Generally, yoga classes are predictable and constant. As a teacher, I find yoga students are mostly amiable and open to instruction, whether they are new to the practice, or I am the new instructor to an established class. Occasionally, however, situations arise in class that are challenging to us as teachers, and we must gracefully navigate the interference to insure a quality practice for the whole.
Common Challenges With Yoga Teaching
Here, I offer you some common disruptions to a yoga practice, and techniques for keeping your sequence, students, and focus undisturbed.
1. Students Who Come Late or Leave Early
Sh!t happens: traffic, family issues, deadlines at work, a missed morning alarm clock… While the reasons may vary, tardiness is an occurrence that you can prepare for. Studio protocol varies. Some studios lock the door 15 minutes after class has begun. Some, like group exercise classes at a health club, have an open door policy. Once a late student has entered the asana room, it is the responsibility of the teacher to include them into the practice as smoothly as possible.
Lets run a few scenarios: You are guiding your opening mediation. All eyes are closed, and the room is quiet and still. A late student arrives with a rolled mat, a large bag, and a frazzled demeanor. Oftentimes, the late student is unaware of their disruptive effect on the class, and will noisily drop their bag, loudly walk to an open spot, and thwack down their mat. Before this can happen, silently go to them and indicate for the bag to be set down by the door, which eliminates the unnecessary sounds. Guide them to an open spot in the room, and gently take their rolled up mat into your hands, and set it down on the floor. Ask the student to quietly sit down, and wait to unroll the mat until movement begins. To anticipate late comers of this sort alleviates unnecessary disruption, and sets a standard for entering the asana space with awareness.
Another instance: It is twenty minutes into class and the studio door is locked. You are demonstrating Sun Salutes, and all of your students watching your instruction. A latecomer arrives, tries the door to no avail, and begins knocking loudly. Despite the interruption, you are beholden to class in progress. You are building their heart rate and establishing your pacing and flow. To stop your instruction, open the door, and guide the student into the asana room at this point is to prioritize the latecomer over the practice already in session. In this situation, it is best to leave the door locked, and continue teaching yoga. If your studio has a policy of locking the door, avoid logistical issues with a notice stating the door is locked so many minutes after class has begun. Honoring the class schedule and the sanctity of the practice space by consistently locking the door at the specified time will teach your students timeliness and responsibility. In an alternate situation, with an unlocked door, the late student can enter and jump into the practice with little guidance. In this case, carry on with instruction, bringing as little attention to latecomer as possible.
After class, you can connect with your students and give them instruction on how they can gracefully enter the class late. Advise them to turn their phone off, put their keys away, take off their shoes, and open their mat all prior to entering the asana room. Encourage them to walk softly and find the nearest open space to practice. With guidance, even chronically late students can enter the asana space with little disruption, and receive the benefits of the practice.
On the flip side, students can abruptly pack up their belongings and leave the class before it’s done. Though the reasons vary, generally a student will let you know if they have to leave early. Usually this student will sit by the door, in anticipation of their departure. Encourage your student to sit and take five slow meditative breathes before they leave to properly conclude their practice. The best time to leave the practice early is just after asana, but prior to pranayama and mediation. Avoid situations where students leave during shavasana. Any disturbance in at this point in the practice is unsettling. If you have had this experience before, it is acceptable to let your entire class know that if they need to leave, do so before the lights are dimmed. This sets a standard for early departures in the future.
2. Attention Seeking Behaviors
Some students need more of your attention in class than others. New students may require additional instruction, injuries may need extra modifications, and misalignments need to be corrected. These conditions are normal to any class, and highlight your versatility as an instructor. However, there are students who regularly draw attention to themselves. Identifying attention seeking behaviors, or high needs students, will help you to conserve your energy and maintain the focus of your class. Though attention seeking behaviors vary, certain attributes can be addressed in order to maintain harmony and flow in your practice.
Some attention seeking behaviors present themselves easily. There is the student who talks during class, either to you, or to other students. To respond to this student encourages on-going dialogue. To allow for conversation among your students during class is a distraction to others. In response, you can offer the direction of “just breathe,” to the class as a whole, or discreetly remind the talkative student(s) to focus on their ujjayi. There is the student who exaggerates and dramatizes their poses and transitions, adding extra movement or flair that draws the attention of other students. As a teacher, pay no mind to their personal space. What draws your focus will also draw your students’ focus. In time, you can build your relationship with this student, and refine their transitions and postures as their trust in you deepens. There is the student who displays their discomfort as a call for attention. This may take the form of groans, moans, sighs, and vocal releases in postures they have aversion to. Again, direct the class as a whole to breathe in and out through their nose. In the case of excessive sounds, remind everyone that asana gets easier with practice and to “stay with it” for however many breaths remain in that pose. Finally, for the student who is restless or excessively coughing during shavasana, you can show them how to use blankets or bolsters to prop themselves up, elevating their chest for additional comfort. Sometimes, a small, individualized technique is enough for a student to feel special, which alleviates their need to seek out further attention.
My policy as a teacher is to treat all students equally, without focusing attention on one student more than another. Recognize the variance of one student receiving more assistance than others in terms of adjustments, instruction, or interaction. From there, assess if you are prompting the additional attention, or if the student is. For example, adjusting the same student several times during class, whereas others are not adjusted at all, creates imbalance among your students. The student receiving the adjustments may feel singled out, while the other students may feel ignored. Conversely, a high-needs student may feel entitled to personalized attention, and may even keep you after class with questions if you did not focus on them personally during class. If this happens regularly, take advantage of the opportunity to suggest private lessons. In this way, you can assert professional boundaries and your attention seeking student will benefit from the one-on-one instruction.
Ultimately, you, as the teacher, set the tone and focus for your class. If an occurrence distracts you, it will distract your class. If you are prepared for the unexpected, unperturbed, your students will be as well. If you giggle when a student passes gas, your class will giggle with you. If you carry on like nothing happened, no one will be the wiser. The truth is, yoga classes are not a stage for us as teachers, nor should they be focused on any one student. The essence of teaching yoga is to share practice of yoga, regardless of the individual players. Each student is on his or her unique developmental path, and we, as teachers, are there to simply guide them through an unadulterated and consistent practice. As teachers, we maintain the sanctity of the asana space and our sequences so that the yoga can impress itself upon our students with as little interference as possible. Challenging situations will arise in your classes, and each will offer you the opportunity for introspection, growth, and refinement of your teaching skills.