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Yoga Teacher As Friend

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by J. Brown

The traditional roles of yoga teacher and student have collapsed under the weight of cultural appropriation, capitalism, and scandal. In the aftermath, yoga teachers often find themselves trapped in a nowhere land somewhere between fitness instructor and life coach. But yoga is learned in relationship, the nature of which largely determines the understanding. So for yoga teachings to retain integrity in the modern world, updated models may be required.

When I started teaching in the early nineties, the standard line on the teacher/student relationship was: “friendly but not friends.” The idea was that in order to be authoritative as a yoga teacher we needed to maintain a level of objectivity. This fit with established dynamics between people and their trainers at the gym, and mirrored the model set by the Indian teachers who came from hierarchical traditions that saw the guru/disciple relationship as functioning on another level beyond interpersonal. A subtle layer of anonymity may be the best thing for trainers who are focused on physical fitness, and surely there are long standing mores within the Indian lineages that are not for westerners to judge.

But as yoga has become part of mainstream North American culture, the divide between teacher and student has become rife with pedestal building, lofty ideals, and hypocrisy.

I remember feeling intimidated to engage my teachers on a personal level. Partly, it was just not the norm. We were more focused on the technicalities of asana than on the people who were performing or teaching them. Even when teachers make themselves more available outside of a consideration of poses, the deep respect for someone who has been helpful in ways that are not always easy to voice is generally accompanied by a fair amount of self consciousness. If the teacher does not reach out past the third wall of the mat then rarely does any connection occur.

In those earlier years, I emulated the same model. I had studied diligently because I wanted to be skilled and authoritative. In playing the role of teacher, I painted the version of myself that was most expected. Consequently, my after-class conversations tended to be more about me trying to prove that I was smart and qualified than actually connecting with people. In fact, the more popular I became, the farther away I felt from students in my class, even as they showered me with compliments. And at some point, the dissonance became so great that being a yoga teacher started to no longer make sense.

In order to be true to myself as a yoga teacher, I needed a new model. I am not a guru. I have no superior knowledge of the human body that can fix you. I’m just another person who is passionate about these practices and has made them my profession. In friendship, our combined inquiry may offer some mutual benefit.

These days, the discussion around the role that yoga teachers play is generally concerned with safety and the need for teachers to be better trained in psychology. Many believe that yoga teachers need to be better prepared to deal with the range of mental disorder that is walking into standard group yoga classes. Whether or not studying psychology is useful for yoga teachers in meeting the needs of students is an open question, but the training protocols for psychology specifically establish distance as a way to prevent interpersonal exchange that might compromise the treatment. However, in my experience of yoga, genuine personal connection between the teacher and student is fundamental to the effectiveness of the practice. The professional boundaries required for yoga teachers to be safe and effective are no different from the boundaries required for a healthy friendship.

Of course, friendship comes with responsibility. A friend doesn’t manipulate or deceive. A friend isn’t secretive or hurtful, even inadvertently. And when friends say one thing and do another, they cease to be a friend very quickly. On the flip side, friends are unconditional and transparent. Friends make you feel comfortable and confident that they would be there for you if you needed them. And a friend is also someone who cares enough to call you out on your shortcomings when no one else does. Most importantly, in friendship, we are equals who take full responsibility for ourselves.

I have a stack of yoga books that used to inspire my thoughts with the infinitude of possibility. But now when I look at them, all I can think of is the men behind them. The men who once held an air of magic but, by way of their own petard, made themselves into frauds, no more immune to human frailty than anyone else.

It’s difficult to reconcile the paradox of a gifted teacher who has helped so many people and yet also behaves in ways that run contrary to what they teach. Can we really separate out the teacher from the teachings? Regardless of the answer to that question, the only antidote to the dysfunction that is caused by these rifts is to bridge the distance between yoga teachers and their students. In order to maintain personal integrity on both sides, we need to hold everyone to the responsibility of being a true friend.

