Stinky Feet and Unwanted Attention

Not everyone has a positive experience the first time they unroll a yoga mat. Erica Rodefer Winters asks the question: Whose responsibility is it to make sure first-timers feel at ease during class?

Recently the topic of yoga came up with a woman I don’t know very well. She told me she went to a class once, and she absolutely hated it. “Really?,” I nodded my head and asked her what went wrong. “Look, I have stinky feet,” she said with a laugh. “And the teacher insisted that I take my socks off!” Fair enough.

I hear lots of stories from people whose first yoga teachers called them out in front of the class before they even understand what yoga is all about. And it’s not surprising that this often becomes these folks’ first—and last—yoga class. These stories make me sad. I want everyone to enjoy the benefits of yoga, and it seems so wrong that one bad experience could cause them to give up on it forever. Surely, these first-time yoga students deserve better.

It would be easy to go on a rant and blame yoga teachers for turning away first-time students, but I’m not sure that’s fair. After all, most yoga teachers do their best to make their classes safe and beneficial for everyone—especially new students.

Whose responsibility is it to make sure first-timers feel welcomed and at ease during class? Should the teacher ask every student that walks in the door if this is his first time, and then go out of the way (walk on egg shells?) to give those students a positive experience? Or does it fall on the student to be educated and ask around to determine which class is right for them? In my teacher trainings I’ve been taught to trust that students will hear the lesson they’re ready for—so could it be that this just isn’t the right time for these students to “get” it? Maybe yoga just isn’t right for everyone at every phase of life. (There’s a novel idea!) Would it be so bad if they never tried yoga ever again? There are, after all, plenty of people out there who are perfectly happy and content without yoga.

Yoga teaches us to help people when we can. It’s tempting to try to take new these new students under my wing and show them everything they’re missing by proclaiming to hate yoga. But if there’s one thing I know about this practice, it’s that no one can do it for you. You have to find your own path and discover the benefits on your own. Sometimes the best way to help is to just listen with understanding and compassion and keep your opinions to yourself.

I hope these students find what they’re looking for—even if it’s not on a yoga mat. And I hope their teachers will keep doing what they’re doing, too. Because even though their message won’t work for some students, there are many more who are hearing exactly what they need in the moment.