Answering the call on the mat

This morning, I read a San Francisco Chronicle article about Alice Van Ness, a yoga teacher who was fired for imposing a no-cell-phone-use rule in her class. She enforced this ban on her students in corporate classes at Facebook and Cisco, who complained to the yoga teacher’s former employer, Plus One Health Management.

This article was reposted and shared among the yoga community on Facebook. Most comments supported Alice Van Ness outright, and agreed that cell phone use in yoga classes is a huge offense. Twelve years of teaching yoga in several major cities have taught me that the issue of cell phones in a yoga class falls into a gray area.

While I enforce the cell phone ban in venues bearing this rule, I have found through my extensive work with private clients and corporate groups that – like it or not – flexibility is necessary. As opposed to a kindergarten teacher setting playground rules for her students, I teach adults. These adults have responsibilities. It’s not always realistic to expect them to check out of their life off the mat for seventy-five minutes of yoga.

Health care providers on call know to put their cell phone on silent and place their mat near the door, in case they need to leave early. Once, a student whose chronically ill mother was undergoing a long operation came to class to clear her head and calm her heart. Was I going to make her put her phone in her bag on the shelf, or deny her a much needed yoga practice just because she needs to be available for her hospitalized mother?

“Set the ring tone to silent and place your mat near the door in case you need to step outside to take the call.”

Occasionally, a student will keep the cell phone on silent next to the mat. If the phone lights up, the student discreetly steps out of the room to answer the call. This is a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. As long as the distraction is kept to a minimum, the other students and I are cool about it. What happens more often is the errant cell phone in the cubby blasting a boisterous house music ring tone in the middle of centering. Its mortified owner rushes to turn off the disruptive gadget and apologizes to all of us. A strong disapproving energy arises from the class towards this student, who will always remember from then on to set the phone on silent or turn it off in future classes.

Just like studio classes, the corporate gym is supposed to be a work-free zone. It is a place that enables employees to take their mind off things and let out a little steam. Occasionally, a student has to take a call during class, in the room, which upsets the energy of the class. The rest of us obviously don’t love it, but accept the reality of the relentless work responsibilities. I guide them to breathe out the annoyance, and inhale equanimity.

One private client works for an international organization. Her job requires her to receive phone calls 24/7. Since this rarely occurs during the session, I patiently wait when a call does come through.

The client is investing in the yoga sessions, so they will put into it what they choose. Sometimes I’ll encourage my clients to consider the impact of cell phone use during yoga class on themselves and their classmates, so that they will be more discreet and courteous. This is about being respectful to themselves, to those around them, and to their yoga teacher. Using the cell phone during class implies that the text or call is more important than the yoga – the practice, its teacher, and their classmates. Attention to the body and mind dissipates to answer the cell phone. This is also about focus. Cell phones distract the offending student, along with their classmates and teacher, from the mindfulness of the yoga practice.

We all need to disconnect from this crazy world and turn inward to nurture our body, mind and spirit for a full seventy-five minutes. It’s hard enough to quiet the chatter in our mind. Conversely, it’s challenging for many people to cease the demands of their home and work life. They really would like to turn off their cell phone to turn their awareness inwards… yet it could be an act of violence (against ahimsa, the yogic principle of nonviolence) to cut oneself off from an urgent situation. These people, as much if not more than the rest of us, need yoga. It would be an act of violence on my part to deprive them of mat time.

Part of vinyasa, or flow, practice is learning to go with the flow on the physical, mental and spiritual levels. The reason I won’t ban cell phone use outright, unless I am working at a venue with a cell phone ban, is because I believe experiencing what feels wrong deepens our appreciation for what’s right. As long as the situation is safe, we can practice with curiosity, question everything and learn to take on anything that arises on and off the mat with equanimity.

© 2012 Amy Dara Hochberg. All rights reserved.