When Worlds Collide: High-Tech Yoga

While a "no phones" policy is indeed a completely reasonable guideline for yoga classes, the fired teacher was not teaching in a dedicated yoga studio, and unless that rule is explicitly supported by the company she's working for, it's not her policy to set.
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"What kind of crazy company," a friend emailed me, "pays for yoga classes for their employees and then insists on their right to get the least possible benefit from them?!"

And it does seem ludicrous, both what we've been hearing about Facebook's employee-coddling culture, and the image of a student reaching down from ardha chandrasana (half moon pose), a fairly challenging balance position, to punch in a text. This says so much about our current culture that I look forward to seeing it depicted on a New Yorker cover sometime soon.

Both the yoga community and my colleagues and students at Pixar, where I've been the company yoga teacher and provided wellness support for the past 17 years, have been abuzz with the story of a Facebook yoga instructor fired for insisting that this student turn off her cell phone during class. The consensus seems to be strongly on the side of the teacher, and I've heard much ridicule of Facebook's purported policy, not just from yogis, but from high tech industry friends as well. That email came from a web designer who is one of the most wired people I know, constantly texting during live conversations and never out of touch with his own Facebook page.

This issue hasn't actually come up for me; when a phone rings in my studio, the student who forgot to turn if off always scrambles, red-faced, to take care of it. And in my corporate classes, students don't even bring their phones; yoga is their break from being plugged in, and they don't want it disrupted by technology any more than I do. For the most part, I agree with my friend's assessment. As a yogi, it's disheartening to hear that yoga students would even have to be asked to turn off their phones. But there are two sides to every story.

Bringing yoga into the business world is a tricky mix, one that requires blending two completely different sets of needs, goals, and expectations. While a "no phones" policy is indeed a completely reasonable guideline for yoga classes, the fired teacher was not teaching in a dedicated yoga studio, and unless that rule is explicitly supported by the company she's working for -- and there were two companies in play here, Facebook and Plus One Health Management, the outside contractor that oversees FB's fitness classes and gym -- it's not her policy to set. She can request compliance but not demand it.

I started my career teaching yoga at UC Berkeley, where my classes were held in a basketball court. This was very early in the explosion of yoga into the mainstream, and I was sometimes astonished at what seemed to me extremely rude behavior. But I quickly realized that my expectations were born out of the yoga culture, and not necessarily shared by people coming to classes because their health club happened to offer them. I learned that teaching yoga etiquette -- for example, discouraging latecomers from tromping noisily through a room full of meditators -- was sometimes part of the job, especially when bringing yoga outside of its home environment.

Yoga teachers are only human; like anyone else, we have impatient moments, and times when something pushes our buttons that we handle less than skillfully. So if an incident like the one at Facebook happened in my class, I hope I'd have the presence of mind not to roll my eyes, but I can't swear that wouldn't be my first reaction. Still, glaring at a student with disdain seems out of bounds, no matter how absurd her behavior might seem. Another option would have been to respectfully ask the person to step outside to take care of whatever urgent business needed her attention, and return when she could focus. Imparting those lessons is far more effective when it's done with kindness. And a gentle, supportive approach is more in keeping with the spirit of yoga as well.

Ms. Van Ness is on record as saying that there's nothing "going on at Facebook that couldn't wait a half an hour," but that's a presumptuous statement, and not something she's in a position to decide. Even though I haven't had students use phones in my classes, people do often come in late or let me know they have to leave early for a meeting, and although it's not ideal to take a partial class, I've always felt it was better for them to get some practice time in than to miss it altogether. In my view, as with eating your vegetables, some yoga is better than none. And the job of teaching in a corporate setting is to support the employees' well-being in the context of their own culture.

Does that mean it's okay to text during yoga class? No, of course not. Not only is it detrimental to the student's own experience, it's distracting and rude to the other students as well. However badly this was handled on all sides, the bottom line is that multi-tasking is the opposite of yoga. The whole point is to train the mind to focus and be present through the physical practice. And that's where my high tech friend is absolutely on target. You only have to know a little bit about the physiology of stress, and the holistic effects of yoga, mindful breathing, and meditation to understand that the benefits of these practices are hugely reduced if they're not given full attention. Sort of like serving those vegetables deep fried.

That's something both Facebook and Plus One could benefit from considering: What are the goals for offering these classes, and how does a policy that "employees should be allowed to do whatever they want" affect the quality of what they're providing?

Facebook may not care if its employees achieve advanced yoga postures, much less reach enlightenment. And why should they? But presumably they do care about their employees' health, productivity, ability to focus, and how well they are able to deal, physically and mentally, with stress. In purely practical terms, a yoga class in which people are texting and chatting is going to be much less effective than one in which they are focused, quiet, and mindful. There is extensive scientific research on the mental and physiological benefits of these practices, and if the company's goals are to promote a healthy workforce and to send employees back to work refreshed and productive after class, it would be far more successful to treat the instructors as experts, rather than babysitters, and encourage respect for the basic tenets of the discipline being taught.

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