A Walkout During Yoga

In five-some years as a yoga instructor there were only two distinct memorable times where an attendee walked out in the middle of a public class. The first was several years ago, the second was a couple of weeks ago. In both instances I hoped to glean some teachable moment for me to improve myself in this career. In the former instance I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to receive feedback: not directly from the person that left or indirectly by way of a studio manager offering me feedback based off an email complaint commenting about my teaching style or behavior. For the most recent instance though I was afforded further feedback as the facility had employed a couple of front-desk employees (whereas the previous one had none).

It is my goal in this composition to offer instructors such as myself feedback for future consideration as well as offering suggestions for considerations to attendees that feel the need to leave a class – for whatever the reasons may be.

The attendee in question left within the first ten minutes of the class, and so on the plus side I only have ten minutes of content to work from to figure out what could possibly have gone wrong in ten minutes? What I could have said or done? Was there a triggering gesture of any kind made by me?

The public classes at this facility vary in attendee numbers. Personally I don’t mind. I’m in service of one person just as I am in service of a group: the group size does not matter, it’s about being in service of the group. It was about ten minutes before class time and there was only a single attendee. This person reintroduced themselves because they attended my classes many months prior. She reminded me of her situation and started to “unload” (or “offload”) the details, already making excuses and apologies for some future possibility of her being emotional during class due to extreme bereavement still occurring in her day-to-day living.

It’s often challenging for me to “take in” near-strangers’ confessionals (especially prior to class). I’m NOT a clinician of any kind. The only three letters that come after my name is RYT (and nothing more). All I can offer and do is to listen the best I can and hopefully the person feels heard. She expressed to me deep loss and sorrow that she was still experiencing and the slew of work she has done and is still doing, between groups and counselors and more. It was getting close to class time – two minutes until – when a few more attendees showed. This relieved the woman that did not seem comfortable with a one-on-one as she already expressed that we can forgo the class or cut it off short if it’s just for her. But she did state to me how much she wanted some sort of back-bending/heart-opening posture (as that seemed to help her deal with her current long-standing situation). And so in wanting to offer relief, I strayed from my usual agenda of a twists themed yoga practice (all through the month of June) and opted to start with supported (matsyasana) fish-pose. There were a total of four attendees when the class started.

Supported fish-pose is often experienced over several minutes, so it afforded me the time to lay out some supportive rhetoric for the bereaved woman’s sake as well as for the rest of the group (as it would apply generally). While they were all in the pose, I mentioned about how our mind’s tend to ruminate in the past, or catastrophize or fantasize the future, or desire to be somewhere else in the present; all of which separate the mind from the body: the exact opposite of what we try to cultivate in a yoga practice. So I reminded the group of that simple goal, hoping that the bereaved woman may benefit from that perspective.

I often make mention to visualize what we will do BEFORE we do it. So I reiterate a number of times to NOT make any moves and just listen to visualize how we will come out

Minutes passed, and when it was finally time to come out of the pose I began my rote instruction of how we will come out of the pose. I often make mention to visualize what we will do BEFORE we do it. So I reiterate a number of times to NOT make any moves and just listen to visualize how we will come out: set one’s palms down on the floor by the sides of the hips, gently bring the chin to the chest, press up gently, set the props aside, and lay back flat on the floor (hopefully feeling a lingering impression of all that was). I often state to NOT make any moves a few times before I even discuss the steps, because so often people start moving prematurely without listening to the whole concept. In the hopes of stemming some abrupt maneuver, I tend to repeatedly mention to NOT make any moves and to just visualize first so the transition can be smoother when performed. One of the other attendees seemed to not listen because she moved as soon as I started mentioning the first step. I made the point to mention once more to not move just yet.

After everyone successfully pressed up slowly, moved the props, and laid flat on their backs for a several breaths, I cued to hug the right knee to the chest. That same woman lifted her neck, noticeably tensing up the muscles in her face, neck, and shoulders, and so I commented to her to relax her neck to ease the tension. It was at that point that she decided to leave. She got up and stated that she was going to leave. I asked her if anything happened. She shook her head no. After she walked out of the room, I followed her out and asked if she preferred to tell me privately. She smiled, shook her head, and said no again. I said okay and went back into the room for the remaining three attendees. I figured: finish the class and hopefully she offered feedback to the front-desk employees.

An hour or so later the class finished and I exited the room to ask the front desk reception if the woman left any feedback with them. One of the employees mentioned that she used the phrase weirded-out. The other employee offered more specific feedback: what caused her to decide to leave is when I made specific mention regarding her neck tension when she lifted her shoulders off the floor when hugging the right knee to the chest. Perhaps there was more to it, but that was the extent of the feedback that I was offered. 

I’m the kind of person whose positive-to-negative exchange rate ratio is extremely way off.

Now, I’m the kind of person whose positive-to-negative exchange rate is extremely off. One person offering negative feedback will undoubtedly offset dozens of positive feedbacks. That’s just unfortunately my wiring. I wish it was one-to-one exchange rate, but sadly it’s more like 100-to-1. But it is important for me to learn something from this, especially if I’m going to be so affected and afflicted by it in such an unbalanced manner. So to that end, I learned the following, to offer instructors like me some teaching points to consider:

  • After the bereaved woman off-loaded her emotional state onto me I had not “reset” myself to be mindful of the other attendees.
  • I strayed from my original planned monthly sequence for the sake of one attendee, but in doing so, ended up forsaking another.
  • The woman that walked out shortly after the class was new to me and I failed to introduce myself and inquire of her yoga experience and possible injuries – as I so very often do with new yoga aspirants.
  • Though I was complimented for the class after its conclusion by the remaining three people, I felt I failed being in service of the class, especially since one person was provoked enough to leave early, thereby wasting the time in their day they had set aside for their practice.
  • While I realize that many will tell me that I’m being “too hard” on myself and that it was her prerogative to leave, I still need to be accountable for my part. As I see it; 49% on me, 49% on her, and 2% to the gods for putting the circumstance together.

With regard to accountability: 49% on me, 49% on another, and 2% to the gods for putting the circumstance together.

And so with that in mind, I offer aspirants, attendees, clients, students, and all other yogis the following points to consider:

  • Regardless of however a new class might be, if the impulse is to leave, challenge yourself to stay, and let THAT be the practice.
  • Set no expectations and therefore be unattached to all that comes at you in the class, regardless of the language or rhetoric a teacher may use, or play music that may be triggering, or say or even do something that causes discomfort – short of something that is deemed toxic to one’s well-being.
  • Feel free enough to state your contention to the instructor, especially if they ask, especially if it’s in private, or at the very least to other facility staffers (or even send an email to the powers that be).
  • ALL feedback is important. At the least it’s just another data point for the instructor to gleam wisdom from, so NOT expressing your contention does in fact do a disservice to the instructor and future class attendees.

The practice of yoga is just that: a practice.

The practice of yoga is just that: a practice. In as much as aspirants practice their drishti, pranayam, and asana, instructors practice vigilance, mindfulness, and openness during (as well as before and after) all sessions. It’s all a process and progress toward an idealized perfection (that will surely never be fully realized, but any such progress benefits all nonetheless).

We all need daily reminders to be more aware – not merely conscious – of ourselves and our surroundings. I’m not saying we can control the effects we have on others, but what we can control is the manner in which our affects effect others. And to that end, we should all effortlessly and continuously Zen Hard™!

Thank you for reading. Namaste.