Observe, Don't Report

Yoga teaches us to deal with whatever arises in our lives, no matter how distracting and uncomfortable—even an obnoxious yoga classmate.

Someone posted the following to my Facebook wall this week:

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"Dear Guy in My Yoga Class: Please stop doing situps during Savasana (and 3 extra push-ups per Chaturanga) and go back to your P90X videos. Neal Pollack, could you write a column about this, please?"


I can understand this guy's impulse. Old egos die hard, and some male egos, in particular, get tied up in public displays of hard-core power. Even someone as physically diminished as me sometimes attempts The Feats of Strength in yoga class, and not just during Festivus. I'll hold my headstand until I know that most everyone else in class has dropped to Child's Pose, or only come halfway out of a backbend before doing another one, just to push myself.

The guy in your class has some extra Shiva energy to burn, and you're right that he should probably find a more aggressive setting that suits his particular style of "practice." Behavior like his can be obnoxious and distracting in a yoga class, particularly if it's a lot different than what everyone else is doing. But in the end, that's his problem, not yours.

I've taken classes next to people who smell horrible, or yawn loudly and constantly, or make weird little humming noises when they find poses pleasurable. People fart, cough, and text. They come in early, and leave late. Sometimes classes are way too crowded and sometimes it's just you and one or two other people with an inexperienced teacher who has bad taste in music. Rooms are too hot, or too cold, and very rarely just right. Something is always going to annoy you. If you do yoga long enough, you will see someone else's ass crack. Guaranteed.

As my teacher Richard Freeman says, yoga sets traps. It forces you to constantly confront the uncomfortable bits of your life and the untidy aspects of your mind. For a while there in Los Angeles, I was doing an intermittent Ashtanga practice with a teacher who'd rented a space in a dance studio on a crowded street. The room was dirty and noisy and always smelled like exhaust. At least once a week, the entire space would explode with the high-pitched machine wail of guys blowing leaves and dust around outside. I'd like to say that I just focused on my breath and my bandhas and just fought through the distractions. But I didn't. I quit. This was my choice, and it was the right one at the time, but it was also my weakness.

Yoga teaches us to deal with whatever arises in our lives, no matter how distracting and uncomfortable. But it also teaches us that all external things are impermanent, and will eventually fade. That hideous smell will be replaced by something more floral. A good meal often follows a bad one. Moods shift like the tides. And that annoying guy who does sit-ups during Savasana will stop showing up one day. Or you'll start taking a different class. Something will change, because everything always does.

It's the ultimate yoga cliché, but it bears constant repetition: The physical aspects of our practice are some of the least important. The internal forms matter a lot more. Listen to the sounds of the day while you practice. Observe how they change. Watch the reflected sunlight flicker on the wall. Feel a deep sense of peace and calm. Suddenly, the guy doing three extra push-ups during Chaturanga may not bother you as much.