Far From the Madding Yoga Crowd

A teaching gig yields just 8 students—and Neal Pollack wouldn't want it any other way.
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A teaching gig yields just 8 students—and Neal Pollack wouldn't want it any other way.

A couple of weeks ago, I taught a Sunday afternoon yoga class in Los Angeles, where I used to live. The studio spent a lot of time promoting the event, arranged to have copies of my yoga memoir shipped from my publisher, and, since the class was free, figured they'd get a pretty big turnout. After all, everyone likes free stuff. I know that if I see the words "free yoga class" written anywhere, except on, say, the window of a diet center connected with Scientology, I'm likely to put it on my calendar.

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When I got to the studio, a half-hour before my class, it was empty, except for the manager.

"We had a ton of people respond on Facebook," she said. "They'll show up. It's L.A., you know. People are always late."

That's when I knew it would be a small event. I'd experienced this many times before. In a different life, a rock-club manager had said to me, in apology for the fact that zero people had paid to see my band play, "no one goes out in this town anymore."

Right, I thought. No one goes out ... in Atlanta. 

Back in present day California, the minutes ticked by. I set myself up on the teacher's platform in the yoga studio, which was much larger, cleaner, and better-equipped than I deserved. A few people came in, and they were very nice. Then a few more people arrived. The time came for my class. As everyone who's ever taught yoga has done, I counted the mats. Eight brave souls had battled the drizzle outside to experience my unique brand of instruction.

This, I thought, is perfect.

Some people really enjoy big yoga happenings, like those annual classes in Times Square or Central Park, but to me, they're annoying and quasi-cultish, more like Moonie weddings than asana classes. I prefer practicing yoga alone, or in small groups. Maybe, if I know and trust the teacher, I can tolerate a yoga crowd of 20, but anything larger just feels alienating to me. I prefer my yoga small and intimate.

Small yoga classes, while they might not be better financially for the teacher, work better for the student for a number of reasons. If you're teaching a large class, then you're inevitably having to put together a sequence of poses that suits a general audience, or what you think is a general audience. That means that you're going to put many students through paces that are too hard, or, less often, too easy. Without individual attention, people very easily could get hurt.

Yoga, at its core, is less about your awesome asana sequencing abilities, and more about the relationship between the student and the teacher. Students need to trust that they're in the hands of someone honest who's sincerely concerned about their well-being. In public yoga concerts, you're often following a headset-wearing star who's imploring you to "rock your asana." It's not a recipe for long-term yoga happiness.

Small classes can go awry as well, of course, for many reasons: Student and teacher might not hit it off, the teacher might feel disappointed at only having a few people show up, the heater in the studio might implode. But at least you have a chance for that authentic student/teacher relationship to appear. The odds of actual yoga happening raise quite a bit.

On that Sunday in L.A., my eight students and I connected. We didn't work too hard, but we worked hard enough. No one stopped breathing, at least not permanently. Afterwards, I read a bit from my book. The studio provided tasty snacks from Trader Joe's, and hot tea. When that was done, no one left. The students sat around on cushions and chatted.

"Are you guys friends?" I asked.

"No, we all just met," they said.

They hung around for almost an hour, talking, laughing, and having a great time, these strangers who'd paid nothing to take a yoga class with me. That's when I knew I'd succeeded. I've made so many wonderful friends in yoga-land. The practice is all about friendship and fellowship in a cruel and impersonal world. It was a real pleasure to share that feeling with others. I wouldn't have traded that for a crowd 10 times the size.