Yoga Teacher or Referee?


By Meghan Gardner  |  


Once, a few years ago, a student arrived more than five minutes late to my class. She banged on the door and insisted, loudly, on being let in. Based on what I knew of this student, I decided that it would cause more disruption if did not let her in than if I did. After class I was confronted by another student, who was furious that I had let her join class late. It was disrespectful, he felt, to the other students and to me.

I spoke with the late student quietly after class, and I stand by my decision—but the other student’s anger took me by surprise. How should teachers respond in conflict situations?

The Nature of the Teacher

Most of us don’t associate yoga with discord, but the truth is that conflict happens. Yoga has its roots in conflict: In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna had to fight against his own family members because it was his duty. It was a conflict that he had to endure in order to fulfill his destiny.

Of course, not all of us are warriors, and Arjuna’s dharma is not universal, as master yoga teacher and clinical psychologist Bo Forbes reminds us. For most, it is more “dharmic” to find peaceful resolution. “This is where yogic principles come in handy,” she says. “It’s really important, dharmically speaking, not to be righteous, even when you believe you are right.”

But massage therapist and yoga instructor Kerry Jordan points out that we’re bound to come across difficult people and situations, “even in lovely, nag champa-scented rooms. Jordan, who has managed and co-owned a studio in Boston, thinks that part of the challenge lies in the nature of yoga teachers themselves.

“People who are attracted to teaching yoga tend to be caretakers, the kind of people who don’t want to hurt others,” says Jordan. “They may perceive addressing awkwardness or difficulty as a form of confrontation or conflict, and that may make them uncomfortable.” For many teachers, the very idea of conflict creates conflict, which most of us want to avoid.

Both Jordan and Forbes cite a classic teacher conflict: when one class is meant to begin right after another class, and the teacher of the first class runs over time.
For Forbes, the challenge is an opportunity to examine her own role in the conflict. She teaches a large class immediately following another class, and the teacher of the earlier session often ends late. She says she spoke to the teacher and the studio owners about it several times, “But at a certain point, I realized it was about letting go of the need to be right.”

Once she stopped reminding her colleague of the time crunch, Forbes saw the conflict begin to diffuse on its own. Eventually, the teacher offered to have students of the previous class leave their mats out in order to speed the transition for incoming students. “It created more a cooperative sense between us,” Forbes reports.

Similarly, at the studio where Jordan teaches, evening classes have only 15 minutes between them, and the studio space is small and busy during those times. The teachers of the earlier classes often run late.

“But nobody ever says anything,” says Jordan. The teacher of the incoming class might complain to the studio owner, but not directly to her colleague.

Why? Jordan calls it a tendency to be “cloistered in a cloak of enlightenment.” The very peace and calm that we cultivate becomes a form of Teflon off of which we want the everyday world to slide. “We all practice detachment, but in the process we sometimes close ourselves off to a lot of learning and a lot of teaching” that occurs while dealing with the conflicts of the day-to-day world, she says.

Instructor and Prana Vayu yoga creator David Magone looks at it from the students’ point of view: Many see teachers as perpetually calm and serene. According to Magone, “Teachers can help their students move beyond this perception by encouraging them to recognize that we all have conflict, and that it’s OK to have it.”

The Sword vs. the Shield

The trick is not avoiding conflict, but using tools for managing it. The precept of ahimsa tells us to practice nonharming, but this actually requires balancing what Kim Valeri, owner of YogaSpirit Studios, calls the “sword vs. the shield.”

Some life experiences call for the emotional sword: standing up against injustice, for example. Other experiences call for the shield, or turning the other cheek. In the studio, the teacher holds the sword and the shield for the entire class. If a conflict arises, the teacher has to decide how to use these tools in order to ensure that the entire class feels safe.

Bo Forbes uses the example of a student storming out of class, and the feeling of instability that action can bring to the remaining students. When that happens, Forbes says, she avoids talking about the person, but instead reminds her students that when we come to the mat, we “bring our emotional bodies along with our physical ones.”

