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Teaching Students Who Ignore Instruction

I have a longtime, very stubborn, sometimes grumpy yet at the same time dear 85-year-old male student in my gentle yoga class. He is dedicated and comes every week. He also insists on doing everything the other students do, even though he needs some modifications.


The situation that most worries me comes at the end of class, when students transition to lying on their backs. He cannot easily lower his head to the ground, yet he insists upon it, grunting several times until he reaches his goal. I have had detailed talks with him about my concerns about his hurting his neck (he has osteoporosis). I presented my alternative, which is using a couple of blankets as a support so that there's no stress on his neck. He dismissed this, saying there is no point if there is no effort. He has compromised with me, however: He lowers his head to one folded blanket, relaxes, then removes the blanket and comes all the way down (not at my recommendation).

How do I work with a student who ignores instruction to his own possible detriment? By the way, this student will not consult with his doctor (which was also my recommendation). He says he treats himself and makes his own decisions.

Read Nicki Doane's response:

Dear Donna,

This sounds to me like an issue that would affect a more beginning teacher. When I first started teaching yoga, I too was easily affected by the students, especially the grumpy ones. I felt personally responsible for their moods. As you become more confident with your own teaching, this issue will come up less and less.

You are the teacher and he is the student, end of story. In India, where yoga was born, they have a very clear concept of respecting the teacher. Here in the U.S., we tend to rebel against authority, which can be a problem in a yoga class, especially when a student will not do as you ask him to do.

When someone comes into your class, they should listen to what you ask them to do unless they are in fear of hurting themselves—and if that is the case, they should speak with you about it. But to come in and "do his own thing" in your class is completely disrespectful and should not be tolerated, no matter how old the student is.

I would speak privately with the student and tell him that he is welcome to come to class as long as he is willing to do the work that you ask of him. Let that student know that you have his best interests in mind. If he cannot do that, I would ask him to please not come to the class. His behavior is disruptive and disrespectful.

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Reader Comments


I agree with both Rebeca and Kim. I too have a similar student, also 85, who is dedicated and been coming regularly to my class and does things that are risky for him. But I think the worse thing I could do as a teacher is ask him to stop coming.
Besides disagreeing with Nicki's answer, much of what she says seems to have nothing to do with the question. Why is this an issue that would affect beginning teachers more and why will it come up less and less? Because you get known as a tyrant who throws people out of class? And nowhere does Donna suggest that her student's grumpiness bothers her- she calls him "dear"!
With my student, I give him suggestions but let him choose what to do, while keeping that "extra watchful and loving eye" on him. He's been coming for two years now, so he can't be doing too badly keeping an eye on himself either.


I have to say I am never offended when someone in my class decides to take care of themselves and modifies a pose based on how they feel.
As teachers we can do a lot for our students but we cannot know exactly what everyone is feeling. We can offer alternatives, variations and adjustments and then it's up to each student to make the practice work for them. That is part of learning to listen to their bodies.
If the person is clearly not honoring their limits it's generally not out of disrespect for the teacher. It's more a lack of awareness of their own bodies.
Let's not take ourselves so seriously!

Kim Poole, RYT

WOW. I completely disagree with Nicki's response. As a teacher of 9 years, I continually encounter new and challenging situations with students. It sounds like Donna has worked with her student to the best of ability- and with compassion. Not all students will ask for or follow a teacher's advice, no matter how open we are to their voice or helpful with our suggestions. I also have a similar student - long-time and endearing with whom I have to learned to keep an extra watchful and loving eye on when she is in class. She takes (what I feel) are unnecessary risks, but in the end this is her choice and ultimately, her responsibility. In this particular case, the organization I teach for requires a liability form signed by each participant and physician's permission when necessary. Perhaps this requirement would help alleviate some of Donna's concern and reinforce the issue of safety with her student.

With all due respect for the birthplace of Yoga and our teaching lineage, this is not India. I don't view Donna's student as intentionally disruptive or disrespectful but as someone on the same path as the rest of us, with perhaps a steeper climb.

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