Cell phones in yoga class: A compassionate approach

A few weeks ago, I taught a late-evening hot power yoga class at a popular fitness centre. The room was dark and sweaty, the lights dimmed low and the sun already set. It was a busy class, more than 40 students filling the room from wall to wall. We were about halfway into the 75-minute class. I had just taken them through a challenging flow and I offered the students a natural pause to drink water. While I waited, I was surprised to see the pale light of devices powering on around the room. I counted one, two, then four, then eight, maybe 10 cell phones. I watched faces illuminated by the apparently irresistible glow of a screen.

Shifting energy around cell phones

Cell phones in yoga class aren’t a new thing, but since I began teaching in 2010, their presence has increased and the energy around them has shifted. I’m quite accustomed to having students approach me before class to say they’re an on-call doctor or midwife and, therefore, may need to leave class to take an urgent call. I’ve also seen parents keep their phones close by in case the baby-sitter calls. In these situations, the phone is there by necessity for urgent incoming calls and texts.

But in the past two years, I’ve noticed a new phenomenon. Many students now arrive to class with their phones in hand, and spend the minutes leading up to class engaged with their screens. As class begins, they place their phones on the floor beside their mats, sometimes turned over, but just as often face up so they can be alerted to incoming messages. While some styles of yoga afford few opportunities to check in with phones (except, apparently, during water breaks) other styles seem to invite frequent phone checking. I’ve seen students in my yin and Yoga Tune-Up classes idly pick up their phones while holding pigeon pose or rolling out their gluteus maximus. The energy around this is clearly different from that of the on-call professionals and parents.

I’ve been watching this for the past two years without saying much about it. Honestly, my inner school teacher wants to walk around with a basket and say “(throat clear) In it goes, you can collect it after class”. But my inner yoga teacher feels like this issue runs deeper than just bringing contraband to school. There’s an undeniable energy around cell phones, and it’s only getting stronger.

Outside of yoga class, I see it everywhere. It’s so commonplace it hardly needs describing here. The cell phone is the ubiquitous appendage, the extension of self. It’s the external mind, storing knowledge, memories, images, maps, birthdays, correspondence, appointments, grocery lists, and playlists. Gone are the days when facts and memories needed to be conjured up by neurons and synapses. The screen of the mind has been replaced with an actual screen.

What other yoga teachers are saying

I’ve asked a few colleagues about how they approach cell phones in their yoga classes. Some make announcements at the beginning of class about policies around phone usage. Others speak with students on an individual basis. Others haven’t found it to be an issue in their classes and are appalled at the thought. Most of us have the impulse to denounce it altogether. “It’s not mindful!”, said one yoga teacher, “If you can’t be away from your phone for an hour, don’t come to yoga class.”

But the adults who come to my drop-in yoga classes pay to be there, and it’s their time. If they were using their phones for voice conversations, it would be easy to argue that they’re being disruptive. However, quietly texting and checking feeds isn’t particularly disruptive, and certainly no more so than arriving late for class or snoring in savasana. So why am I so deeply troubled by it?

Uncomfortable with discomfort

As a meditator and long-time yogi, I’m fully aware of how the discursivity of my mind often keeps me from engaging with the present moment. The internal chatter of “pick up some greens for dinner, her comment felt judgy, should I change jobs?” is relentless and often painful. The human desire to avoid pain and get comfortable is at the root of every addiction. We over-eat, shop, drink, and get high to numb the pain of our situations. And more recently, we scroll and scroll through our social media feeds, looking for something to validate our lives, even as our lives are happening around us.

In this way, discursivity is just one more thing we’ve outsourced to our cell phones. When the vulnerability of our situation becomes too much, a never-ending stream of status updates is there to provide distraction and relief. Knowing this, compassion seems like the only thoughtful response to students checking phones in class. As a yoga teacher, I want to encourage my students to work with vulnerability, discursivity, and addiction, so I hesitate to take a hard stand on cell phones in yoga class. Not because I condone them, but because I see them as symptomatic of a much larger issue: a widespread and almost pathological aversion to discomfort of any kind.

Learning to stay

How do we learn to sit with discomfort? We learn by doing it. We notice the itch, whether it be to scratch our nose or check our phone and, as a patient and loving master says to her dog, we say to our own reactivity: STAY. We practice staying, breath by breath, moment by moment. We stay with the discomfort, the burning, the agony of non-reactivity. In this way, we cultivate resilience; we cultivate our ability to hold our seat when things get tough.

This kind of practice takes courage. It’s so contrary to how most of us live our lives! But where better to nurture the seeds of resilience and non-reactivity than on our yoga mats? Once we’ve practiced sitting with benign discomfort on our mats, we can take the qualities of non-reactivity and resilience with us into our daily lives. We can hold our seat when things really matter: when we’re stuck in traffic or experiencing conflict with our kids, our partner, our boss.

Where I stand

So, while I could take a harder stand against cell phones in yoga class, that would only be addressing a small part of the larger issue. It could also backfire, alienating students who need my encouragement, not my ultimatums. There will always be outlets for distraction in yoga class, whether it be inner discursivity or outer restlessness. As a yoga teacher, I want to go beyond treating the symptoms; I want to shine a light on the source of our restlessness. So, bring your cell phone to my yoga class, if you must, and together we’ll train in leaving it be.

Image © 2017 Erin Bidlake

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  1. Laura

    I actually as a fellow practitioner find cell phones in class very disruptive. It takes from the sacred energy in the room and replaces it with this ominous outside baggage. Even leading up to class it poisons my chance to have those organic moments of preparation to settle in. If I see that people are on their phones, I roll up my mat and leave before it even starts.
    I’m now going to a place where the desk has a no cell phone in class sign up and teachers are responsible enough to reinforce it if it is not respected. It is unprofessional to allow it and severely unmindful of other when people bring electronics to class. I can handle storing and latecomers if they are unimposing and quiet in their set up, but cell phone users in class.. unacceptable.
    I think it is the teachers place to set the tone, and I will not go back to a class or studio where mindfulness guidance is lacking.

    • Erin

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Laura! I was just teaching on aparigraha in class yesterday (non-attachment) and trying to relate this to an “on the mat” practice. We were talking about “needing things to be a certain way” in order to practice, like our attachment to having certain conditions in place. We talked about how people have their favorite spots in the room, how people get attached to certain teachers, and how people can even get attached the idea that they shouldn’t use props to help them in poses. That kind of thing. I think we can also get attached to the idea that cell phones don’t belong in yoga class. The funny thing is that most yoga teachers I know use their cell phones for their music! So even teachers are bringing phones into their classes. My personal feeling is that, like with our thoughts, it’s not the phones that are the problem, it’s our relationship with our phones (and other people’s phones!). Anyway, it’s an interesting new phenomenon, I’ll be watching to see how things go. Thanks for reading 🙂

      • Laura

        Hello Erin,
        Thanks for the reply. I see what your saying about not getting attached to certain conditions over the years,
        I’ve adapted to various distracting behaviours from my fello yogis like snoring and space hogging and where my yoga mat is place etc.. I also accept and embrace that the teachers now use cell phones to play music. However I disagree with students playing with there phones during class, it is dosrespectful to the teachers and the fellow yogis and is a deal breaker for me, they clearly are appreciate the point of yoga. If I were trying to practice yoga In a public space where non yogis are hanging out then I would learn to adapt. I think it it irresponsible of teachers who allow that behaviour. I don’t feel safe practicing with a teacher that doesn’t expect an her students to show basic respect to the others.