Americans take yoga classes for a variety of reasons, including some that more traditional adherents might not recognize as yoga-related at all. For certain practitioners, the priority is mindfulness or stress relief; for others, it’s maintaining flexibility. Still others view yoga mostly as a workout. “There’s a lot of what I call ‘yoga-flavored exercise’ out there,” longtime yoga therapist Carol Krucoff says.
But whatever the goal, yoga students are choosing to pursue it in a quiet, tranquil, breath-focused atmosphere, with minimal distraction. Everyone attending a yoga class, then, should follow etiquette rules that help maintain an aura of calm, concentrated effort. Otherwise, they run the risk of harshing someone’s hard-won Zen.
I’ve been both culprit and victim when it comes to causing distraction in yoga class; I’ve walked into an already-underway session during the opening meditation, and I’ve felt my post-savasana equilibrium evaporate as hard-driving yogis waiting for the next class charge into the room, eager to claim a spot before I’ve even gotten off my mat.
“Students are really entering a wellness space where classes are held for everyone to experience their benefits, and there are guidelines in place to foster respect and make everyone feel equally comfortable,” says Charlotte Raich, who has been teaching yoga for 13 years and is the senior membership manager for Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit organization for yoga professionals in Arlington, Virginia.
According to Raich, yoga class guidelines are undergirded by the concept of ahimsa, one of the five yamas, or moral values, of yoga. It literally translates as not to harm or injure and was the principle at the center of Mahatma Gandhi’s call for nonviolent protest. Ahimsa “means nonviolence in all aspects of our life, in our thoughts and our behaviors and our actions toward ourselves and others,” Raich says. “Everyone deserves to practice yoga free from judgment, from harm, exclusion or anything that would keep them from being able to be comfortable in yoga.”
Guidelines differ from studio to studio. Some are posted online or in the studio; some seem to be unspoken. I checked in with some studios and teachers to see what etiquette tips they consider important, and there was consensus on the following.
1. Arrive early. (Especially if it’s your first class.) This allows time to find a space, unroll your mat and collect your props (any blankets, bolsters, blocks or straps you need to modify poses) without disturbing anyone. It also gives you an opportunity to get into the right mind-set. If you are late, wait until after the teacher’s opening ritual – it could be a reading, a breathing exercise, a meditation, a sequence of oms – before entering; otherwise you are interrupting the class while it is trying to get grounded.
2. Plan to stay for the whole class. If you must leave early, let the teacher know, and do it before savasana, the period of final relaxation at the end of class. Again, this is to not disturb your classmates during a key part of class – experts often say savasana is the most important and challenging pose in yoga. Whether coming or going, try not to step on anyone’s mat.
3. Leave your shoes outside the door. Most studios have a shoe rack for that purpose; use it (or at least put your shoes where no one will trip over them). There are cultural, practical and spiritual reasons for this rule. As Raich points out, many Asian countries where yoga is practiced share the tradition of removing shoes when entering a home, school or temple as a sign of respect. Furthermore, yoga is practiced on the floor, and tracking in dirt makes the studio unclean. And, finally, the concept of grounding – literally and figuratively is very important in yoga – it’s simply easier to ground yourself if your feet are making direct contact with the floor.
4. Leave your cellphone outside the room. This is so you can fully disconnect and others won’t be disturbed. If, for some reason, being fully disconnected is going to make you anxious (say, you have children who need to be able to reach you), some studios will allow you to leave it next to you on silent.
5. Bring water, a towel, and, if possible, your own mat. Many gyms and studios recommend students bring water. Yet Krucoff, a onetime Washington Post editor who has been a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, yoga teacher and therapist for more than a decade, has a different view. “It’s a really good idea to be very well hydrated before class but traditionally in yoga you’re not supposed to drink water during the practice,” she says. In Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine, yoga helps the body build the digestive fire necessary to break down food; to drink in the middle of practice quenches that fire. “If you need to drink water it’s fine,” she said, noting that it’s necessary in classes such as hot yoga. But in general, yoga is “not like a Western exercise, when you want to be chugging water.”
You can use a towel for more than wiping sweat – it can serve as a prop to keep your head level during savasana or as a clean layer over a communal yoga mat. In fact, Krucoff suggests bringing your own mat for hygienic reasons: “You’re going to have your face down on that mat.”
6. Avoid perfume or scented lotion. These can be distracting for fellow students who don’t find your fragrance as pleasant as you do. Some yoga instructors use incense or essential oils to set moods, but according to Yoga Journal, more studios are going scent-free.
7. Wear appropriate clothing. You want something comfortable that you can move in that isn’t prone to a wardrobe malfunction or to bunching up and getting in your way: think stretchy, breathable fabrics. Dress codes vary. In hot yoga classes, for example, it’s not unusual to see shirtless men, and women in sports bras. In other classes, teachers might expect students to be more circumspect. “Modesty is traditionally a part of the yoga practice,” Krucoff says. Dressing in a way that won’t distract anyone or make them uncomfortable is a kindness to your fellow students. Raich recommends prospective students ask about a studio’s dress code to determine whether they’re comfortable with it.
What if you’re attending a more traditional yoga session? Mat McDermott, director of communications for the Hindu American Foundation, says in an email, “Even in ‘more traditional’ spaces, contemporary Western yoga wear is probably all right unless explicitly stated otherwise. If you have doubts, just ask what most people wear to class.”
8. Let the instructor know about any physical issues and preferences. Before class, tell the teacher if you have a problem such as a bad back or a frozen shoulder or prefer not to receive any hands-on assists (this is when a teacher touches a student to improve their alignment or make them more comfortable). After numerous accusations of sexual assault leveled against prominent gurus and the upheaval of the #MeToo movement, yoga is moving toward “a consent-based culture,” Raich says.
9. Clean up after class. Wipe down any borrowed mats after practice and put props away where they belong.
10. Be compassionate and don’t judge. “The yoga practice often helps us to release pain and discomfort in the body, mind or spirit,” Raich says. “The body might release these toxins and emotions in many different ways, in many different forms,” including passing gas or crying. Try not to react. “It always goes back to having the yoga space being that safe inclusive comfortable space for whatever comes up and for whatever’s needed,” Raich says.
In fact, your focus should be inward. During your practice, “the gaze is supposed to be soft; you’re really not supposed to be staring at anything or anyone,” Krucoff says. “I like to encourage my students to pretend each mat is your own little yoga island, and all the other islands are friendly. They love you, you love them. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, just be on your own little island and do your practice.”
11. Be positive. “I think it’s important to keep the tenor of your interactions with other people in the studio as one that’s positive, so that it’s a place of positivity for people,” says Brandon Copeland, yoga instructor and owner of Khepera Wellness in Washington, D.C. “It can be a place where a lot of people are dealing with a lot of different emotions. Be aware of your presence and how you interact with other people.”
Finally, I asked McDermott of the Hindu American Federation if there are any etiquette rules that pertain to an ashram. He replied: “If there is a guru present for a talk or session, you might notice that followers of that guru touch his or her feet briefly when the guru enters as a sign of respect. If you are not a follower of that guru, there is no need or expectation to do this, if you don’t feel moved to do so. However, behaving with respect befitting such an esteemed teacher is expected of everyone.”
Which leads us to one of the most important rules of yoga etiquette:
12. Be respectful. To the instructor, to the class and to yourself.