Teaching yoga sometimes comes with challenges that can be difficult for teachers to address. One possible challenge is the rogue yoga student, a student who practices not just variations of the poses you’re teaching but very different poses. When I first started to teach yoga, I was confused by these students who would practice on their own while I was teaching. It took time and experience to understand that, when a student goes off the path of my class, it usually has little to do with me and what I am teaching.
My rogue yogi experiences go something like this: I’ve worked a few hours on creating what I think is an amazing class: nailing down my sequencing, finessing my verbal cues, and determining exactly which props I’ll be using for class. Excited about the class I’m about to present, I head into the studio with my sequence, mat, props, and music. The students come in, and I begin to lead them through their practice; their bones settle, their muscles soften, and they get in touch with their breath. Everything is right in the world.
I watch them as they make the slow transition from their backs to all fours for tabletop, and then I see it from the corner of my eye—the rogue student. The class is doing cat and cow, undulating their spines, but the rogue yogi is in downward facing dog with one leg in the air. When I ask my students to lie on their bellies and move into low cobra, a small backbend, my rougi is in dhanurasana (bow pose), a much deeper backbend. At this point, I can still console myself with the thought, At least she is on her belly with the rest of us.
I watch them as they make the slow transition from their backs to all fours for tabletop, and then I see it from the corner of my eye—the rogue student.
But then the rougi’s practice evolves and moves in a completely different direction than my sequence. If the class practices sun salutations, the rougi might do standing balances. While the class is in child’s pose, the rougi might move into warrior II. If I’m cultivating a theme of stillness, then this student is probably moving wildly through his or her practice. Once I’m cooling the class down, the rougi sometimes just keeps on going—full wheel, headstand, shoulderstand, plow. Are they even going to do ? I might wonder.
At this point, my ego starts feeling hurt and then lashes out: Who does she think she is? or Why would he come to class to just do his own thing? Then the insecurities start rolling in: Am I not a good teacher? Why didn’t this student want to participate in the class? Was it not challenging or interesting enough? Was I not clear? If I give in to these thoughts and feelings, I will lose the opportunity to cope effectively with the challenge of the rogue student.
To cope with the insecurities that arise when a student goes rogue, the first thing to remember is that your teaching is probably not at fault. Most likely, these students would have done the same thing whether you were teaching the best class ever or just teaching to get the class over with. Lots of good teachers have had rogue students.
There is often more to do to meet the challenge of rougis than just coping with your own emotional reaction, though. The following tips will help you deal with rougis, whether their deviation from your sequence is merely perplexing (but harmless), distracts other students, or as sometimes can be the case, creates a dangerous classroom environment requiring immediate intervention.
One thing you can try is limiting your use of the phrase “Do what feels right in your body.” Some students may interpret the instruction to “Do what feels right” as permission to do any pose they feel like doing, so instead of using that phrase, make your intentions more clear. For example, if your intention is that your class move into downward facing dog after having just done three sun salutations, you might want to give them a specific alternative to downdog, such as the option to rest in child’s pose, rather than telling them to do what feels right. Otherwise, some students who feel energized instead of in need of a rest might think you mean it’s acceptable to kick up to a handstand because they are “feeling it.”
Once I came to understand that a student’s decision to go rogue doesn’t reflect on my teaching, I found a sufficient level of detachment from the situation to accept the harmless rougis.
Yes, it would be ideal to have as cohesive a group as possible, to have everyone on the same page and working on the same thing, because that creates less temptation for students to look around the room to see what’s going on. If everyone is working on warrior II, there is less head turning than there is when the group is in warrior II and the rogue is in parsvottanasana (pyramid pose). The rougi stands out and thus attracts attention. But at the end of the day, if the worst impact the rougi does is distracting others, then perhaps his or her deviation from the group can actually serve as a message to other students to learn to disengage from their external senses in order to pay complete attention to their own practice. In this case, words of encouragement from the teacher to keep the students’ attention focused can help students to resist the temptation to look at the rougi. If the rougi’s practice is very distracting, you can ask the student to move to the back of the room to reduce his or her potential to distract others.