I am fortunate to enjoy the company of folks who have attended my class regularly for more than a decade. They knew me before I got married and became a dad. They stuck by me when I opened a center. They have seen me on my best and worst days. These people are my friends. And if I stop fulfilling my part of the bargain, they are going to know. You can’t fool your real friends. Just as I hope to hold a mirror up for them when they come to my class, so their continued participation holds that same mirror back up to me. We are in it together.

~

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com

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14 comments… add one

  • NJacana

    Great article. I only hope I can be a real friend to the teachers who have meant so much to me and who taught me what a real friend can be.

  • paul

    what are the “traditional roles of yoga teacher and student”? i am under the impression they never existed in the context of the modern yoga studio, and that friendly-not-friend is to give the impression of professionalism rather than to impress a lineage, though i know studio culture only from people writing about it.

  • Paul- By “traditional roles” I am referring to the dynamic that existed before the invent of the modern group yoga class, where the relationship between teacher and student was more clearly defined by the culture. This is what has collapsed as yoga has become part of popular western culture. And yes, the friendly-not-friend is meant to give the impression of professionalism in the absence of a lineage, but it also creates a distance that allows teachers to be less accountable for what happens in their classes. The point is to bridge the distance and encourage teachers to take responsibility for their teaching in new ways.

  • paul

    that still doesn’t tell me what the “traditional roles” are, but i see now what you are saying- there is no yoga culture (no “roles”) so the dynamics of relationships needs to be at the fore to deal with the missing structure.

  • John

    I don’t pay my friends to spend time with me. If it happens that yoga teachers become friends with their students outside class that’s excellent. All the teachers whose classes I go to are people I’d be happy to become friends with and sometimes that has happened, but I for one pay the studio for quality asana instruction, not some weird alternative to friendship.

    Expecting teachers to be friends to their students indiscriminately, on demand, is unfair, stupid, and truly warped.

    Oh, and we “westerners” are morally required to judge “traditional” teacher – student relationships, not duck the issue by hiding behind relativist nonsense. Too many people get away with too much under the guise of tradition for us not to be very clear some things are wrong regardless of how long they have been part of another society’s “normal”

  • John- I don’t pay my friends to spend time with me but I am very happy to pay them when they provide me with a service that I deem valuable. A money exchange and a professional relationship does not negate friendship.

    And no one is talking about “indiscriminate” anything (not sure what “indiscriminate friendship” means.) Seems like you are suggesting that being friends means inappropriate behavior. But this is not the case necessarily.

    The whole point of this inquiry is for us to question the “traditional” roles so we can be honest about the things that have gone wrong in the past, and find integrity to what we are doing in our time.

  • “Not that one will become “besties” with every student, but there’s transparency, integrity, and true kindness that a good teacher brings to the table that cannot be faked, and “friendship” is a very good term for this combination of factors. This does not, in any way, absolve the teacher of the responsibility inherent in improving teaching methodology, pedagogy, etc., but without the friendship the technique is hollow and unsatisfying.”

  • Thanks for sharing your experience with this. I am sure it has crossed the mind of all yoga teachers. I have owned my own yoga studio for 10 years now, and I have noticed there are often differing dynamics for women and men as yoga teachers. Sometimes the situation is wonderful and benevolent, as in your case, and other times there is quite an opportunity to get caught in the nettles of other people’s energy and conundrums. A student and a customer are not one and the same, and to add the role of personal friend into the alchemy can be very challenging. It’s all too easy to end up serving a recipe made of random elements…one that ventures farther and farther away from the actual yoga experience. I find that if I become personal friends with the students, I am continuously invited into their subjective state of being (all too often chaotic and unsettled), which is a place I do not wish to dwell. I have taken a Vow of Silence, so I do not converse with the people who attend my studio unless I am teaching. I find it very clarifying albeit challenging because I maintain this outside the studio as well and have for several months. I’m certainly not an aspiring guru. I value ordinariness like never before. However, I would like to suggest that the notion of Student and Teacher need not be completely tossed away because of our commerce society. Thanks for letting me share. Namaste

  • If I may add one more comment – I run my studio on a donation basis only, which has been very helpful in establishing the Customer/Student differentiation. It is much more harmonious this way, and so far, so good!

