Updated: Sep 8
Teacher-student relationship(s) in yoga - we are all students
We don’t really have to read the various accounts of abuse reported online to be aware of teachers abusing their power as a teacher or on the other hand students putting their teachers on a pedestal. Abuse of power has been an issue with humans for a long time. It's good that people speak up thus and this helps to discern better, improve things and overall to avoid future abuse from taking place.
To teach yoga is a constant self-enquiry as a teacher and as a student. A good teacher will invite people who come to classes to this self - inquiry. The self - inquiry does not mean to be judgemental, but using a critical mind to assess from all angles and see how something can be improved. This has to be done with kindness as passive or active aggression leads only to resistance. An overly critical mind can also disturb the peace and it depends on what our intent is, but when we are kind at the same time, it can help to improve things.
I have experienced abuse as a student and by observing others have seen various patterns of abuse. Even thus it becomes more and more debate, many lineages seem to ignore this and carry on with their high net worth business yet it is such an important aspect to feeling safe in any yoga environment.
The Yamas and Niyamas as ethical guidance
Often big multicultural companies seem to have better ethical standards in place and even thus us yogis have our good old Yamas and Niyamas, it often seems they are not applied.
Sometimes a teacher who may have narcissistic tendencies (we all have narcissistic tendencies to a lesser and greater extend and social media is increasing this) and gets his or her self-worth through admiration and adulation, at other times it is the student who transgresses all his or her ideas onto the teacher or vice versa the teacher transgresses his or her need onto the students (sees in the teacher his or her perfect parent, life partner or else, whereas the teacher sees in their students the need to be liked etc.). We think this only happens with rock stars, but as a yoga teacher or in fact, any person who stands in front of a crowd, with more and more people wanting to be charismatic teachers or looking up to charismatic teaching there is a danger of more and more “abuse” happening.
The obstacle to enlightenment: The it is only me and I do my own thing culture
Therefore, any good teacher training should make any inspiring teacher aware of being aware of Asmita (obstacle on the path of yoga, the” me me me. it's only me” and I do my own thing element), and we see more and more of this. In either case, it’s very unhealthy and psychologically disturbing and to watch uncomfortable. We have to be discerning NOT to abuse this relationship and to empower our students by inviting them to grow, but as a student, we also have the duty to "listen or give attention" (never surrender blindly), otherwise, there will be no mutual growth. To listen and absorb does not mean to blindly do what you are told, but a willingness to commit and study and a constant willingness by the teacher and the student mutually to stay humble and self examine him or herself.
Yoga ought to be a sacred ground for self-discovery and spiritual growth, so any narcissistic tendencies in a teacher or student have to be stopped and the teacher has to learn “humility” “selflessness”, “ethical business practices” and “integrity”. There is no pride nor entitlement to call the people who come to your classes “followers” or even "my students" and even before we call them students a certain intimacy and regularity has to be established. A good teacher does not create an attachment to people who come to her or his class.
I would not dare to call anybody in a casual class who may even have more experience than me a “student” unless this person commits to being taught by me and even then, I recognize the fact that we are all “eternal students” of yoga. When I started to teach, I remember when people thanked me for a wonderful class saying, “I only give you the tools, you made it wonderful for yourself” and “let’s give this thanks to the wonderful art of yoga”.
Ego smashing was done in the old days and maybe some still need some of it, but we live in 2020 and hopefully can use some more gentle tactics to make people realize and discern better. However, this is not easy as it demands a strong character not to fall victim of gaslighting and manipulation. It also requires years and years of being a teacher to not fall victim to the ego. The first few years are full of praise and often teachers think there, but it takes time.
At the same time, people who transgress can be annoying with their constant adulation of any given teacher or vice versa the teacher who puts all their needs on the student.
Who said teaching was easy and is for everyone?
A 200-hour foundation teacher training really gives you only the foundations and to be a teacher requires many more years of experience, there is no rush and people should take it Vinyasa Krama, that has respect for a step by step progression, being selfless, humble and constantly contemplate ethical practice and question integrity.
Emotional involvement is a taboo on the path of enlightenment and I strongly advocate staying away from intimate relationship building between a teacher and student. Leave any sexual conduct out of the classroom! A yoga classroom session does not serve as a dating pool, we have many other places available for this. Go dancing, join a meetup etc.
There is also a lot to be said about the power of touch and adjustments, so keep your fingers off in the beginning and maybe forever until you get the maturity to touch in such a way that it is transforming rather than binding or even worth makes the person fall in love with you or suffer from trauma! A lot can be said about this. Another time…
People are searching for happiness in the external and a good teacher knows how to empower this person to see happiness in his or her own self. There often exists an unconscious desire for an “idealized” teacher or even a “father” “mother” or “partner” “best mate” figure and here where the task of a teacher is enormous, and we may even sometimes walk away from a situation if we don’t know how to deal with it. Like we should transfer people to a GP, we may have to recommend seeing a psychologist or therapist.
Romantic ideas will block this relationship as much as too much tension blocks the flow of communication and energy within the body. It disturbs others in the community and even can let people abandon the wonderful path of love and compassion that yoga provides us. Also, we have a responsibility to set a good example and empower our children with the right action and images. They are the leaders of our future. How do you think a self-conscious child will perceive a half-naked yoga picture where Ken touches Barbie inappropriately in Downdog?
If you want to find out more about our Sundara teacher training, please get in touch with us. We offer a taster session for our 2020 intake on the 29 September. Claudia is a SYT registered with the YAP as a Training Provider and Senior experienced Teacher.
Claudia Steinhauser SYAP
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