I love yoga and I've been doing it for about 10 years, but it's the practitioners, not the practice itself, I find most challenging. With that in mind, I'd like to offer a few tips to facilitate the ahimsa (or non-harming) of others during your yoga practice. My advice is derived from a typical day at the studio.
When I arrive to a well-known yoga studio chain, I avoid the parking lot altogether, opting to walk several blocks rather than navigate the mayhem permeating the crowded lot. I've personally witnessed more than one accident (or worse, the occasional hit-and-run side swipe) amongst crazed yogis rushing to and from class. Since I practice yoga to cultivate a more peaceful and calm lifestyle, increasing my anxiety by risking a fender-bender just doesn't make sense.
As I approach the studio, I see numerous pairs of shoes strewn along the walkway with even more footwear in cubby holes along the building's exterior wall. I surreptitiously slip off my sandals and tuck them into my bag. I've heard too many stories about shoes "disappearing" during class, and I wonder what ever happened to the yogi yama of asteya, the vow of non-stealing.
Despite the fact yoga is meant to cultivate an inner awareness separate from the material world, inside the studio is brimming with subtlety stylish merchandise obviously essential to one's inner life: everything from designer duds to Sanskrit jewelry. As I head to the front desk, a guy standing there pauses as something catches his eye. "Is that a meditation seat?" he asks earnestly. "I'll take that too!" I've never seen anyone more excited to drop 200 bucks on what look like second-hand throw pillows. I check in and head to Studio West.
I arrive to class early (Rule #1), not to sip herbal tea or stretch but to position myself as close to the door as possible to avoid the barefoot stampede that will inevitably ensue. I've learned from experience that the Type-A yogis who regularly invade my peaceful practice will stop at nothing to secure their preferred spot in the room. Their tactics include, but are not limited to, elbow throwing, line-cutting, body-blocking, and downright shoving. My 5'2" frame is no match for the size and strength that surrounds me, so I'm forced to improvise. If I tilt my tightly-rolled yoga mat forward at an angle it functions like makeshift sword, while my tote bag, when held close to my chest, operates as a shield protecting me from the sardine-like squeeze of 30 people attempting to push through a single portal at the same time. Not wanting to resort to force, I pit my speed and agility against the sheer aggression of my counterparts. Rather than fighting my way through the crowd, I shimmy beneath them, moving quickly and efficiently to my favorite spot in the room, a place by the wall where my chances of getting kicked in the face (Rule #3) decrease by at least 50 percent.
I'm pleased to have secured my spot without trampling anyone or getting trampled in the process. I have plenty of space to spread my limbs without bringing harm to those around me, but still, I stager my mat slightly (a caveat of Rule #2) so that spreading my yoga "wings" won't result in a black eye for my neighbor. Like a good yogi, I step to the front of my mat to begin practice (Rule #2).
To my dismay, however, well after Sun Salutations are under way, the door creaks open and a Hare Krishna refugee saunters in (a flagrant violation of Rule #1). The latecomer looks homeless and is sporting a long curly beard and white turban (not the typical demographic for an upscale yoga studio), but apparently the yoga instructor knows him. "Jim, welcome," she says, chockfull of light and love. (Another reason not to be late to class: The instructor will inevitably force you to practice at the front of the room. They say it's because it's less crowded, but really they just want to make an example of you.) The instructor beckons him to the spacious area next to me. "Come put your mat over here."
Just my luck. The clumsy monk unrolls his mat uncomfortably close to mine, and as he does I spot a wad of toilet paper stuck to his bare foot. Even better. We flow through a few more sun salutations, while I keep my eyes trained on the white tissue which eventually dislodges from my neighbor's heel and floats conveniently in front of my mat.
The instructor reminds us all to breathe. "Inhale deep, filling the lungs ... Hold ... aaaaaand exhale."
As I exhale I make an "O" with my lips, filling my cheeks with every ounce of oxygen in my lungs and blowing out as hard as I can, attempting to push the toilet-paper wad as far away as possible with the sheer strength of my breath.
"Inhale through the nose ... Exhale through the nose," the instructor chides. "Mouth CLOSED on the exhale." I know she's talking to me, but I don't care. I've honed my yoga breath for instances just like these, when moving overgrown dust bunnies and unsightly hair balls from my yoga space becomes imperative. This is the only practical application of Ujjayi deep breathing I've ever found.
Finally, we move on to my favorite part of class, arm balances. It's like a mini gymnastics session, only on hardwood instead of a tumbling mat. And while the possibility of crashing face-first into the floor is always exhilarating, what really gets me is that the Type-A yogi will stop at nothing (your head included) to demonstrate his or her gravity-defying deftness. I once had a foot poised under my nose for a full minute before its owner finally dismounted, glanced at me, and said with a shrug, "Sorry about that." That's right. He knew his foot was in my face that whole time, and he intentionally kept it there.
But what's even worse than other peoples' body parts on your mat is their perspiration on your mat. The way I look at it, if you've positioned yourself and your mat correctly (Rule #2), there's no reason to practice off your mat or to sweat on someone else's mat. And don't even get me started about those dirty soles that step on your mat like it's not even there. If you need to adjust your position slightly to avoid sweating or stepping on another mat, by all means do it! And I guarantee the same karma will be returned to you.
Finally, never leave class before or during Savasana -- not because you need to "absorb" your workout or because you don't want to disturb the peace -- but because if you leave before the yogi bell rings, your guru will inevitably make light of your early departure. So don't be the class dunce. (Rule #4) Make like a corpse and play dead. Namaste.
The 4 Rules of Yoga Etiquette:
Rule #1: Nama"Stay" Away (from being late)
Rule #2: Step in Line (with the front of your mat)
Rule #3: Keep it Right, Keep it Tight (body parts and fluids on your own mat)
Rule #4: Avoid Being an "Ass"ana During Savasana (don't peace out early)