You’re getting ready to teach. Everyone in the room is settling down, closing their eyes, slowing their breath, and tuning into themselves.
Then a minute before class starts, two students stroll in late while loudly conversing with each other. Just as everyone is settling back down again and you go to the front of the room to begin class, you hear a loud “crack” as another late-comer quickly slaps their mat on the floor.
What do you do?
As yoga teachers, it is our responsibility to keep the container of the class so that each student can have their own calm and safe practice. This, of course, is in addition to everything else: smartly sequencing and theming a class, planning and managing the music, assisting students who need adjustments, observing and responding to what the students need in the moment, and the dozens of other things we do as teachers.
But what do we do when one person is disruptive to the rest of the class? Do we let it go, hoping the behavior will stop? Is it appropriate to say something to the student? Do we mention it after class to the studio manager?
After teaching for more than a decade, I feel like I’ve seen it all. Students gossiping throughout class, moving others’ mats without permission, trying unsafe poses, even a yoga student getting up during Savasana to massage other students. Yikes.
Since most yoga teacher trainings don’t cover what to do in these occasional strange situations, here are some tips on what to do when your students misbehave…and what to look out for in your own behavior.
How to handle misbehaving yoga students
Sometimes students come to class to be in the studio environment but have their own idea of what they want to practice. While modifications to the practice are welcome in most classes, a complete shift away from the sequence can be distracting to others and dangerous for the student who goes rogue. Imagine teaching Sun Salutation A while one single student is testing out middle-of-the-room Handstands. As the teacher, it’s hard to know if they’re warmed up properly, if they have enough body control to keep their neighbors safe, and what the intention is behind doing something different than the class.
If you have a rogue student in your class, you could approach them in the moment and quietly ask if they’re OK or why they’re doing their own practice during class or express concern about not being properly warmed up. Or you could invite a conversation after class. “I noticed you were doing [fill in the blank] during class. I wanted to check in to see if you’re alright?”
Those students who were talking at the beginning of class? Sometimes they don’t stop. You can directly address chatty students by saying, “Quiet, please,” or “Please save conversations for after class.” If directly addressing the issue will throw off your teaching groove, keep teaching and move yourself in between the talking students. A little passive aggressive? Sure. Effective? You bet.
I’ve had students show up to gentle vinyasa classes wearing wrist and ankle weights. I’ve also had students practicing mountain climbers while the rest of class is cooling down. Someone who is trying to turn a yoga class into a fitness class can be extremely distracting for you, as well as for the rest of class.
If you have a workout warrior in class, you might walk over to them and quietly say, “We’re cooling down now,” or “Let’s head toward a forward fold.” After class, if you choose, you can direct these students to more active classes that might better fit their energy level.
Big bad wolves
These students make a huge deal about how hard they are working in class. They will huff and they will puff and they will often erupt when a pose or sequence doesn’t go as they planned. These students can benefit from a subtle breathing demonstration right next to them (simply doing slow breathing alongside someone will often inspire others to entrain, or breathe like you). Or perhaps you offer a smile and a reminder to the class that yoga isn’t really that serious.
After most classes, I tell the class I welcome their feedback. Occasionally, a student will take the offer and share something they loved or weren’t so sure about and I’m happy to listen. This usually leads to a great conversation and exploration of possibilities in the student’s practice.
One of the most distracting things that has happened to me as a teacher, though, was a student who offered feedback while I was teaching. I had suggested a way to prepare for a long-held Yin Yoga pose and was moving around the room to check on individuals when a student called out—loud enough for the whole class to hear—that my approach to the pose was incorrect.
That caught me off guard. When I quietly inquired, the student explained they wanted to do a version of the pose with the legs a couple of inches away. As an older and wiser teacher, if that happened today, I would probably ignore the student’s outburst or take the same action of initiating conversation but without becoming internally frazzled.
Occasionally a student will come to class and let me know they need to have their phone handy because their kid is home alone or they are a doctor on call. These folks tend to have their phones on silent, and tucked gently under the corner of their mat or under a blanket. However, sometimes a student will come to class and be on their phone before class. This is unacceptable.
If you have a student with a visible phone they haven’t discussed with you, you can simply remind them of the studio guidelines or offer a kindly stated request to the class, such as “We need all phones out of the practice space at this studio” or “Can you put your phone in the locker room, please?”
In my regular weekly classes, I allow students to enter the practice space up to 5 minutes late. The front desk and my regular students all know this guideline. After five minutes, if a student tries to enter, I will kindly send them back to the front desk. Late entries tend to bring a harried energy to the class and can be disruptive to the teacher and students. If the latecomer misses too much of the beginning of class, they might not be properly warmed up for the sequence.
Similarly, if a student gets up to leave early, I will stop them and ask if they’re OK. A simple inquiry is usually enough for the person to understand the disruption. In my trauma-informed classes, before we start moving, I ask that if anyone leaves class at any point, that they give me a thumbs up (if they’re grabbing water, going to the restroom, etc.) or a thumbs down (that tells me they need support). If someone tells me ahead of time that they need to leave early, I will thank them, ask that they do their own Savasana before leaving, and remind them to exit as quietly as possible.
There is something sweet and beautiful about wanting to help a fellow student in a yoga class. Sometimes I see a student struggling with a pose and before I can get to them, their neighbor has silently shown them an accessible alternative. Occasionally, I see a student —usually a regular in the studio—become very confident about taking charge without permission from the teacher. This could take the form of moving people’s mats around without asking, directing the rest of the students to do something before or after class, verbally or physically instructing another student during class, or as mentioned earlier, even touching other students without permission.
If this kind of behavior is disruptive or well-intentioned but ill-informed, it might make sense to either quash it in the moment or pull the student aside after class and express your appreciation for helping and explain your reason for asking them to no longer do that behavior. You can always use legal liability as one of your reasons. Depending on the magnitude of the situation, you might need to involve studio management to help solve the issue.