The Yoga Cell Phone Conversation

By now the story of a Facebook yoga teacher was fired for glaring at a cell phone-wielding employee has made the rounds. This story has rumpled many an instructor’s feathers (my own included). On a deeper level, it points to an issue that’s plagued the community: thinking that yoga is whatever you want it to be, sculpted to fit your demands.

Firstly, I’ve been guilty of the glare that Alice Van Ness was accused of. In fact, I’ve been talked to by managers at various clubs because of it, though never fired. In one sense, I’ve grown to understand the vibes of places in which I teach, as each studio/gym/corporation has its own flavor. Just last week, a man was checking his iPhone in the back of the room. I implemented my latest policy, one that I’ve found successful: I walked over, quietly told him that if he needs to check his phone to please step outside, and left it at that. He apologized and said OK, and never again took a peek.

I can never be sure what every person’s level of practice is in the room. It might have been his first class, and he simply did not know the rules of etiquette. Berating him about it would not make him feel welcome in yoga. What I define as common sense is, in part, only because I’ve been dedicated to this discipline for 13 years.

Education can happen when you present information with a smile instead of a scowl. That said, he was accommodating and perhaps even learned from that moment. Not everyone responds in such a manner, as appears to be the case in which the Facebook worker felt ‘humiliated’ enough to get the teacher fired, presumably to get another instructor in there who ‘knows better’ than to mess with her. (This too I recognize, as one woman recently wanted me replaced after finding out that I’m an atheist, which does not jive with her understanding of yoga—and this after previously praising my class.)

It’s not that cell phones don’t have a place at times in the studio. Parents with sick children are one example; doctors on call, another. Over the years more than a few yogis have told me before class that they needed the phone for such reasons. The fact that they informed me beforehand indicates they understand it’s not normal procedure. Just like the same pose is going to be performed differently due to injuries or anatomical reasons, teachers need to be cognizant that certain circumstances should be honored.

The larger issue at stake is the fact that a large contingent of folks are certain that yoga can and should be whatever they want it to be. If that was the case, yoga would not be a discipline, just another movement class offered at the local gym. While I take no issue with people who ‘only’ use yoga as exercise—I am a huge fan of athletics in any form—they should probably not get involved in the discussion of its philosophy on their own grounds.

Whenever I bring this up, I find comments that I’m part of some loose-knit organization of stiff fundamentalists who ‘think they own yoga.’ That is not the case. I welcome debate at every turn, as dialogue helps everyone grow. I have just decided to devote my life to the study and implementation of yoga into the society in which I live. I take it seriously; if I witness people warping its message for their own usage, I speak up. Whipping out a cell phone during class when others are trying to focus is one such example.

If it seems hard to find one clear thread weaving its way through yoga philosophy, that’s because it’s always been difficult to pinpoint. What we today call yoga started to take form a little over 2,000 years ago, converging from six different schools of thought. For example, my atheism has precedence in the knowledge-based Samkhya. A large percentage of modern practitioners pull from the more widely disseminated Hatha yoga principles and Bhakti’s devotional side, with a healthy dose of Tantra thrown in. Pretty much all yoga is a hodgepodge that has evolved in interesting and odd ways over the centuries.

That said, a few major principles persist. First, the ethical and moral codes, or Yamas and Niyamas, are to be taken seriously if one is to undergo yoga. They are not hard to understand: don’t steal, study yourself, don’t sleep around—debatable in differing schools, especially the rather selfish Tantra-oriented take where sleeping around is highly permissible, but generally meaning use your sexual energy wisely, and if you’re in a monogamous relationship, don’t cheat. There is nothing esoteric in learning how to treat others properly.

The second major thread is ekagrata, or the development of one-pointed focus. In my estimation, yoga’s most powerful message for us today is this: cultivate the ability to focus on one thing at a time. Studies have shown that multi-tasking is not the best use of our brain power. In a sense it makes sense that this story occurred at Facebook.

I love Facebook. I’ll post this article on it; you may very well have stumbled into it via this network. Like many technologies, it can be a distraction. This is not Facebook’s fault; it’s the user’s. The inability to concentrate falls back on us, not the object of our affection. Yoga is a way to help restore that skill, but you have to treat it that way. Berating people attempting to shed light on this important topic because your ego is hurt does not help the cause; squatting to type away while the person two feet away from you is trying to focus does not help theirs.

Alas, some teacher will surrender these ideals for the money and prestige of teaching private classes at Facebook. This has nothing to do with corporations wanting yoga; I think it’s a great perk to offer employees. But if you do, let the teachers teach. Otherwise, who’s really going to benefit?

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