She adds, “Yoga opens us up, and whatever’s inside tends to come out. Sometimes anger and other emotions get triggered, and that’s part of the practice, but you can breathe through it and observe.” In this way, Forbes shields her class from the potentially unsettling repercussions of another student’s negative experience.

This approach requires strong self-study, what yogic philosophy calls svadhyaya. Forbes emphasizes the mind/body connection in her teacher trainings, and she includes 50 hours of self-exploration and awareness practices in these programs in order to help teachers “see what gets triggered” in their emotional bodies, and how to work with those reactions mindfully.

Kerry Jordan put her own svadhyaya to work when she found herself in a conflict. “Just before class began, I was standing with another teacher, speaking loudly about an unpleasant situation she’d faced the day before while teaching in a gym. During our conversation, a new student looked at us and shouted, ‘Kerry, would you PLEASE be quiet?!’”

Jordan immediately felt her “precognitive reaction” of anger begin to erupt. “Then I realized, all of a sudden, that I was talking about an unpleasant yoga situation and in the process was creating an unpleasant yoga situation, for this student and possibly for others in the room. So I took a breath and said, ‘I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ll keep it down.’”

The moment between Jordan’s initial anger and subsequent clarity is what she refers to as “space in time.” In that moment, everything has time to shift. Taking that step back, she says, “I realized that I had been handed a huge lesson. I was doing that which I had been criticizing not a moment before.”

She adds, “Lessons don’t always come in perfect, beautiful packages like that. The people with whom you have conflict are so often the people who have something to show you. You miss this chance to learn if you placate too much or avoid conflict.”

Jordan emphasizes that the mere avoidance of conflict doesn’t necessarily make everyone feel safe. If she had not addressed the angry student’s concern head-on, the rest of the class may have felt ill at ease. In this way, she created a shield by wielding a sword—not at the student, but at the anger he felt.

The Battles Inside

Often, the conflict that we see in students is internal, says Magone. “People tend to come to class with a vision of what a yogi should be—calm and without any conflicts,” he explains. “And when they don’t live up to what they ‘should’ be, because they experience emotional reactions like anger at their boss or at someone who cuts them off in traffic, they feel as if they have failed in some way.”

What is the role of a teacher in dealing with students’ internal struggles? According to Magone, “I’m not qualified to deal with major things. I can’t tell a student how to live their lives outside the studio.”

Instead, Magone instructs students based on his own practice, “getting still and quiet” several times a day. He says this “helps me feel more centered and calm, so if someone does cut me off in traffic, I won’t react as quickly.”

Bo Forbes is qualified, as a psychologist, to help students deal with emotional problems. And while it’s not appropriate to expect yoga teachers to be psychotherapists, Forbes notes that psychologists and doctors refer more and more patients to yoga. This means the yoga community should explore how to help students manage emotional issues that emerge on the mat.

“We need to modify teacher training programs to emphasize the emotional as well as the physical and spiritual, so that when emotional issues get triggered, we have a framework to deal with the issues,” she says.

The Path to Peace

Yoga teachers may not be responsible for resolving conflicts their students face, but when these moments of conflict arise, we put our training to the test.

“It’s easy to practice yogic principles when things are going great,” says Forbes. “It’s when stuff comes up that we see the depth of our practice.”

So how can we be our yogic best when we encounter conflict? Here are a few techniques:

  • Catch and release: Learn to identify conflict early, and then let go of the need to attain resolution. Instead, focus on giving the situation enough space in time so that you can respond for the highest good of all involved—including yourself.
  • Use your words: Choice of words and tone of voice both matter. Forbes notes that a calm, quiet and soothing way of speaking can help diffuse tension.
  • Give more than you take: The principles of the sword and the shield require us to fight for what’s right while deflecting what’s wrong. But don’t be afraid to see yourself as wrong—and to learn from your mistakes.

Ultimately, says Jordan, conflict is exactly like asana practice: “We have to butt up against our limitations and resolve them in a way that’s graceful. Just plowing through, whether in [teaching yoga] or in life, rarely works out well.”

Meghan Gardner is a yoga teacher and writer based in the Boston area. She can be reached at meghansearles@yahoo.com.