Yoga and the Psychology of Manners

Do manners really matter? 7 rules of good behavior learned on the yoga mat.

Posted Aug 02, 2012

While I was waiting to get my hair cut the other day, I watched as a toddler, waiting with her dad while her mom was getting her hair trimmed, methodically peeled the leaves off of every plant in the salon. Neither the father, who was busy with his email, nor the mother, who was looking right at her daughter, said a word. Later that day, as I walked into my building, a neighbor held the door open. “Oh thank you,” I sighed, happy to be reminded that some people do still have manners. But then, a couple of nights later, at a restaurant, I watched waiters swerve around another child who was visiting other tables. I know her parents thought it was cute, and I sympathized with their desire to have someone else entertain their kid, but surely not at the expense of having a tray of hot food accidentally dumped on her head or a waiter breaking a leg trying to avoid that possibility.

At the theater, the movies, concerts, on airplanes…it doesn’t seem to matter where, there is the standard announcement to turn off cell phones and all other electronic equipment, and there are the standard number of people who ignore the request. At a classical music concert recently, a young man in front of me spent the entire evening texting. And it’s not just young people. Maybe I’m turning into an old fogey, but really, it seems to me that manners are disappearing rapidly.

This is not a good thing.

My PT colleague Sian Beilock writes that there’s an added advantage to good manners. She cites research that has shown that politeness helps everyone involved work more efficiently! Other research, like that done by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino shows that expressing gratitude increases positive behavior in both the person being thanked and the person doing the thanking by increasing self-esteem and a sense of being valued socially in both people.

There is, however, one place where good manners are simply taken for granted. On the yoga mat politeness and kindness are de riguer. Oh, of course, as I’ve written about before, there’s plenty of unfriendly competition going on, and heaven help you if you put your mat in the favorite spot of an regular attendee to a particular class; but even requests to move your mat a little to make space for another person are made gently and usually responded to politely.

 In yoga, if you leave your phone on, you may get glares and stares from other students and, depending on the teacher, a gentle or not-so-gentle reminder to turn off the sound. And you do it. Yoga is one of the very few places a person can go these days with the assurance that no one will be talking with that extra loud voice that we seem to reserve for cell use. And except for classes organized specifically for them, no little children will be wandering around the room challenging your balance and your coordination.  

I was thinking about manners in class the other day. I know, I was supposed to be concentrating on my down dog and my breathing, but in meditation they say that its normal for your mind to wander, and that you should gently bring it back when you notice…so I hadn’t yet gotten to the bringing it back part. And I was thinking that not only does yoga give me a quiet and peaceful break in my not so quiet and peaceful days, and not only does it help me stretch out the kinks that come from sitting long hours with clients and in front of a computer, but it also gives me a blessed opportunity to be with other people who are behaving themselves!

I thought it might be helpful to pass on some of the rules of comportment that I have learned in yoga. Maybe there’s a way that parents can begin to teach these ideas to their little ones; and that we can all introduce them to colleagues and strangers—and even friends!

So here are seven gentle rules for good manners culled from a variety of yoga classes:

1) Be moderate in your use of anything that might impact others unpleasantly. For example, you may love your perfume, but too much of it might be problematic for someone else. Yogis (the cool word for us students) are politely asked to refrain from wearing strongly scented perfumes and lotions. For those of us whose eyes start to itch and noses start to run in the presence of strong scents, this is indeed a blessing.

2) Again, be aware of the people around you. Use your phone sparingly, and in private. The loud voice most of us use on the phone (even those of us with normally quiet sounds) can be disturbing to others—not to mention that only a very few other people really want to hear all the details of our personal business. Yogis are asked to turn off phones and beepers. The request is often gentle, but definitely firm. It’s clear this is a rule that is not meant to be broken.

Similarly, talking does occur in some classes, but it’s always quiet, polite and moderate.

3) Share. Teachers share their attention among all of the yogis. Yogis are expected to take turns, and to politely wait for their turn. Yogis also make room for other yogis on the floor, even if the classroom is crowded, and even if they’re not really happy about it.

4) Do not interrupt. Yogis wait outside the room if they arrive late and the class is doing an opening meditation. And when they do come in, they come in quietly without distracting other students.

5) Enjoy yourself, but not at the expense of others. Yogis are encouraged to make sure that they have space for their arms and legs and to adjust poses if there is not enough room. We are also taught to pay attention to our own bodies, not to worry about what someone else might be doing— whether it’s better or worse than what we’re doing.

6) Put your things away. After a yoga class, it’s simply expected that you will roll up your mat and any other props you have taken from the studio’s collection of supplies, and return them neatly to their proper home.

7) Say thank you. Yoga classes are generally ended with a moment or two of meditation and a polite “Namaste,” which everyone says—and which means, roughly, “hello," "goodbye," or "peace." I have had teachers who suggest that we thank one another for sharing the class; and that we thank ourselves for getting to the class. What a lovely way to move back out into the day.

I’m not suggesting that good manners are the only things that make yoga such a powerful practice. But they’re certainly part of it. Maybe if we followed these simple rules outside the studio, we’d have more peaceful lives?

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