Do Cell Phones Have a Place in Fitness Classes?

The firing of a yoga instructor for having a no-cell-phone policy brings up an interesting debate.

By: Melissa Romero

A few weeks ago, an instructor at Down Dog Yoga was put in an awkward position. Not one, but two of her students were using their cell phones during class. Even more awkward? One student was a yoga instructor herself.

She approached them after class to let them know cell-phone use is not allowed during her—or any other—yoga class at the studio. Her employers later told her that she handled the situation well, and that was that.

Unfortunately, things didn’t end so well for Alice Van Ness, a yoga teacher at Facebook’s Menlo Park campus in California. The 35-year-old gave a Facebook employee a hard warning look when she caught the employee texting during class. Soon after, Van Ness was fired in a letter by her contractor, Plus One Health. According to Reuters, “The letter indicates that the cell-phone ban was at least part of the firing.” 

Since then, many have voiced their support for Van Ness’s cell-phone policy, including a few local yoga instructors, such as Peggy Mulqueen. She mentions her disbelief that the rule should have to exist at all. “I would have thought it was obvious, as with other places such as church, the movies, and even at my own dinner table,” she says. “But the lines have become more blurred as iPhones, Androids, and other devices become as integral an accessory as underwear—and we feel naked without them.”

On the other hand, some instructors, such as Sarabeth Stone, disagree with the way Van Ness handled the situation, calling it “ineffective and immature.” “We have to remain nonjudgmental with our students,” she says. “Giving a student a ‘stern look’ communicates little and will likely just offend.”

Plenty of yoga instructors, including Lisa Calandriello, acknowledge that in case of emergency, keeping one’s cell phone nearby and on silent is fine, as long as the student steps out of the class to use it. (In a message to Well+Being, Alice Van Ness said she had asked all students to put their phones away before the start of class and that the Facebook employee was not in an emergency situation.*)

Down Dog Yoga owner Patty Ivey says her three studios have maintained that very policy since opening their doors in 2003. But despite the longstanding rule, Ivey says the cell-phone problem has gotten even worse over the years. “It used to happen on the occasion, but now it’s on a daily basis,” she says. “Pretty much during every class we have to monitor and bring awareness to [our policy].”

It doesn’t help that yoga in the corporate environment is on the rise, too, adds Stone, who has taught in a similar environment as Van Ness before. “In such a setting, I’ve had to recognize that those students are less able to disconnect from the office quite as thoroughly as those at an outside gym or studio,” she says. Especially “when attending a yoga class with a boss or two.”

But if cell-phone use is generally accepted at gyms, why is having one’s phone close by during yoga such an issue? For Christine Saladino, it’s a big distraction for other students who are trying to stay in the moment. “Having practiced many times next to individuals who have been consistently checking their phones during down dog, I can attest to how distracting it can be.”

For Mulqueen, it’s just common sense: “I could give you a bunch of psycho-spiritual babble about how the phone interrupts a connection we are trying to make that is much deeper than a text—but honestly, it’s just rude. Rude and disrespectful.”

*This story has been updated from a previous version.

Do you agree with these yoga instructors’ policies on cell-phone use during class? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.