Yoga & Fitness

How to Be Late to Yoga and Feel Really Awkward While Doing It

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Had I known that I was walking into an hour-long yoga class 20 minutes late, I never would’ve flung open the studio door, inserted myself in the room, confusedly stared at the yogis in mid-flow, and loudly whispered to the instructor: “Is this just starting or ending?”

It was neither.

Earlier that night, I jumped off my last Zoom call. I had already checked the gym’s website to confirm that the yoga class started (or so I thought) 20 minutes after my meeting. A tight timeline, but I could swing it.

I work from home so I had everything in place, ready to go, like props set up before the start of a play. I had packed a tote bag with my water bottle, car keys, and wallet, and placed it by the front door for easy access on my way out the door. I’d put on a T-shirt and stretchy joggers during my lunch break, so no time would be wasted changing later.

Even though I’d been to that gym before, I Google Mapped how to get there, with the sole purpose of punching in my departure time to assess potential evening traffic. I even had that hour blocked off on my calendar for “Yoga.” I was, one might say, aggressively prepared.

I spent most of the drive gripping my steering wheel, mildly testing the speed limit, and mentally ticking off seconds until the long red lights changed to green. I was set to arrive exactly on time.

Once there, I speed-walked past weight lifters and medicine ball throwers toward the back studio. The lights were dimmed in the room where class was scheduled to take place, which was unusual. I leaned in closer toward the glass door, where I could see about ten yogis in Warrior I Pose. Hm. Definitely an uncommon position for the instructor to start a class with, but then I’m not a yoga teacher.

I struggled to comprehend the scene before me. Was this the class before mine that was running over? Should I wait for signs of Savasana before I enter the room?

Lately, when I’m doing more thinking than actioning, as I was at this moment, I turn to a mantra: “Start before you’re ready, even if it’s uncomfortable.”  This is good, because what came next was uncomfortable indeed. I swung the door open and entered the dark room.

As the teacher cued students into Low Lunge and I froze in place in my puffy, calf-length winter coat, all of the not-so-subtle hints that I was really late suddenly came into focus. That’s when I asked whether I was barging in on the right class or not.

But as the yogis followed her instruction, I received no clear indication whether I should stay or go. My inner critic jumped to conclusions. “You’ve insulted the teacher by being so obscenely late to her class! She’s not going to answer you!”

I took quick and quiet steps to the other side of the room where the only out-of-sight refuge awaited: the prop closet. I stood in the darkened space for what felt like minutes, peering out into the yoga room, waiting for someone to give me a sign, any sign that I was a welcome friend or a hostile intruder.

While pretending to study the bolsters, I got my answer. I peeked out into the studio and the instructor gave me an upside-down thumbs up from her Downward Dog. My cue. I unraveled my scarf, took my jacket off, and placed my keys—which had a billion noisy keychains—onto the floor.

Still panicked and hoping my procession of lateness would come to a close as soon as possible, I grabbed my mat and started to exit the prop closet. Remembering that I should take my water bottle with me, my inner critic yelled: “No time for water! Go find a spot already!”

The fact that I know I get thirsty during my practice won out. I shoved a hand in my tote, wrenched the bottle from it, and walked into the studio.

I scanned the room for an empty space. One in the back. I ran to it and unrolled my mat, which of course, wouldn’t completely unroll but I had no time to do the thing where you fold the curled end of the mat in the opposite direction so it flattens.

The student next to me abstained from her Upward Dog to reposition her own mat. “I’ll scooch over!” she said. I whispered back, “Thank you. You’re totally fine, though.” Subtext: “I love that you are being so nice to me but please don’t draw any more attention to me than I have already drawn to myself.” My thoughts, now a rushing stream, all highlighted the same feeling: Oh my God. I’m so embarrassed.

Everyone shifted into Plank Pose. When I considered the fact that I hadn’t warmed up, and there was no way I could thrust myself into Plank without every stiff muscle in my body shrieking for a reprieve, the critic piped up again: “You were late! Warming up is a luxury! Just blend in!” I succumbed and just did the damn Plank.

Of course, warming up isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. One which I didn’t do. I forged ahead, even as my hips, tight from sitting at work all day, squeaked and crackled in my Lunges, and as my keyboard-weary wrists pained me in Down Dog. There seemed to be a theme to my practice that evening: self-punishment.

Is Being Late to Yoga Really a Big Deal?

In the aftermath of my unpunctuality, I did a little deep-dive into how others in the yoga community view lateness (a.k.a., I Googled it.)

I was still embarrassed days later, but I think I needed other people to tell me how embarrassed I should be. More? Less? As penance for my perceived transgression, I was willing to go to great lengths to beat myself up to a greater or lesser extent—depending on what the internet told me, of course.

It turns out the subject brings out intense emotions not only in me, but in other yogis.

I read one yoga teacher’s blog post in which he acknowledges that he might “lose friends” over his strong opinions on lateness, i.e., he hates it and requests that people not come to his classes if they’ll be late.

