It’s ok to say “No” to your yoga teacher

by: Naomi Bourassa

YOGA STUDENTS: It is ok to say “No” to your yoga teacher. Saying no can be verbal or non-verbal. You can say no by choosing not to do a particular pose or finding a modification that suits your needs. Saying no can be verbal when the teacher comes over and asks if you would like to try a pose. Teach your teacher how to adjust to your needs. That’s why they’re there. You do not have to fit anyone else’s perception of what a “yoga student” looks like or acts like.

As a people pleaser, I have often held my tongue during yoga classes or done things that weren’t appropriate for my body for fear of offending the teacher or hurting their feelings. YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR TEACHER’S FEELINGS. If they get offended, they have their own work to do. Take care of yourself. The teacher will (hopefully) come over and check on you. Communicate what’s going on and the teacher will (hopefully) offer a modification. If you just need to rest, let them know that you just need to rest. The teacher will (hopefully) accept you where you’re at and you can jump back in whenever you’re ready. You are there for you, not for the teacher. The teacher is a guide to help you on your journey.

If you’re in a class where the teacher does hands-on adjustments, you can tell them you do not want hands-on adjustments if you prefer not to be touched. If you are new to a class, you might ask the teacher before class if they do hands-on adjustments. I usually ask new students if they have anything they want to tell me before we get started, but you can approach the teacher and tell them about any injuries or limitations you have. I really appreciate it when students tell me that there are certain poses they can’t do or have a hard time with or if they have a recent injury that they’re nursing.

If you’re brand new to yoga, let the teacher know that you’ve never done yoga before. Let them know if there’s anything that you feel nervous about. The teacher is there to make you as comfortable as possible. Starting anything new is always intimidating and a little scary. Yoga teachers should understand this and should be ready to cater to their student’s needs.

If a teacher has a negative reaction to you stating your needs, you may try talking to the teacher after class or at a time when you feel ready to approach them about it. It can be a great learning opportunity for you and them. Again, you are not responsible for your teacher’s feelings when it comes to taking care of your body.

Lastly, saying no empowers us. There is nothing wrong with saying no. It only becomes a problem when the person receiving the “no” makes it a problem. Many of us are scared to say no because of the reactions we’ve received in the past. We’re scared that the other person will get angry, defensive, or hurt. Yoga teachers are expected to be professional and to be able to handle whatever is thrown at them. Yoga teachers are expected to empower their students. A yoga teacher should welcome a student who is empowered enough to say no. If your teacher is unable to handle an empowered student, they have no business teaching and you are welcome to find a new teacher. You are not the problem. The yoga class is meant to be a safe space where you can feel empowered to practice setting boundaries.

YOGA TEACHERS: You are an authority figure. Whether you see it that way or not, as a teacher, your students see you as an authority figure. It is imperative that we as teachers, accept that fact and act as authority figures.

What makes a good authority figure? We all have had examples of bad authority figures. To start, we must set the tone for our classes. We set the boundaries. We act as an example of self-care. A huge part of self-care is setting boundaries. We must empower our students to set their own boundaries. We as teachers must respect those boundaries without taking them personally. We must start by practicing self-care and boundary setting with ourselves to become familiar and comfortable with boundaries.

I often use myself as an example when I am teaching a class. I disclose to my clients that I too have my own injuries that I need to care for. I inform them that there are certain movements and poses that I will not do in order to respect my limits and take care of myself. In this way, I am humanizing myself as an authority figure. I give them permission to say no to a pose. I have done a pretty good job at creating a safe space because I have many clients who often tell me no.

As a budding teacher 10 years ago, I would get offended if a client told me no. “They’re being stubborn, defiant, difficult” I would say to myself. I would question my ability as a teacher. I would become insecure and then internally lash out at the student that it was their problem, not mine. Essentially, my ego was hurt. I have learned over the years, that it is a gift when a student tells me no.

First, they know their body and they are taking care of it. Second, they trust me enough to be honest with me. Third, this is a wonderful learning opportunity for me to find something that works for my student. Here, we practice mental flexibility. In my class, students get to know each other and offer suggestions to each other for modifications. We all learn from each other when we take care of ourselves. Students have taught me modifications that I never even thought of. When one student feels empowered to say no, it empowers the other students to say no.

We teach by example that we still have our autonomy within a group. This can be challenging in group settings. You can say, “Please feel free to modify your pose at any time” but then, when you’re deep into the class and everyone’s doing the same thing, people are scared to be the “oddball” and do something different. They see themselves as being “stubborn, defiant, difficult”. We need to help our students understand that taking care of themselves is not selfish, it is necessary for their health. And that’s the whole reason why we teach yoga and practice yoga, is for our health.

I always thank a student who tells me no. I show them that I can handle being told no and that I appreciate it. I tell them that I appreciate them for taking care of themselves. We teach our students to advocate for consent. We do not pressure our students to do what we say. We encourage our students to try something outside of their comfort zone and they get to explore whatever that means for them. I teach my students to explore their boundaries and learn when to back off. They are learning how to set boundaries for themselves in order to set boundaries with others. As their teacher, I am on the front line with my students practicing boundary setting without being shamed or bulldozed into submission.

As authority figures, we as yoga teachers are in a delicate and privileged position to be stewards on our students’ journey to themselves. We must handle their journey with care, respect, and love without imposing our own expectations. We must be mindful of how we care for, respect, and love ourselves to act as examples for our students. We ourselves must learn to say no so that we can handle it when someone else tells us no. This way, when we hear no, we don’t take it personally. When a student tells us no, it does not mean that you have failed as a teacher. On the contrary, it means that you have succeeded in creating a safe enough space for a student to empower themselves to say no.