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Alice Van Ness, FB Yoga Teacher: “Turn off your phone and turn on your life.”

One morning I woke up to find I was in the national news.

It really did happen overnight. If you haven’t heard my story or know my name I am the yoga teacher who dared to ask a student to turn off her cell phone in class. This student happened to be a Facebook employee, the class happened to be at the Facebook Fitness center in Menlo Park and she happened to ignore my request and started typing away—in the middle of class.

I just looked at her, I wouldn’t call it a “glare”, nor a “dirty look” as you may have read. I paused in talking and just looked, for about one Mississippi. I was surprised. I didn’t need to say anything; I had made the general announcement at the beginning of class to turn cell phones off, saying more wasn’t needed. She got the message and finished her work email outside and came back to class a few minutes later.

When I was hired by Plus One to teach at Facebook the cell phone in class issue came up. I was told by my manager that I could ask the students to put cell phone on silent, off or “airplane” mode during my class. This is what I did.

This student chose to ignore my request. To me, that is rude. There was no discussion with my manager about what to do if the student did use their phone in class. So is it rude to point out that someone is being rude? I don’t think so. I stand by my actions and it was clear to the student that I asked for phones off. It was not an emergency. From what I have heard and read people are sick of cell phones being everywhere.

My look, according to my termination papers, was embarrassing to the student. That was not my intention; I thought it was the least disruptive way to handle it. I didn’t think that incident wound get me fired. I will just say it was not my favorite place to teach yoga, let’s leave it at that. So that’s what I did, it’s done, I can’t undo it. I don’t want cell phones in my classroom, period. I understand there are some rare exceptions.

The media hurricane all started with a blog titled  “I was fired from the Facebook gym for asking a student to not use her phone during class” that was posted on Elephant Journal at noon Saturday July 7th. I take full responsibility for what happened next, but I never knew what a storm it would turn into.

A few days after the blog posted I was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle and CBS local news. I was excited to see the Blue Iris Studio, the owner and my friend Darcy Elman, and myself on the local news. I quickly let go of my hair, skin and outfit not being perfect. I thought that might be the end of it, it was just the beginning.

The next morning, after a restless nights sleep, I rolled out of bed to check my Facebook and email. I was on MSN. My stomach turned over, Darcy called me on my way to work, I was on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle business section. The spotlight was on and growing brighter.

I’m not going to lie: the attention was exciting and faltering. The support poured in from all over. Yes, excitement is fun but also very un-grounding. Excitement about things outside of your control is temporary. I can see how it would be easy to get caught up in your own press and what everyone else is writing and saying about you. I was doing my best to practice steadiness and point out a growing problem in our modern culture.

I kept saying out loud to myself  “I am the same person. I am the same person. I am the same person.” It didn’t take long for the phone to start ringing and emails from reporters wanting an interview started filling up my email box. Reporters from ABC, CNN, local papers, it didn’t stop all day long. I had a headache. It was 3:00 p.m. and I hadn’t had lunch yet. That was Monday.

The next day I woke up early again and went straight for the mat. ABC National News was calling me for a phone interview at 8:30am. Now was the time for yoga, I did some sun salutations, a child’s pose and then sat in hero’s pose on a block. I felt my sitz bones heavy on the earth. Within a minute I felt more relaxed.

This is why I do yoga. Thank goodness when this happened to me I’d done yoga for fifteen years. Years and hours of practicing my steady seat and I still have more to do. I wouldn’t have been ready for this even a few years ago. It’s a challenge to stand up for what you believe in, but always worth it. I don’t mind that everyone doesn’t agree with me. That is what made the story so interesting, that and of course that it took place at Facebook.

Without yoga I feel that ungroundedness, I don’t sleep as well, my mind is cluttered, I worry. After yoga the volume has been turned down. I feel like myself. I’m more centered. That is what brings me back to the mat each time. When I do yoga I am better able to serve my students. And when life happens and the wind blows, I hold steady to what is important.

I am standing up for myself and standing up for the kind of environment that the majority of my students want and need. It’s not about what I want (although if I’m distracted everyone in the room can feel it) it’s about the fact that 98% (San Jose Mercury News) of students don’t think it’s okay to have a phone in class.

Last week I spoke about this with all of my students; they all want and need a space that is clam, quiet, supportive, where they can pay attention to themselves. They have lives full responsibilities and stress: work, traffic, maybe kids at home. They need a space to just be, to work out the stress, a space that is as free of distractions as possible. Yes, the world still happens outside the yoga studio, but we can try our best to show up on time, leave cell phones out of the room and do our best in the asana. That’s all I ask: please leave your shoes, cell phone and bad attitude at the door.

Beyond the physical and immediate benefits, yoga brings greater awareness to our own behavior. The practice of paying attention to where our feet are or how our thighs turn out or in starts to make us more aware of how we move our bodies. We then become more aware of how we move off the mat, and finally yoga makes us aware of how we move in the world, in all of our actions.

Yoga is about mindfulness too, connecting to ourselves, our own breath. Technology has made us so busy connecting, commenting and reading Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and emails that we forget the people in our presence. We ignore person next to us, the person across from us at the lunch table, and we are constantly multi-tasking. When we multi- task we do both things poorly.

Obviously I feel like it’s an important issue. Have cell phones made us a ruder society? It looks like it’s a big contributor. We’ve let the cell phone disconnect us from the present moment, over and over. I’ve become more mindful of my own cell phone use in the past week and I feel less scattered. I always turned my iPhone (yes I have one too!) to silent in class and when I was asleep, but now I find myself leaving it in car when I step into the store. I haven’t missed anything important.

My challenge for you is to try this too: Turn off your phone and turn on your life.

About the Author:

Alice Van Ness is a teacher and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Alice has been teaching yoga since 2006 and practicing since the 1990’s. She enjoys yoga, Pilates, cycling, photography and the ceramic arts. She is currently writing a book about growing up and going to high school in Palo Alto.

She has been trained in the Anusara Yoga method but has not dated John Friend. Alice makes her classes fun, while challenging students to go deeper. She is a humorous, passionate, knowledgeable, and giving instructor. She works with students of all ages and abilities, teaching both children’s and family yoga. Alice has worked with children since she was a teenager and finds them to be a great reminder to stay in the present and have fun. Keep up with Alice online, on Facebook, or read her blog.

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