Considerations for Group Yoga Class
Reposted with permission by Domonick Wegesin, The Opener
Last week, the New York Times posted an article about parenting entitled, “Which Is Better, Rewards or Punishments? Neither” In the article, the author described the downside of using punishment in an attempt to shape children’s behavior since “punishments tend to escalate conflict and shut down learning. They elicit a fight or flight response, which means that sophisticated thinking in the frontal cortex goes dark and basic defense mechanisms kick in”.
However, she also points out that reward-use has its pitfalls. Children tend to acclimate to rewards over time and end up wanting more reward for the same work, or want rewards for doing anything, even basics like making their beds or doing their homework. Further, “psychologists have suggested that rewards can decrease our natural motivation and enjoyment…and are associated with lowering creativity”.
Instead, the author highlights the use of corrections that assume that kids naturally have good intentions, are empathetic and want to be team players. Helping them understand the rationale behind why some tasks need to be completed can be motivating enough.
This article was on my mind as I addressed a recurring issue in my yoga classes last week.
During sivasana, the intention is to create an environment of non-doing, a place of quiet and calm. It may be the only moments of non-doing that students experience all day. Despite me repeating this intention over the years, some students choose to leave class during the sivasana period.
When this happened again last week, I got up and followed four students out of the studio and relayed that their disruption was unwelcome. I was frustrated by the disruption, and though I didn’t raise my voice, my tone clearly carried a message of dissatisfaction. This change of vocal tone was enough to be considered punishment, at least by one of the students who later relayed feeling chastised by my remarks. Though my words included the rationale about why it is important to safeguard the quiet, non-doing environment, that message may have been lost if my tone evoked a fight-or-flight reaction. Again, our frontal, logical brain can be highjacked by the more primal fear brain.
In this month’s newsletter I wanted to highlight the rationales for why it is helpful to arrive on time and not leave early to group yoga classes. I do assume that my yoga students have good intentions, are empathetic and have interest in the well-being of the group. However, sometimes ego-driven thought might interfere with those assumptions being manifest.
To follow through with the sivasana example, the ego need to adhere to your schedule may interfere with your ability to perceive that your moving around during sivasana is interfering with the calm of the entire class. In effect, you’ve decided that shaving off a few minutes for your personal schedule is more important than the well-being of a room full of other people. You may rationalize that you are moving quietly, but any movement in a still space is heard and is disruptive. It pulls attention and brings people back into a doing mind. Psychologically, yoga is about ego diminishment, and your decision to prioritize a few minutes for your schedule over the well-being of the entire class is ego aggrandizement.
So what do you do if you need to leave early?
It may be that you have to get home to your kids, or get to an appointment at a time where those last few minutes of class really make all the difference. In this case, let the teacher know before class that you need to leave early and exit the studio before sivasana. Ideally, you will carve out time for your own sivasana before you leave early, even though this means missing some of the closing poses. In this way, you can leave early and not disturb the other students during their sivasana.
On the other side of the class, some students are chronically late. Just as the group has settled in to an introductory meditation or breathing practice, the door opens, foot steps are heard, mats are slapped open, props are fetched, etc. It is hard to not notice these auditory and visual distractions, especially when your own mind is still buzzing from your day.
What to do if you arrive late?
Enter quietly into the studio. If the class is in the middle of a still meditation, then sit or stand by the door until the meditation is complete. Once the class begins moving again, then proceed to set up your mat and join the group.
The other consideration in arriving late is one of safety. Instructors sequence the poses so that early poses warm up and prepare the body for more complicated poses that come later. If you arrive 10-15 minutes late, you may have missed important preparatory poses that make jumping into the advanced poses midstream potentially unsafe. This is rare; over my 12 years of teaching I have asked students on a few occasions not to join the class for this reason.
As teachers, we attend to individuals, but we also have to safeguard the well-being of an entire group. I think of the Utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill in which our actions are intended to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is integral in yogic thinking where we are going beyond I, me and mine and yoking to a greater US. When you have the well-being of the group in mind, it is easier to navigate your individual needs in a way that accommodates the group, even if it may mean a slight inconvenience to you personally.
I appreciate my students’ efforts in making the classes harmonious for everyone. And, if any of my comments as a teacher come across as punishment, I apologize for any unintended harm-doing. It is natural for the ego to be defensive when it is called out for a perceived yoga foul. My intention is to foster the education of the group, not to belittle the individual.