Yoga Teachers: 7 steps to managing difficult students

Dear Yoga Teachers,

 I was recently asked by a newer yoga teacher:

 "How do you deal with difficult students?"

 Great question.

 Here is how I do it :

 I operate with the idea that all students come to my classes for a reason.  This reason is unknown and there are so many possible reasons.  Whatever the reason is can be a learning experience for the student or a learning experience for me, or both.  It can be that the student may come one time, have a huge confrontation with his or her ego, only to never come back or it may be that someone is totally ripe to receive what I have to offer and we develop a long relationship over time.  The reason doesn’t really matter.  It doesn’t even really matter if this idea is true or not.  After all, it could just all be random coincidence that someone decides to show up in any given class.

 I’ve stopped trying to decide if meaningful coincidence is true and real or not.  I have just decided that in this example, in my yoga teaching life, the meetings between me and every student that walks into my teaching space has a reason.

 I’ve decided to operate this way because it makes me more centered in my teaching and less apt to be carried this way or that way with my emotions and my own mental detours.  It helps me to continue to teach when only 3 people show up to my classes.

 My classes are known for a certain energy and harmony that holds the group together.  It’s not by accident.  It’s done by sticking to my clear intentions of that kind of experience that I want to create for myself and the people who practice with me.  In my teacher training program, especially during the intensive retreat, we will practice holding the energy for the group and what that entails.  It’s not magic.  It’s an act of intention.

 Yes, I know that there is competition between my students, that there can be gossip in the dressing room. I know all that.  But even so, there is a level of acceptance and compassion for each other that I maintain as a standard condition in my classes.  If you’re competitive, you’d better hide it from me.  If you’re catty, better hide it (although I see all this anyway).

 So what happens when someone comes to my class for the first time, or even the tenth time and the relationship between me and him or her is not flowing?  Or when this person’s presence disturbs the harmony of the group?  What is my point of view and what do I do about it?

 My top 7 steps for managing difficult students:

1.  My first thought is that this person is here for a reason.  That’s the foundation of everything.  What that reason is, may or may not be clear.  It may never be clear and that’s not important. 

2.  I take time to really observe and reflect the dynamics of the difficulty or disturbance.  More often than not, in fact I can’t think of an exception, if there is difficulty between me and one particular student, my other students are also experiencing tension with the same person in some way.

 3.  There is another principle that I adhere to.  During the actual yoga session, the group must not be sacrificed for the individual.  Is this difficult person disturbing the ambiance of the group? By ambiance, I also refer to the ambiance that I am intending to create.  After all, I am the chef here.  This class is my creation.  It is definitely not amateur night at the comedy club where people can just come and improvise and spew out random ideas and behaviors.  If I have to verbally call someone out in order to preserve the group, good lord, I will and I do.  Which leads us to  my next point...

 4.  You have to let people go.  I repeat that everyone comes to your class for a reason.  When that reason has been fulfilled, they no longer need to be there.  They may start your class and 15 minutes later walk out.  If this happens, this should not shake you, either to feel that you’ve done something wrong, nor the need to defend yourself.  The purpose of that person’s presence, even for a short time, has been fulfilled.  You have to let people go.  

You have to let people go even if they’ve been with you for a long time.  The relationship has come to its completion, even if it doesn’t feel that way.  It may be a temporary separation, or not.  We don’t know.  So, when someone creates disturbance in your class, you must sacrifice this person for the group and accept that he or she may never come back and it’s all good like that!

 If this sort of disturbance were to continue, we wouldn’t want them to come back!  I never create a purposeful intention to drive someone away.  Of course not.  I put in great effort to bring a difficult person into the harmony of the group.  Sometimes the harmony happens and sometimes the person leaves.  In either case, my basic intention for the ambiance of the group is preserved.

 5.  Accept that sometimes things just need to be shaken up!  If I’m feeling less confident about my work as a teacher, a difficult student just might appear in order to emphasize just how much stronger I need to be in order to do the work that I want to do.  Some of my greatest life teaching moments have come as a result of difficult students.  They make me stronger.  Difficult students can make you weaker, if you let them.   If this is happening, know that you are experiencing great resistance to your own personal and professional evolution.  Get Strong!  Take in and integrate this tension.  Deal with it.  Allow it to come inside you and let it illuminate your weaknesses.  See where you are weak.  Then, make yourself stronger.

 6.  Rarely is there the need for direct confrontation with students.  In all of my experience I’ve only found it necessary a handful of times.  Maybe less.  There are great teachings available for both parties, teacher and difficult student when there is disharmony.  To try and spell it out to someone is too complicated for me.  Either they’re willing to come my way or not.  Being analytical and trying to sift through all of the why this and why that isn’t necessary.

 I establish the behavior that I expect in my classes and one either accepts and follows my expectations or not.  The work that the individual might have to go through in order to change their behavior is not my concern.  Direct confrontation has only been necessary when the behavior is just so crazy out of control and that person keeps coming back and coming back and the behavior doesn’t change that I have to explicitly express that this behavior can not continue.  

I have not yet barred anyone from coming to my class (although I know teachers who have justifiably done so) but I have clearly expressed my expectations and declare that they are welcome to come to continue coming to my class as long as they abide by my rules.

 7.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to provide a time and a place in which students can achieve a state of Yoga.  The UNION of whole of themselves—body, mind, energy, spirit.  The teacher must hold this space for yoga to happen.  If a particular student has intentions other than reaching a true state of yoga, he or she is welcome to go do gymnastics elsewhere.  Being a “nice” teacher doesn’t cut it.  Too many people take avantage of nice teachers and they guilt trip the teacher into believing that yoga is about being nice in order to use the class as a playground for their own egos.

 A teacher’s responsibility is not about being nice.  Operating from the point of view of being nice and not wanting to lose students is operating  from a place of fear.  We can not teach out of fear.  We teach with deep reverence to the practice and we prioritize those students who have the authentic desire to know the practice and experience a state of yoga—even if they don’t know it yet (part of the idea of having a reason to practice, but not knowing what that reason is).

 There we have it.

 It’s quite a dense subject and there are many points that I can see developing into further articles, they’re so rich with teachings, but these 7 points are my foundation in managing difficult students.

 Do you have other points of view or techniques.  Even one that oppose mine?

 Share in the comments!

 To all yoga teachers, good teaching to you, stay centered and have confidence in what you do.


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 Mira Jamadi Formatrice de professeur de Vinyasa Yoga

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