Imagine, after a long day, stopping by the grocery store to pick up a few things for dinner. The grocery store cashier fumbles with the groceries and has some trouble getting everything to ring up correctly. They call for assistance from a supervisor as you stare at your watch, getting increasingly annoyed. Every other line moves smoothly as this line piles up and people behind you move to other registers. Waiting for assistance to arrive, the cashier looks at you and sheepishly admits, “I’m sorry. It’s my first time on the register by myself.”
More than likely, your previous annoyance turned into empathy for the cashier upon this admission to you. There are few things scarier and more nerve-wracking than doing something unfamiliar for the first time. All kind of fears plague beginners, from “doing it wrong” to looking foolish to more concrete fears like being injured (depending on the activity). We all know how it feels to be new at something.
They say “there’s a first time for everything,” and that is certainly true. We’ve all been a beginner at some time or another. We have sympathetic feelings for someone we know to be a beginner because we have been there. In fact, knowing someone is a beginner can totally change the dynamic of an encounter, as we see when we put ourselves in the above situation.
But what if we didn’t know they are beginners? If that cashier would not have mentioned their status as a beginner in their apology, would we still feel the same empathy for them or would we have stayed annoyed at the situation?
Those who have practiced yoga in a studio setting know there are some etiquette requirements to be followed. These vary slightly from studio to studio, and any slight differences can be easily sussed out by following the lead of others. Generally, though, there are a few rules that are mostly universal:
- Turn your cell phone off. If the storage area is in the same room the class is held in, vibrate is not sufficient (We can totally hear it vibrate across the room.)
- Maintain low voices in the practice space. People are here to relax.
- Don’t step on someone else’s mat. Nobody wants other people’s feet on their mat. A lady once left a very visible footprint on the mat I had just cleaned that morning before class. (That being said, accidents happen. Be mindful and apologize, though). I couldn’t take my eyes off the footprint for several minutes, until I got into the yoga routine and let it go.
I know I have felt annoyed when someone ignores these etiquette considerations, and I suspect I am not unique in that regard. I’ll admit I was very upset when the lady left a whole footprint on my mat and kept on moving. We might say to ourselves that these etiquette “rules” are little more than common sense. Of course it’s rude to step on someone else’s mat and not apologize! It seems common sense that, when one walks into a relatively quiet room, starting a loud conversation would not be appropriate. Turning cell phones off seems like a no-brainer. It’s easy to get annoyed with these people when they do such things that seem like common sense to us.
The yoga community has a reputation for seeming somewhat judgmental and unaccepting of beginners, and this may be part of the reason why. What if these people are beginners? The lady who stepped on my mat may have been attending her first yoga class and not realized that stepping on other people’s mats was something to be avoided. She may have thought that it shouldn’t matter that she briefly stepped on it. After all, I step all over it and drip sweat on a regular basis, so her footprint shouldn’t matter. I have to clean it anyways. Maybe she just really didn’t put much thought into it.
The friends carrying on a loud conversation in the practice space may have just thought the rest of us were being quiet for no particular reason. Or maybe they didn’t notice at all that everyone else was being quiet. They may have even thought it was helpful of them to break the “awkward” silence, since they aren’t used to being in such a quiet environment.
We should be understanding of all these people, and try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Rather than judging harshly, we should treat them with compassion. They may be beginners and almost certainly didn’t realize they were committing any transgression by their behavior—very few people are rude enough to knowingly commit such a faux pas (and even fewer in the yoga community, if I say so myself). And if these people are beginners, isn’t that what we want? Certainly, we wouldn’t want to discourage new people who are trying to experience yoga and enjoy the benefits. The mindfulness required to not carry on a loud conversation in a quiet room or step on someone else’s mat is one of those benefits, if they continue to practice.