  • Interesting discussion J. I prefer to maintain professional boundaries with my current students and adhere to the same ethic from my work as a case manager. When students ask me to join them after class for coffee, I politely decline. Mine should not be considered the only way, but it has kept things clean over the years. Male yoga teachers are particularly susceptible to claims of wrongdoing because of our “Friends” from the past.

  • Lauren Taylor

    I applaud the article and the author for drawing attention to how problematic the teacher-student relationship is within the contemporary yoga industry — and the potential for injury and abuse, which is far more widespread than people — especially the yoga teacher corps –care to acknowledge.

    However, there’s really no solution based simply on appeals to the conscience of these same teachers. Most, especially the younger ones, are not sufficiently self-aware or grounded in life and they lack the formal training that would allow them to rapidly identify, sort through, and work to mitigate the pathologies that typically arise in such an unregulated quasi-therapeutic encounter.

    Moreover, it’s not just the desperate longings, buried grief and inevitable projections of the students that are the problem; the teachers bring their own issues to the studio practice and indeed to their larger ambition of becoming a yoga teacher. In my experience, even those that may start off with good intentions of “service’” can easily succumb to what psychologists have called “acquired situational narcissism” or ASN, which simply means that once in a position of power and influence, they may move to exploit that position, and engage in errors of both omission and commission with their students.

    The problem actually goes far beyond the encounter of the individual teacher and student. In many studios, especially those affiliated with specific yoga traditions or lineages, the studio may be functioning as a quasi cult with ambitions of “capturing” students as “followers.” Sometimes rather advanced telepathic techniques are being introduced during the instruction and in group meditation sessions to achieve a kind of psychic infiltration and informal mind control over regularly attending students to instill their “loyalty” to the studio, its teachers, and the “movement” they represent.

    Some of the better sages that visited from abroad over the years warned of these kinds of abusive practices — the Buddhist Chogyam Rinpoche being a notable one, but also the great Hatha godfather BKS Iyengar himself, Both men felt that Hatha yoga in the West needed to be stripped of its Tantric orientation because the Western mind simply wasn’t disciplined enough to delve into its mysticism and to explore its psychic potential without succumbing to the temptations of the ego. Rinpoche spoke of this often in his lectures at Nairopa in the 1970s. It was not a message that his avid followers wanted to hear.

    Naturally, many ambitious Westerners ignored all those sagacious warnings. If you are familiar with the Anusara Yoga movement, for example, it had very strong cultic ambitions from the very start. Many people blame this phenomenon on its founder, John Friend, but he was really just the top of the Anusara power pyramid. Anusara’s senior teachers — women in the main — helped pioneer a pedagogy was quite deliberately intended to induce a “power exchange” for the express purpose of penetrating the soul and subtle body of their students and to create a telepathic channel for infusing within them the energies of the “kula” — in theory the Anusara collective as a whole, but really the “cupula” comprised of these senior teachers.

    The Willow Street Yoga in Takoma Park, MD was ground zero for Anusara Yoga almost since its inception. Many Anusara yoga teachers — who have publicly disavowed that affiliation — still teach there and in other locales. They are the same people with the same training and same orientation — just no longer as delusionally power mad as they once were about creating a “transformational” yoga movement with their horny dope-smoking financial analyst at the top. However, they are still trying to preserve and build up a spiritual power base around a loyal flock and community, and many of the original personalities and relationships have simply gone underground, waiting for enough time to pass that no one will remember who was who and what went down.

    Narcissism of this kind never really dies or even fades away — once chastened by circumstance and scandal, it just morphs into a different modality, depending on what the market will bear, and what naive willing consumers — upscale suburban women with too much time and money on their hands — still crave. And they crave an enormous amount, obviously, which is why the entire yoga industry looks the way it does now.