In these ways, as long as the rougi is not creating a safety risk, a teacher can come to accept the rougi. After all, you will have a classroom full of dedicated yogis who are there to seek your instruction and who find what you have to offer beneficial. Absorb their energy and teach passionately to those students rather than focusing on the lone yogi who does not want to follow your instructions.
That said, some rougis are not harmless but instead create a risk of injury for themselves or other students. When rogue yogis make the class dangerous for themselves or others—or there is something in their practice that creates too much chaos (such as jumping up and down loudly or practicing a noisy pranayama while the rest of the class is relaxing in a restorative asana)—we teachers need to take action to protect our students.
There are certain poses that already carry extra risk; for example, arm balances, deep backbends, and some advanced inversions carry the risk of wrist, shoulder, spine, neck, and head injuries—in contrast to the stubbed toe that might occur while transitioning into mountain pose too quickly. These poses become even riskier to rogue students for two reasons. First, when the class isn’t geared toward those poses, the rougi’s body isn’t prepared for them, increasing the likelihood of injury. Then, since rougis aren’t being guided properly into the pose by a teacher, the risk of injury increases again if they enter the pose unsafely. Further, because rougis are not in sync with the rest of the class, if they fall, they might seriously injure a nearby student, in addition to possibly injuring themselves.
Letting any student behave in this way could encourage others to follow suit.
This increased risk to the rougi and others is unacceptable even if the likelihood of any harm occurring is slim to none. If Kerri Strug (member of the gold-medalist Magnificent Seven 1996 U.S. Olympic gymnast team) attended my yoga class and decided to pop into a handstand on her own initiative, I’d have to tell her to stop. There is no doubt in my mind that Strug could safely perform a handstand without falling and hurting herself or someone else, but that’s not the point. Even a perceived risk can cause other students in the class to become extremely uncomfortable, and letting any student behave in this way could encourage others to follow suit.
I believe a teacher cannot (and should not) be at peace with this increased risk and so will need to find ways to stop any rougi whose actions are potentially dangerous.
If students perform risky inversions, arm balances, or deep backbends, go immediately over to them and ask them to come down, explaining that we haven’t properly prepared the body for that pose or that it is contraindicated within this particular sequence so that they are placing themselves at risk.
If they do not come out of the pose, stop the class until they do. Make the point to everyone that this is not the appropriate time or place for this sort of pose because it is making class hazardous, intimidating, and/or chaotic for other students.
Speak to them after class about the situation. Be clear and honest. Sometimes the students simply aren’t aware of the potential risk they are creating since they do not have the teacher’s perspective on the entire room.
If students continue to put themselves in unsafe positions after that (unlikely, as most listen the first time around), have them step out of class and tell them they cannot continue to attend if they are going to practice risky poses that are not part of your sequence. If the risky poses the rougis have been practicing are poses that you teach in a more advanced class, invite them to come to that class instead. Of course, even if they attend a class in which you cover that handstand they insisted on doing, they may persist in practicing other risky poses when you are not teaching them, but you will now be forewarned about this possibility and thus prepared to keep your eye on them.
For students who don’t seem to understand why their actions are a problem, you can explain to them that it is against studio policy to practice these poses in a public class (assuming that it is) or that it makes you feel uncomfortable to have them practicing risky postures, unguided, while you are responsible for their well-being and that of the rest of the class.
Even though it would be ideal to have every student participate fully in the classes you have carefully planned, that’s not always going to happen. The rogue yogi can be disruptive and at times unnerving for a teacher, but as long as the student isn’t putting anyone in harm’s way and you can still focus on the students who are participating in your sequence, accepting the rougi in the room is a doable feat. With experience and detachment, accepting the harmless rougi becomes easier. If you do have to ask a rougi to stop or leave, it might feel awkward, yes, but by practicing the options above, it will become easier to clearly present and defend your reasons when the need arises.