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The Yoga Teacher/Student Relationship: Five Senior Teachers Talk Shop

in For Teachers, YD News

On Wednesday, January 16th, five senior teachers convened at Maha Padma Temple for a panel discussion on The Role of the Yoga Teacher in Contemporary America. 

The group – Alison WestSwami Sadasivananda, James Murphy, Eddie Stern, and Hari Kaur Khalsa, spoke to a packed house. Padmini Perretti, the founder and owner of Maha Padma Yoga Temple, who came up with the idea for the event, began the evening with the quote “Don’t look for the right answers, look for the right questions.”

Brette Popper, founder and publisher of YogaCityNYC moderated and began by asking “How did you find your own teachers?”

“Everyone finds their own teacher according to what they need,” replied Swami Sadasivananda. James Murphy, a dancer, came to Iyengar and fell in love with it through Mary Dunn and most especially after taking a class where “70 year old Jewish women could do Ardha Chandrasana when I was falling over.”  Alison West did her first teacher training with Swami Sankarananda.

As Eddie Stern pointed out, when these teachers first started practicing back in the 80’s “yoga hadn’t been branded yet. It was just yoga. We didn’t think of it as different styles…. the only thing that really mattered and still matters, is Yoga citta vritti nirodhah.” And for Hari Kaur, the moment she began practicing she realized “I wanted to fall. You know? I just wanted to dive.” Alison West’s first teachers were in Munich and Swami Sankarananda was her first Teacher Training teacher; the concepts of Advaita/Vedanta were deeply formative for her later work.

“What are the ways that the guru /chela relationship are different now,” asked Popper.  “There are less realized masters now. It used to be that you spent 12 years with your teacher. Now it’s four weeks.” Swami Sadasivananda added that “nowadays a teacher is supposed to be spiritual or charming or someone who can catch you or is simply knowledgeable. So you must go and learn and become your own teacher.” He continued that we should all have a sacredness and humility to learning as teachers ourselves.

Eddie Stern commented that the Upanishads speak of a guru/disciple relationship as being one of service. Firstly, to the teacher. A student could be asked to tend the teacher’s cows for years, as service, before he or she was given any formal teachings.

“How has it changed [in America]? Everything has changed.”

Knowledge used to be parceled out to those willing to commit to the practice. And it was given with discretion. Now, however, yoga has become a business and yoga students have become yoga clients.  He continued, “yoga is not about me but about we, the whole interplay of everything. Media and technology serve a function because they keep the idea of we active…Now, perhaps, more and more people are ready to hear what was so long ago kept secret. Technology is just an extension of our consciousness. We created technology. And interconnectedness is being actualized now.”

In regards to how much a teacher should divulge regarding personal matters to a student, everyone wholeheartedly agreed that this relationship should not cross boundaries, one should not socialize with students much less engage in sexual relationships. As Eddie Stern pointed out – “Moving, breathing and concentration – put these, the practice, in front of everything else. Let the “yoga” do them.” (He did admit however that he met his wife in a yoga class but they were both students.) Hari Kaur quipped that she had been told, “If you don’t do right as a yoga teacher you will come back as a cockroach.” “NYC!” Eddie responded with mirth, perhaps thinking of his own bathroom. “Yes, there are passed spiritual teachers all around us,” said Hari. She went on to say that a guru, a true guru – “Is one which takes us from darkness into light.”

When asked how one should approach advanced learning, Alison West in her  direct, get-to-the-meat-of-the-matter approach, replied, “You have to decide how committed you are.” Her gaze settled on the teachers as she reminded them of the years of travel, study and practice they had put in as students. They all sought to “know” yoga. Why? Because they each were drawn undeniably to that “knowing” and now as teachers work just as hard to share that with the rest of us.

So how do you keep learning one of the audience members asked. ”I like to surround myself with people smarter than me. Paying attention keeps me learning,” observed Eddie Stern. “Being curious,” was James Murphy’s answer. “I do my practice,” said Hari Kaur. “Teaching is my teacher . . . My learning is enriched by going off topic completely and looking at art. Going to Storm King, gathering branches of beautifully colored leaves. Excellence, in any form, makes me happy,” said Alison West. Finally added Swami Sadasivananda, “I can learn from everyone.

By the end of the evening, many in the audience realized that yoga in contemporary America has changed — but the best teachers still deeply invest their yoga practice in ancient traditions.