I scrolled through Quora and Reddit threads that ping-pong differing perspectives ranging from “Lateness is fine! We’re all human…” to “Being late is the most disrespectful thing you can do to yourself and others.”

And then there are yoga studio websites, most of which have very clear policies surrounding lateness, usually a variation of “Don’t be late” or “You can be five minutes late” or “We lock our doors as soon as class begins.” Still, none of them say, “Show up whenever! Be awkward! Berate yourself!”

It was when I spoke one-on-one with some yoga professionals that I got some very sound and nuanced opinions.

Alicia Perez, yoga instructor at Yoga Solace in New Jersey, doesn’t agree that lateness is such a black-and-white issue. She says, “Life is complicated, and sometimes it will not adhere to a strict timeline.  My door is always open, and I am sure anybody who is running late needs to be in the class even more than those who made it on time.”

Pilin Anice, Lead Faculty at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, agrees. “I don’t think it’s disrespectful to the instructor or to the Sangha. I think that we are here to meet each other where we are, to welcome all parts of ourselves.”

What Being Late Taught Me About Myself

Even after getting some professional validation that being late is nothing to be ashamed about, I couldn’t help but think of myself and my experience as the exception, mostly because of how hard I tried to be on time. I’m never late to class! I checked the schedule! I broke the speed limit! I speed-walked!

And yet, there I was in class that night, publicly chastising myself in uncomfortable yoga poses to camouflage my shame.

The rest of the group shifted into Shoulderstand, but I came into Hero’s Pose for a beat. As the inner critic, strong as ever, insisted I’d committed the most humiliating faux-pas of any yoga class ever, and that everyone was still thinking about how I’d come in late and took my sweet time settling in (although I was pretty sure I played the whole “hiding in the prop closet” thing really cool), there came a breakthrough of perspective: I could view this whole thing as an opportunity.

We’re often asked, as yogis, to show up on our mats, however imperfectly, and let go of whatever happened before. Could I try that instead?

It then became clear how being late created a domino effect, launching me into deeper and deeper questions about my practice and myself. How do I treat myself when I feel embarrassed? Can I remain present when I miss the mark? Can I forgive myself?

Viewed through the lens of imperfection, I interpreted everything that came after me entering late as a sign I wasn’t welcome. The delay before the instructor gave me the thumbs-up meant I had insulted her; the fact that I came in mid-flow meant I shouldn’t take even more time to grab my water bottle; I clammed up at the kindness that was extended to me by a fellow yogi.

Seen through the lens of compassion, however, the story is much different. The yoga teacher gave me space to enter the room as I desired; I made time to grab my water bottle so I could hydrate during my practice; and a fellow yogi accommodated me as best she could. All of this happened not in spite of my lateness, but because of it.

I think my biggest challenge and gift is realizing that I can keep moving forward, mess and all, even when it feels like I didn’t show up correctly or on time or non-awkwardly. Imperfections will always be there, in some form, but they don’t have to dictate how I view everything else. The fact is: I showed up.

Did I disrupt the practices of my fellow students with my tardiness? I may have. And I don’t feel good about that. But, ultimately, no one stopped what they were doing because of me. No one allowed my lateness—or the audible grunts of gym-goers using the bicep curl machines—to deter them from practicing. Why did I?

At the end of class, I approached the instructor. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought the class was 6:30.”

Several students chimed in that the schedule had been changed at the last minute, which assuaged my guilt the tiniest bit. (Although I did have the impulse to ask them when exactly the schedule was changed. But seeing as I’d checked it three times that day, I let it go.)

Lately, I’ve been feeling that how prepared one is has little to do with how well life goes. Greater lessons may belong to those who are most willing to fling themselves into rooms and situations, be extremely embarrassed, and carry on. Fortunately, yoga welcomes all of it.

What to Do When You’re Late to Class

For anyone as nervous as I was to find myself in the position of barging into a yoga class in progress, Perez advises, “Our practice runs much deeper than the hands of a clock. Acceptance of ourselves is a tenet of yoga and life is not a perfect thing.”

Of course, depending on what studio you go to and which instructor is teaching, you might find yourself on the outside of a locked door. Even then, I think the important thing is that you tried. And when the doors are open to us, in yoga and in life, will we allow ourselves to open them? Will we support ourselves no matter what we find on the other side?

For those who are afraid to walk through the door a minute (or 20 minutes) late, Anice adds, “I would invite them to come in anyway and to sit with that discomfort, to sit with that embarrassment or whatever feeling that they’re having and actually invite a practice of svadhyaya—of self study or self-inquiry—in that moment…it might be an opportunity for them to give themselves grace and compassion.”

Anice emphasizes the importance of warming up first, maybe starting with some Sun Salutations before joining the class.

If you are late, and if you do cram your body into painful positions due to social anxiety, like I did, it’s okay. Your intention and your practice aren’t the same thing. I think it’s by failing your intention—like the one you set to be on time—that you’ll get the practice you really need.

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