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The One Thing I Learned That Helped Me Better Understand All My Students

Because more patience is a good thing.

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After my first yoga teacher training, I handwrote nearly every word of my textbooks onto index cards and then memorized them. I drove from class to class quizzing myself on the origin and attachment of the rectus femoris (one of our quadriceps muscles) and trying to remember that avidya, ignorance of our true nature, is the root of all suffering. I naively thought that all I needed to know about teaching yoga was contained in books and, therefore, could be found in my notecards.

But every time I showed up to a class with actual humans in front of me, the learning curve felt steep—and in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. The issue wasn’t remembering the sequences or cues or even explaining the philosophy. It was the people.

One student would want the windows open. Another would request that I crank the heat. Usually either the front or back row of class would be packed, requiring me to ask students to move and create space. Some individuals would snap at me when I offered advice or adjustments.

Although I had trained at the best schools and with exceptionally knowledgeable teachers, I had yet to learn a hugely important aspect of teaching: how to handle different personalities.

It felt a lot like triage when I was trying to please everyone. I was exhausted trying to deal with conflicting wants and needs. For a long time, I took a “my room, my rules” approach to protect my peace. Although with experience and age, I softened how I teach and live. And in doing so, I left space for myself to start to understand my students and their tendencies.

As a result, I can find more patience and compassion for both them and myself in these situations.

How to be more aware of different personalities

Each human is a unique blend of various personality traits, not unlike the doshas in Ayurveda. Although each of us are distinct individuals with different needs, for the most part, there are specific subtypes of personality. And no, the most accurate way to determine your personality traits isn’t “What city would you be” on Facebook. It’s also not the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs personality tests or the Human Design theory that are often cited in popular culture but are considered  “pseudoscience” by psychology and social science researchers.

What many, myself included, consider the most accurate measure of personality is the Big Five Personality Traits model. It has been repeatedly shown to be the most valid and reliable personality test available across cultures and over time. Unlike rigidly defined personality tests, the Big Five approach asserts there is a continuum for various traits, which allows for more individual variance among humans.

The five personality “building blocks,” as they are often referred to, are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, known as OCEAN. (The term “neuroticism” has been met with some resistance in recent years, so it is commonly known as “overwhelm” or “emotional instability.”)

The insights are intended as general reference points to better understand why people may do certain things and can help us approach situations with compassion and without judgment. Understanding this theory and learning to pay attention to these essential features has helped me more effectively communicate and interact with students so I can make class welcoming and like a choose-your-own adventure experience for everyone. “You want it cooler? Put your mat down in the back left corner of the studio and I will leave that window cracked.” “Is the music too loud? Move over there away from the speaker.” “You need a spot in the packed back row so you feel safe? I will find space for you.” It also helps me take students’ responses less personally.

Women sitting cross-legged on their yoga mats in Sukhasana during a yoga class
(Photo: Getty Images)

5 common personality traits of yoga students

Here are the Big Five traits as seen through the lens of this yoga teacher:

1. Openness

Someone who scores high: Adventurous and willing to try new things

I find these types of students to be a lot of fun to have in class. They’re often willing to attempt something different and tend to be open to taking suggestions.

Don’t be surprised if these students aren’t regulars. They shy away from repetitiveness and regularity, so they tend to follow several different teachers. Be grateful when they do show up to class!

When class is booked and you need to create more space for late students, people who score high in openness are often very amenable to shifting their mat position.

Someone who scores low: Prefers things the same way and tends to resist change.

Students who are less adventurous are often hesitant to accept verbal or hands-on adjustments. This isn’t to say that you can’t offer assistance or suggestions, but I find that it helps to be grounded in your reasoning for the adjustment. Before approaching the student, ask yourself: Is it really necessary? For example, do they really need to take their hands closer together in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) or is that just your preference? If they choose not to try something, know that this is how they approach most things in life. Don’t take it personally.

Also, these are often your most reliable students. They are the people who continue practicing with you for years and years. Because familiarity is comforting for these individuals, they will likely attend the same classes and also have a favorite place to situate their mat in each class. They can be annoyed or disappointed if they find that “their place” has been taken.

2. Conscientiousness

Someone who scores high: Aware of the effect of their behavior on others

This might be the person who shows up early to class and is set up and ready to go before you’ve even put your stuff down. They may pay their membership well ahead of schedule and be the first to sign up for your workshops (truthfully, this is often less out of excitement for your class but, still, it’s a benefit to you).

This is also the student who very neatly arranges their blanket and props at the front of the mat and, after class, puts other people’s stuff away and starts to tidy the prop area.

Someone who scores low: Procrastination, messiness, lack of awareness

Procrastination is a common trait for those who fall on the other end of the conscientiousness spectrum. This student may be the one who is perpetually arriving late or forgetting to pay their membership dues. Gentle and frequent reminders can be helpful. It may help you to remember that this is just their style of approaching life and doesn’t have anything to do with their feelings toward you or the value they place on their practice.