These teachers live in 2013 which means no longer simply inhabiting a room with a cotton mat, but in a global space interwoven with many paths, props and even, wires. What matters is finding a teacher or guru who can weave it all together with respect and dignity for their students.

–Gina de la Chesnaye

This article was originally published on YogaCityNYC and is reposted here with permission.

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8 comments… add one
  • What a blessing to have so much teaching experience together to share thoughts on this topic. In my humble opinion, the shift from following your teacher for years to “getting yoga” in 4 weeks is not what has evolved for yogis, but a description of a flaw in the system of imposing yoga into a marketplace. A true student should spend years with a true teacher (after the 4 weeks, if you like) to find true yoga. One can learn a lot on one’s own or in books “about” yoga, but the shakti of yoga comes from direct transmission and practice in the presence of the teacher. The trend toward yoga as asana+lifestyle instead of chitta vrtti nirodaha is a foreseeable symptom of the incomplete understanding from shallow training.

    • Lalalala

      I agree. I have studied with my teacher for 4 years. I am taking a 5 month TT with her now, not because I want to teach but because I want to learn more from her and deepen my practice. I plan to continue studying with her as long as she will have me.

      I feel like I am getting more out of this particular TT because MY teacher is teaching it. It feels organic and authentic because the student/teacher relationship is there. I don’t think it would be the same if I were studying with a stranger or an acquaintance teacher.

      I wish that it were still possible to study the old school way. I am dedicated to learning from one teacher over many years. I don’t want or need a timeline. Nonetheless, I am enjoying the TT.

  • Jonathan

    One of the things that is often overlooked and should have changed when Yoga moved westward is the adaptation of yoga to western experience and psych.
    The success of creating greater liberty and unity using the yoga method depends on working with western experience. How do yoga students and teachers expect to reach deeper experiences without involving emotions, thoughts, physical experiences and daily events during practice? These events shape the student’s mind on a daily basis and thus should be embraced and incorporated in practice. The same goes to student’s history and self limitations among many other aspects.

    Ignoring emotions and daily experiences is counterproductive to the success of inner search. Creating a safe and secure space for the student to experience and express him / her self is crucial in order for the student to clearly see and let go of painful events, heal wounds and by that be able to reach deeper.

    When sex, money, power games and ego are put aside, teaching become without boundaries and student and teacher can be safe to dissolve all illusory boundaries. Boundaries as mentioned in the article are actually counterproductive to teaching yoga and to the student’s inner search. By sharing his / her experiences the teacher allows the student to learn about himself and feel comfortable to contribute his own experiences to the learning process. As the teacher and the student are actually one and the same, with time this concept of oneness becomes an experienced reality.

    Yoga and other eastern traditions were developed in different times and space. Cultural and historical aspects are now different. To put yoga in context and to apply the yoga method with western students requires developing new approach and drawing on the scientific research and teachers personal experience. As mentioned in the article, Individualize teaching is important. Mass classes are good for the pocket but allow little or almost no attention to each student’s individual needs (physically, emotionally and mentally).

    A system that does not evolve tends to freeze in time and become irrelevant. It already happened to yoga, where a big mass of yoga teachers was trained by the yoga industry but very few to none have reached the higher permanent states of consciousness and awareness related to illumination. It is ironic that today in most yoga studios this process is usually not even discussed and its meaning is forgotten. The essence of the practice is mostly lost and confusion prevails. So prayers to this and that god are uttered, invocations and mantras repeated but inner self-discovery is left aside.

    If as a yoga teacher your aim is to reach higher states of consciousness or deeper states of inner experiences (one and the same) and you did not or cannot reach does at will, remember that those skills are available and accessible and you should encourage your students to continue their search.

    The concept of yoga being about “we” and not about “me” might be true only after the “me” has discovered what is inside him / her self and experiences him/her self fully, only then the “we” melts into “me”. Thus initially focus should be towards “me” going inside and exploring the individual’s inner worlds.

    In order for the student to reach inside, the teacher and the student need to engage fully and there should be no separation between practice and daily events. All events are part of the learning and part of the teaching. For this bond to take place a pure intention and a clear heart are essential, otherwise it is better for all parties involved to stay in the shallow waters of consciousness.

  • The traditional indian system of gurukula, where the student stays and lives with the teacher has a lot of benefits. Just in our modern society this is not so easy to do anymore for most people. I think it is of absolute necessity of every yoga teacher to keep educating himself and keep undying about yoga. And of course practice yoga. Provided this even an intensive yoga teacher training course of 4 weeks can propel a student to new levels of understanding and consciousness.

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