Updated: 4 days ago
Teacher-student relationship(s) in yoga - we are all students
Yoga ethics in the student-teacher relationship has become more important than ever. There have been various accounts of abuse reported online in recent years. However, teachers being in a position of power or on the other hand students putting their teachers on a pedestal has been with us for a long time. Abuse of power has been an issue with humans in general for a long time. It's really good that people speak up thus in the yoga world and this helps us to discern better, improve things and overall to avoid future abuse from taking place.
To teach yoga requires a constant self-inquiry 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 and being overly critical, but using your mind in a discerning way to assess from all angles and see how something can be improved. This has to be done with kindness. Passive or active aggression with an overly critical mind only leads to resistance and displaying an overly critical mind can feel very aggressive to some of us. An overly critical mind can disturb the peace around you and that is not what you want. It depends on what our intent is (that is, are you going into a battle?) or are you in a yoga environment setting? I believe if we are kind, compassionate at the same time we are critical, 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. I was never a follower of any kind of "tribe" or "style", but have fallen victim in toxic group dynamics and yes, they do exist also in the yoga community.
The Yamas and Niyamas - 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 by some and certainly we need to remind ourselves frequently.
Sometimes a teacher who may have narcissistic tendencies (we all have narcissistic tendencies to a lesser and greater extend and social media is definitely increasing this trend for many) 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 thang culture" and the forgotten art of how to go deep and learn how to live with conflict society of nowadays does not support the forming of deep relationships. People unfriend you, block you on social media if you have said anything that upset them. People are getting anxious, angry, depressed etc. - and have forgotten that conflict and misunderstandings are part of everyday life and the best friendships have gone through those misunderstandings together.
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 thang element). We see more and more of this.
We have to be discerning NOT to abuse any 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. Often the attempt by somebody to stay humble can get misinterpreted as not being in the know-how, but here it starts where people have to learn how to stay "humble" and not "fake" and overall learn how not to be subject to instant gratification and entitlement constantly.
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”. We ought not to call our students "followers" 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 and encourages them to go out and be free and explore the world.
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 nowadays, but we live in 2020 and hopefully can use some more gentle tactics to make people realize to discern better. However, this is not easy as it demands a strong character not to fall victim of gaslighting and manipulation and being completely honest, that is not being fake. 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 that can make newly graduated teachers proud, but believe me maturity in teaching takes time.
At the same time, people who transgress their ideal person into their teacher can be annoying with their constant adulation. So I remember this woman kept telling the group how beautiful and amazing everything is she learnt from her male teacher who she definitely seemed to be in love with to the annoyance of the rest of the group.
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 in the form of an intimate relationship 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 incorporate yoga ethics in the student-teacher relationship in our program.
Claudia is a SYT registered with the YAP as a Training Provider and Senior experienced Teacher.
Claudia Steinhauser SYAP
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