You may need to refold this person’s blankets after they put them away, if they even remember to do so, and next time remind students at the end of class to carefully tend to their props. If you know they always dilly-dally at the end trying to collect their stuff but always leave something behind, it’s not your job to remember for them, but remind them on their way out to check they have everything.

3. Extraversion

Someone who scores high: Outgoing, very social, likes attention

This is often the person who comes to class early and/or lingers afterward for socializing. They will be the Chatty Cathy or Carter in the corner with their friend and so excited to be there that they don’t realize class is starting. Gentle reminders that it’s time to begin are always helpful.

People who are highly extraverted may not mind being asked to demonstrate a pose, whether in class or a yoga teacher training. They’re not only comfortable in the spotlight, but they tend to be open to being part of a very public discourse about what they felt or thought.

Cheerfulness is considered an example of extraversion. So is assertiveness. People who score high could appear upbeat at most times, but they will probably not be shy about asking you to change something about your teaching that they don’t like. As with any suggestion from a student, take it as information and nothing more.

Someone who scores low: Introversion

This person may prefer being in the back corner of the studio. Or they might log on right at the start of an online class, keep their screen turned off, and immediately log off at the end. They may still say “hello” and “thank you” but they simply don’t engage in small talk. You can help them by honoring that boundary.

This may not be the personality you want to ask to demonstrate a pose or answer a question unless they volunteer. This has less to do with shyness and more to do with the energy it takes to be the object of everyone’s attention. Group settings can be exhausting for those who are more introverted. If someone comes to class and never stays to interact or always seems untalkative or in a rush to get away, try not to take it personally.

4. Agreeableness

Someone who scores high: Open to whatever you need, supportive

An agreeable person can be incredibly helpful and might designate themself as your unofficial assistant. They are always willing to help gather more props or be the first to tell you on Zoom when people can’t hear you. It can be very helpful to have these people in class. Be conscious about whether you’re playing favorites with them and be mindful to not abuse their niceness

Someone who scores low: Disagreeableness

Frankly, this may be the least helpful person in the class. Someone who scores low on this may be the person who refuses to move their mat for someone else. You might need to set limits and guide them on how to behave, such as encouraging them to move an inch to make space or asking them (repeatedly) to mute themselves because they’re taking a phone call mid-class. Take a deep breath and approach these students with kindness, but also remember that if they cross a line, you can make a decision as to whether you want them in your class.

5. Difficulty managing stress (formerly known as “neuroticism”)

Someone who scores high: High strung, nervous, stressed out

Be aware of how you approach students who you believe score high on this scale. For example, if they are in the middle of an intense vinyasa practice or a challenging pose, this may not be the time to give them an alignment cue as it could easily overwhelm them even more. They may startle when you approach them for hands-on adjustments or when you call them out. Try to give them space before interacting.

Fast flows or lots of backbends, which can stimulate our adrenals—and, hence, our overall nervous system response—might not be ideal for anyone who has anxiety. Instead, it can be helpful to focus on poses and practices that ignite the relaxation response, such as forward bends and slow holds. Of course, yoga is a very personal practice and you still need to teach to the class and not to any individual. If you’re working one-on-one, check in with your student to see which style of yoga works best to calm them.

Someone who scores low: Strong ability to withstand stress

Someone who scores low on this scale could be really into refining their alignment while in the middle of a challenging posture. They may thrive on being challenged and seek teachers who push them beyond their limits.

It can be exciting to work with someone who is up for anything, but let’s remember that ekagra, one-pointed focus, is the real goal of yoga, not a “perfect” arm balance. Use technical alignment and intensity as doors to teach them how to focus rather than to make a pretty pose.

Woman in a yoga class standing with arms at their sides with their eyes shut
(Photo: Getty Images)

How to use an awareness of personality types in your teaching

Unless you are a trained therapist, it is not your responsibility or place to diagnose or categorize people. Nor is it your role to discern the personality type of each student. But you can approach—or not approach—students with awareness and compassion.

Remember, as a teacher, you are one of the personalities in the class! Determining what your tendencies are can help inform what you need to thrive and what may deplete you. After joining students on every single excursion on one of my first retreats, I became very aware that I would score low on the extravert scale. I have since put systems in place to manage my energy, such as going to sleep first.

Finally, keep in mind that personality traits are not fixed. They can change as we do. But it is not your job as the teacher to make people change. You are there to create the container for people to be safe to change if they decide to do so and to embrace them exactly as they are at all times.

See also: More articles by Sarah Ezrin about life, yoga, and teaching 

About our contributor

Sarah Ezrin is an author, yoga educator, Instagram influencer, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her willingness to be unabashedly honest and vulnerable along with her innate wisdom make her writing, yoga classes, and social media sources of healing and inner peace for many. Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. She is also the author of The Yoga of Parenting. You can follow her on Instagram at @sarahezrinyoga and TikTok at @sarahezrin