), or a fairly active one (say, in a gym)? Are yoga props not only used but encouraged? Does the instructor have a plan – or do they wing it? Is the class an active, strengthening one – or more down-regulating? Does the class include meditations, chanting, or readings?
The sooner you as a student begin to pay attention to the different types of yoga classes, the better you can represent and (if need be) orient new attendees.
Remember: new people are intimidated.
If you’ve been practicing a while you probably know that yoga is not all that intimidating. The teacher could be up front in some kind of obscenely difficult one-finger handstand wearing posh yoga fashion and heck who gives a shit, you’re allowed to chill out in child’s pose in your tattered sweatpants. (If you’ve learned this lesson… you’ve mastered a BIG part of yoga!)
But… remember, newbies have probably been conditioned their whole lives to compare: to think of someone else as “better” or “more fit” or “advanced”.
In fact newbies – and not-so-newbies – are often straining to copy an instructor’s shape rather than really FEEL into the asana. I have to work to deprogram this behavior, all the time! And I am sad to say some people never stop straining – even in yoga class. It’s a sad reality.
Now realistically, we can’t change fitspo attitudes in a single hour together – no matter how welcoming we are and no matter what we say. But we can stay mindful that there are some in the room who are experiencing frustration, intimidation, confusion – even shame. Hold space for them by BEING on your mat and doing your best to stay connected to your breath and body, moment by moment.
After your first class with a new instructor or location you are now charged to be a greeter. When new people show up – simply look at them and say, “Hello!” That’s it. That’s the job.
It makes a huge difference!
If you can: remember names – and use them.
I try VERY hard to remember names, and I try to use them. Greeting a student with “It’s good to see you, Clark” on his second class – it makes a huge impression. I know EXACTLY how it feels to have been noticed, and named, and welcomed. It’s wonderful.
Smiling works too, if you’re feeling it. Don’t force a smile but if you find one arriving – let it fly!
Avoid cliqueish behavior.
This is something we should remind ourselves of regularly.
It is natural that as we come to know one another we look forward to seeing one another weekly (or daily, or whatever). It can be REALLY easy for the student regular AND the instructor to lapse into social chit-chat at the beginning of class, either vivacious or heated or animated or simply, in-depth in some way not accessible to a new person. This is NATURAL and this means we are feeling connected to one another.
However I guarantee that ninety percent of new attendees won’t appreciate this. If they walk in and feel like everyone knows eachother already (even if that’s not true), this can create a chilling effect.
Remember this too at the end of class: gently returning to social conversation is fine. But cannonballing into an animated, complex or highly-involved insider discussion is less than welcoming for new students.
Yoga is a social activity but it’s not a social club. Engage cautiously with studios and instructors that try to create a social club over a welcoming and grounded yoga practice.
Most important: invest in your own practice
Are YOU still comparing, pushing yourself, trying to get “fit” or get toned abs or lose weight on the mat?
Let’s dismantle that!
Listen I’m not the boss but I can tell you: all the above, THAT’S NOT YOGA.
What is yoga? Well I am neither qualified nor educated enough to give you a definitive answer (spoiler alert: no single human being could!) – BUT I can tell you one thing: yoga isn’t about abs, fitness, mastering a cool pose and taking a slick picture. One thing yoga IS about is unifying breath and body, learning to love and cherish the breath and body, finding more stability and peace, and finding a lot more playfulness and joy. Life is very very beautiful and a dedicated yoga practice can help you find this.
So invest in your OWN practice. Find that breath, and body, and joy and playfulness! If you want other people to invest in yoga, make sure you’re investing your best self.
Community comes and goes, waxes and wanes. If you find yourself fortunate to have a good leader, instructor or student – do your part to create an inclusive community.
You’ll miss it if it disappears!