What Can We Learn From Students Who Do Their Own Thing in Class?

Teaching yoga is full of surprises.

Last month I was subbing for an all-levels class at a studio where I don’t normally teach. The class was already crowded when I arrived, and I placed myself near the front of the room. A student began to set herself up next to me with the short end of her mat all the way up against the wall. I felt uncomfortable with her being partially behind me so assured her that the room wouldn’t get that crowded and she could certainly move back a little. She replied (a little rudely, I felt) that she preferred to stay where she was. I took a breath, felt my feet on the ground, and said, “I’d love to be able to fully see your practice today.” She insisted that she needed to use the wall. My heart started pounding from the surprise of the whole encounter. I also felt bad because this woman probably had difficulties with balance and I had put her on the spot.

Aware of the style of the teacher for whom I was subbing that day, I had prepared a vigorous vinyasa krama. As I guided the students through the challenging flow and tried to take in who needed what, I noticed that, in the middle of some warrior poses, the student I had assumed to be balance-challenged was throwing herself up into handstands and forearm stands. To my mind the poses were sloppy and irrelevant, but they didn’t actually endanger her or anyone else. And as a guest teacher I didn’t know the studio’s guidelines regarding reining students in. So, much as I wanted to, I didn’t feel I could ask her to stop. Besides, I was pretty busy.

I recounted this incident to my friend Jennifer Brilliant, who is also my teaching mentor. I suppose I was critical of the student for not following my instructions and even of the studio that (apparently) allowed this permissive culture to flourish. Jennifer runs a pretty tight ship at her own studio, so I felt confident of total agreement. Instead she paused and suggested: “That would have been a great moment to look at your own assumptions and judgments, and your discomfort with not being fully in control.” This was powerful feedback. The reminder to bring mindfulness to my own samskaras (habit patterns) revealed that there was more to investigate than I had originally realized.

A few weeks later I shared the same story at a workshop I led for teachers called Modifications and the Art of Teaching All Levels. As I had hoped, my students had a lot to say. Many had had similar experiences, one on her very first day of teaching. We explored the incident from the teacher’s point of view (that it’s off-putting!) and from the point of view of the other students in the room (distracting!). Many questions arose. For example: When is a student modifying with awareness to their own needs and when are they simply undisciplined? What is our role as holders of the space? My own teacher training had included learning polite but firm ways to intervene, as many traditions and studios would certainly not tolerate this potentially distracting “anything goes” behavior.

When is a student modifying with awareness to their own needs and when are they simply undisciplined? What is our role as holders of the space?

After we all got excited and a little self-righteous, I asked the group to consider some other perspectives. What if those ferocious arm balances were that yogi’s best effort to work with a deeply seated fear? And was it possible that the wild handstander was actually not a distraction, but a gift: an opportunity for everyone in the room (including the teacher) to bring attention to their own judgments and desire to control, to notice how easy it is for our concentration to be thrown?

After all, we never practice in a perfect environment. There are countless potential irritants—not just the other practitioners, but the lighting, the fans, the music, the sequence, even our own bodies. Yet isn’t that exactly the work that teaches us to take our practice off the mat? If you can tolerate your irritation with the person on the mat next door, maybe you can also develop new tools to navigate your road (or subway) rage on the way home?

I continue to think about what happened that day, but I no longer draw easy conclusions.

As teachers, our mindfulness practice must include attention to our assumptions and judgments about our students. There is so much we cannot know. And in those moments when a student decides to do something other than what we have instructed, rather than judging their choice we might consider a modification within ourselves—of our plans, our expectations, and our own samskaras.

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Susan Kraft

Susan Kraft

Susan Kraft is an OM Yoga certified teacher at the 500 hour level. As a former dancer, she has also spent a lifetime involved with both creative and therapeutic movement practices, from the Alexander... Read more>>