Do’s and Don’ts of Yoga: Some Basic Etiquette in Class

Yoga is all about tuning into the breath and moving onto a higher level than just the ‘here and now’. In theory, this should mean the ability to rise above, or at the very least, not be overly bothered by, little things like people stepping on your mat – planting their big, sweaty foot exactly where you like to rest your forehead when you are resting in Balasana – but unfortunately, we are not all that far advanced in our practice yet, and these ‘little things’ do irk.

I have no doubt that many of these travesties come from an innocent place – one of inexperience, rather than the intent to offend, but as the saying goes: ‘Ignorantia juris non excusat’ ignorance of the law excuses no one.

So, I have put together a list of some basic do’s and don’ts regarding yoga, based on my experiences at my own yoga studio in Stellenbosch as well as others across the world. I hope that these tips help you to get the most out of the class you attend, and also that they help you to feel more comfortable and familiar if a yoga studio environment is a new one to you.  Some of these tips are basic common sense and, if you are already a considerate, aware kind of person, you probably do them without even thinking; others are less obvious and more specific to a yoga environment.

DO arrive early. Getting to class about 10 minutes early can help you settle in and align your attitude with the purpose of the class. While you’re waiting you can practice a pose, do a few stretches, or just sit or lie quietly, breathe, and get centred.

DON’T eat for two or three hours before class. If you practice yoga on a full stomach, you might experience cramps, nausea, or vomiting, especially in twists, deep forward bends, and inversions. Digesting food also takes energy that can make you lethargic.

DO let your teacher know – before the class starts – about injuries or conditions that might affect your practice. If you are injured or tired, feel free to skip poses you can’t or shouldn’t do, or try a modified version.

DO listen to your body. I must bore my students to tears with this one. It doesn’t matter how many times you have come to my class, or how well I have got to know you and your body – no one knows it better than you do, so please tune inwards and listen carefully to what it is saying to you. My cardinal rule is ‘NO PAIN’ so if you are getting close to that, rather back off and take a break.

DO create an intention before you start your practice. I often invite my students to do this, as I find that it can be helpful in giving one a point of focus. This might be to keep bringing your awareness to your breath, to practice ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) or to focus on your alignment during the class. Or it could be more general – to become more aware and understanding, more loving and compassionate, or healthier, stronger, and more skillful. Or it might be for the benefit of a friend, a cause—or even yourself.

DO be quiet. It’s great to share a class with people you know, but it can be distracting to yourself and others to have an extended or loud conversation. And more often than not, people are coming to yoga specifically to tune out and experience some peace and quiet.  I feel this one is especially important after a class, when most students are feeling very peaceful and still after Savasana. It is respectful to give them the opportunity to carry this feeling away from the studio with them, rather than crashing back to earth by initiating a loud conversation directly after class.

DO bring a towel or your own mat if you sweat a lot, and arrive clean and free of scents that might distract or offend others.

DON’T push it. Instead of trying to go as deeply or completely into a pose as others might be able to do, do what you can without straining or injuring yourself. You’ll go farther faster if you take a loving attitude toward yourself and work from where you are, not from where you think you should be.

DO pick up and neatly put away any props you use, including rolling up and packing away your mat if you borrowed one.

DO take time afterwards to think about what you did in class, so you can retain what you learned. Review the poses you practiced, and note any instructions that particularly made sense. Even if you remember just one thing from each class, you’ll soon have a lot of information that can deepen your own personal practice.

DO take your shoes off outside the studio. Many yoga studios have a place for your shoes by the front door. Since people will be walking around the studio barefoot, it is most hygienic if everyone takes off their outdoor shoes first thing. And make sure you don’t walk over other people’s mats! And speaking of feet, it is considered polite to have clean ones.

DO turn off your phone.  Make a habit of doing this as soon as you get to the yoga studio. You will be quite embarrassed if your phone rings during class, or if an alarm sounds halfway through. If this happens (and it has happened to me), I advocate owning up and going to turn the thing off immediately, unless your teacher prefers that it just be ignored and let you know of their preference.

DO go to the loo during rest poses. It is fine to leave class for a few minutes to go to the bathroom: there is no need to ask the teacher’s permission. The best time to go is when there is a period of rest, either in Child’s Pose or Downward Dog. You will not earn your teacher’s respect if you routinely dodge out during difficult poses or skip part of Savasana.

DON’T skip Savasana!  Your final relaxation in Savasana is an important part of your practice. Don’t plan to leave class early – it can also be extremely disruptive to the other students.  If you must, tell the teacher in advance and take a short Savasana before you go. Don’t make a habit of this.

DO feel free to quietly ask your yoga teacher for help if you don’t have enough room to practice or if you are having trouble doing something. A quick mention to the teacher can be the difference between having a horrible time and being comfortable enough to focus on your practice.

DON’T compete! First and foremost yoga is non-competitive. This wonderful quality often attracts people from many levels to the same classroom. Nobody is watching or judging you. Progress is personal and more about being mindful than doing the best pose.

DO wear comfortable, form-fitting clothes—something that allows free movement of all joints without being too baggy.

DO remember to be present. Be patient. Keep your focus on your own mat and try not to be self-critical. Your body may feel different from day to day. That’s okay. You do not have to keep up with the class. Unlike aerobics and other exercise classes, nobody will blink an eye if you sit down on your mat and rest a bit. Again, yoga is non-competitive. Just listen to your body and respect that every step forward takes time.

DO smile! Yoga can simultaneously be serious and light-hearted. As you face small challenges, keep your energy in a positive place so the overall experience is fun and enriching.

DO keep yoga in your life, even when you’re not on the mat. It may soon become part of your daily philosophy of health and well-being. If you can’t make it to class, consider doing some asanas (yoga postures) at home or work to promote strength, flexibility and peace of mind. Hold good posture while sitting at your desk or driving the car. Focus on deep, conscious breathing to alleviate stress and refresh your brain.

Have I missed any? Let me know if you have any pet peeves or tips to add. It may just make me feel less intolerant!