Cultivate Courtesy in Yoga

Jan 10 2020

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Cultivate Courtesy in Yoga

As the New Year ramps up, it is a great time to re-visit the habits you bring to your yoga practice in a group setting. Some of these might also help your home solo practice to thrive. Maybe you are just starting out in yoga, or returning after a break with your mat. Maybe you come to yoga regularly and have gotten into your “routine” a bit too comfortably. I think this time of year is always a good one to remember a few small points of how to be courteous in yoga – to yourself, your instructor and your fellow students. These are my top 5 reminders of some basic yoga etiquette for you, and I hope they make your group yoga experience an even better one.

1. Arrive on time

Give yourself ample time to get to class. Plan to arrive 10-15 minutes before the actual start time of the class. Arrive in time to get your mat, props and self set up in the room comfortably. Remember you might also need time to: get water, go the bathroom, change clothes, stow your coat/bag/shoes and then set up in the studio.

If you are running late, don’t freak out. Come in quietly and sit against a wall on either side of a door – engage your breathing and follow the intention setting. When everyone starts moving, go and grab your yoga stuff and quietly park yourself in an open spot. It’s a bit distracting to the whole room when someone arrives late and stomps (or even quietly waltzes) through the yoga space to quickly set up their yoga mat after class has already started – nobody can quite settle in. If it feels weird to sit down by a doorway after your entry, wait until after the intention setting and pranayama are finished and then enter the room once the more active part of the class has begun. It’s less distracting if someone arrives and is moving about while everyone else in the room is moving about.

If there is a reason you are running late (like you can only make one class per week but you will never be able to make it on time because of kid pick-up or work obligation), pull your teacher aside at the end of class and explain the situation. Most yoga teachers I know are very compassionate and caring individuals who want to make things work for you while also respecting boundaries. I have so many variations of how to work with whenever you can arrive – we’ll find a solution that gets you your yoga comfortably without disrupting the other students.

2. Settle in (and out)

A part of settling in to your practice might be introducing yourself to a new teacher or asking a question about the upcoming class. Giving yourself time to settle in will offer up the opportunity to talk with a teacher about any injuries or health conditions you might need to modify for during the class. You might also have questions about the practice of yoga in general and this extra time is great for that too. Some students love to take a little extra quiet time sitting or resting on their back to prepare for class. Other students enjoy talking with one another and catching up in community. All of this is possible if you give yourself the time and opportunity to settle in. All too often students come in to practice with plenty of time to settle in, but then they sit and stare at their phones for 10 minutes before yoga (but more on that in #5) and begin their practice more stressed out than when they arrived. Suffice it to say that a few extra moments to speak with your teacher or feel your own space before the practice begins can really enhance your practice.

Settling in is also about being friendly and courteous to your fellow practitioners and to your teacher. Make space for other students if they arrive after you. Scoot your mat over if you have room. Organize your props to make space for additional students. Be willing to move if a student needs to have a wall space or high clearance and you’re in that specific spot. I’ve had adult students get in yelling matches over “their spot” in the room, throw blocks at one another, insult one another and so much more over the years. I’ve also had students call me names, push me, threaten me and insult me. Please practice being kind to one another and your teachers – yoga is a great space for stretching this skillfulness as well as your hamstrings.

When class is over, the settling out of the space happens. Please clean up after yourself. Dirty snot rags? Put them in the garbage bin. Mats? Put in them in the to-clean bin. Props? Place them orderly back on the shelves. If you leave early, consider a time to leave when you can stow your used items quietly. No joke: I’ve had to pick up not only dirty tissues but also used band-aids, piles of skin a student peeled off during class, large hair balls and nail clippings (that is not something to do as part of your settling in, please). I’ve also had students regularly take two of every possible piece of equipment in the studio (including hand weights we would never use in a yoga class) and leave class every time after 15 minutes with a pile of stuff left behind for me to put away. If you need my help putting things away for you for any reason, just ask so I know that extra task is coming.

3. Go with the flow (mostly :))

I am the foremost believer in making your practice work for you. Movement patterns are so individually based that what will work for one person, may not work for another. You’ll notice in my classes that I offer a lot of options and variations because of this, and I am open to modifications galore. So this tip is more about moving with the general flow of a group practice and honoring that. If the class is doing a sun salutation but a student is doing a handstand, it can be really distracting to the whole class.

When I take classes myself, I really enjoy “losing” myself in someone else’s sequence because it’s usually a completely different way than I would normally practice. I’ll modify around my injuries or personal movement quirks, but I’ll stick with the basic game plan. This allows me (and you if you find yourself in this situation) to learn new pathways of practice. A bridge could be a wheel or vice versa (they’re both backends). A dolphin pose could sub for a forearm balance pose or vice versa (they’re both inversions). It feels respectful of myself to care for what I need by modifying, but it also feels respectful to the wisdom of the teacher I’m taking with to explore what they are actually teaching through their sequence. And when I need to modify outside of that, I ask what they might recommend to help me with what I’m feeling or experiencing – because I genuinely want to co-create my experience with my teachers (and the students who come to class).

You can ask me any time during any class to help with modifications to help suit what you are looking for in your practice and I will weave them in for you. It’s one of my passions to meet you wherever you are at and to figure out what works. If you feel, on any given day, like you just want to do whatever you want, it might be a good day for a home practice, or a good time to tell your teacher you want to do your own thing and head to a spot in the room where that won’t distract the rest of the class.

4. Stay for savasana

The quiet period at the end of a physical yoga practice is so important (and so wonderful). Called savasana, this long relaxation period is like a marinating time for the gifts of the session. It invites your body, mind, emotional state, energy level and spirit to soak in the effects of the class. It also gives you a restful transition period from the work of the practice to whatever is coming next in your life. Leaving without savasana can be a bit of a jarring transition for your system post-practice.

If you know you need to leave early, just stop, drop and savasana 6 minutes or so before you have to leave. Your body and mind will thank you.

If you find yourself resistant to lying down in savasana or you don’t like to close your eyes, experiment with a supported or upright shape, or taking savasana with your eyes gently open and looking at a specific point. Savasana should be where you feel comfortable, and that can be an infinite number of shapes.

I really thought that savasana was a waste of time when I first started yoga – and you might be feeling that way too. I just wanted to go, go, go. I couldn’t find anything useful in lying around on the ground. It took me a lot time of exploring those feelings as my savasana. Whatever arises for you at the end of a practice, perhaps your savasana is simply giving yourself time to feel and process what is coming up for you.

5. Make boundaries with your tech

I’ve been teaching for 18 years, and the smartphone conundrum gets worse and worse every year. Just this week I’ve had students texting during poses, making purchases on their phones during pranayama, talking into their smartwatches during class, answering phone calls during savasana, leaving their alerts on full blast and so much more. All of this in locations where mobile phones are not even technically allowed in the studios at all. When I ask students to put their phones aside, I often get a lot of attitude (and some hate mail in my social media inboxes).

My last tip is actually a dare. I dare you to leave your phone outside of the yoga studio locked up somewhere far from you. I dare you to not look at your phone for 20 minutes before your practice and another 20 minutes after your practice. I dare you to experience the anxiety that arises when you don’t have access to your phone and all its bells and whistles, and to breathe through those feelings. Staring at a screen, scrolling through emails and social media feeds has proven, detrimental effects on attention span, brain-wave changes, nervous system stimulation and sleep patterns. Distancing yourself from your mobile phone may be one of the best things you can do for your mental well-being and for experiencing the gifts of your yoga practice more fully.

Here’s to a bit more courteous and conscious habits in your practice in 2020!