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the inconceivable logic of turning students away

It might seem counter-intuitive for a business to turn away customers.  For a new business with no established network, and no marketing/ advertising budget, it is downright foolhardy.  Over the last few years of running the practice room as an independent yoga studio, we have come to realise that this particular conventional wisdom is not necessarily wise.  Sometimes larger issues are at stake – the quality of education, the progress of students, and maintaining the integrity of the teaching tradition.   Here are our reasons for turning students away:

1. Admissions are closed – even if space is available.

During our first year, we admitted new students as long as we had space. Within a few months, the batch had turned into a game of revolving doors with people coming in and leaving constantly.  At the end of a six months, the number of students in the class had seen no increase, the batch had made very little progress, there was no sense of camaraderie within the students, and the teachers were demotivated.

Now, our admissions open only at 2-3 fixed times during the year.  New students are admitted together as a batch and taken through an orientation course lasting a few weeks, before being integrated into existing batches.  Once a cycle of new admission-orientation-integration is over, we close admissions.  This lets the students settle down with the teaching system and with each other, and have a few months of uninterrupted instructions, without breaking the rhythm of the class to accommodate new students.   However, in this age of instant gratification, it is perhaps impractical to expect that people will wait around for a spot to open up in the yoga class.  People who come to enquire are first surprised, then taken aback, and then almost offended when we offer to put them on a waiting list – our seemingly simple and logical argument is not always easy to communicate.   We, however, have data to back-up our contention that given time, this can indeed work: our 3-month retention rate has gone up from 50% to 80% just as a result of this one change in admission norms

2. No drop-ins (with occasional exceptions)

In our own experience of studying yoga, we have experienced both a drop-in system of classes, and also one based only on monthly enrolement.  We can personally vouch that the latter system is far more conducive to progressive learning.  It lets the teacher structure classes so that each session builds upon the previous session, and creates a base for the next one.  Students get the time to be introduced to a ‘concept’, and to move from a gross to a subtle understanding of the concept.  This is not possible if students just ‘drop-in’ for a class now and then; not even if they have been practicing in the same tradition, and even less so if they have been practicing other forms of yoga.

All our students are now on monthly/ quarterly enrolment.  We do realise that people might want to do drop-in classes for various reasons. Sometimes because they are just passing through a city and want to catch up on some yoga; sometimes, they want to check out the class experience before making up their minds about a more long-term commitment.  We do make exception for yoga students in the same traditions who are passing by, and we welcome people to come in to observe our classes.  However, we continue to turn away people asking for trial sessions and drop-in classes.

3. X for getting stronger, Y for alignment, Z for stress relief….. N for noodle soup

A small number of people that walk up to the practice room are already doing/ learning yoga at another place, and honestly share this fact with us.  We usually end up having a long-ish conversation with these people, trying to understand their reasons for wanting to look at other teachers/ practices.  Some do indeed have clearly defined reasons – like the other place is too far, or they are getting injured, or their injuries are not healing.  Some have no particular reason to move away from their current practice.  To these people, we try to explain that yoga is not just another ‘experience’.   More variety in yoga does not mean better yoga – and in fact, it often means confusion.  Even though in theory all yoga is the same, different traditions focus on different aspects.  Even within the ‘asana’ aspect, the methodology, the motivation, the tools, differ significantly form one tradition to another.   To get the most benefit out of the subject, it is important to study within a tradition.  Each tradition should be able to take care of the physical, intellectual and spiritual needs of the student – in fact this is a test of the robustness of the tradition.  More than once, we have sent people back, encouraging them to think a little more deeply about their current practice, and to discuss with their teachers if they find something lacking in it.

It is still not easy saying ‘NO’ to a willing student at the door.  But in the long run, we are able to provide a much more stable learning environment for our current students. And for every enquirer who goes back perplexed at this business that is turning customers away, there is always one who does come back – and stays with us.

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