    All of this is to say that the idea of a yoga teacher becoming a real “friend” to his or her students is probably a misguided one. J. Brown for one has a strong and affable personality, is highly trained, and is sincerely committed to students in a non-exploitative way. However, I would hate to see this kind of idea propagated in most studio environments that exist in yoga today – or elsewhere for that matter. If anything, there needs to be more detachment and respect for students – they’re really just “consumers,” after all — and less soul snatching and predatory intrusions. At the same time, teachers need to be more humble but also pro-active in conducting early interventions and making out-patient therapeutic referrals, if needed, when real issues arise.

    There are people out there doing this kind of work. Michael Lee, a 40-year yoga veteran who founded Phoenix Rising in Bristol, Vermont, trains teachers to become full-fledged yoga therapists, many of them already nurses and health professionals with advanced training in psychology and psychotherapy, physiology and anatomy. This is serious year-long training with an intensive residency period and a supervised practicum.

    Lee says he wants people attracted to yoga to be able to get the deep psychic healing they need, not just the stress relief or improved flexibility that a typical yoga asana or posture practice conducted at a commercial studio might provide.

    Simply put, the yoga teacher corps, as presently constituted, is very much a part of the problem being raised here, and really can’t be looked to for solutions. If you want to grasp this issue at its foundation, then reform the way teachers are trained and licensed, make it tougher and more demanding, and build in more institutional safeguards, and screen out the “unfit.” I would require a much higher degree of professionalism and professional formation than is currently being required in the current laissez-faire training system which is largely a financial sop to cash-starved studios, with the complicity of the Yoga Alliance.

    Yoga, understood in full depth, involves sacred “care of the soul.” Don’t leave it to all these well-intentioned young wannabes, their ranks filled with charlatans and power-trippers of every shade and hue, to figure these things out on their own, on the fly, on a whim, just hoping for the best.

  • Robin

    Thank you for the interesting article. I think maybe it takes all kinds. People who are looking for human interaction might be more inclined to attend a class of a more friendly teacher. Someone who just wants to do postures and leave probably wants a teacher who seems more “professional”. Just being who you are, in a humble and honest way, might be the best way to go. And rather than making teachers study psychology I would suggest they start by studying the Yoga Sutra, which has many lessons on human relationship. (As well as psychology)

  • Lauren Taylor

    Yoga people really need to stop citing ancient texts they barely understand — and join the modern world. Really. The best teachers don’t pretend to delve into esoteric realms they are humble enough to realize they don’t actually belong in. Invoking the sutras. For a 25-year old that would only be placing a spiritual gloss on something she pulled out of her ass or her diary that morning she got to class. Let’s build a serious teacher corps of older warriors and healers who have genuine life experience and have taken the time to humbly reflected upon it — not this Yahoo Sisters Club. American Yoga has suffered long enough from Karpel Tunnel Syndrome. Step into the Light.

    You’re reinforcing the mystical and esoteric quality of so much of what passes for yogic teaching “wisdom” which isn’t based on anything There’s a reason we have advanced in our human condition in so many areas. We got beyond the limited understandings of single culture in a single place in time. Moreover, anything placed in the hands of the kind of people who are screened en masse to become yoga teachers will only be applied in a most limited way.

  • Lauren Taylor

    Yoga people really need to stop citing ancient texts they barely understand — and join the modern world. Really. The best teachers don’t pretend to delve into esoteric realms they are humble enough to realize they don’t actually belong in. Invoking the sutras. For a 25-year old that would only be placing a spiritual gloss on some tidbit she pulled out of her ass or her diary the morning she got to class. Let’s build a serious teacher corps of older warriors and healers who have genuine life experience and have taken the time to humbly reflected upon it — not this Yahoo Sisters Club. American Yoga has suffered long enough from Karpel Tunnel Syndrome. Step into the Light.

    You’re reinforcing the mystical and esoteric quality of so much of what passes for yogic teaching “wisdom” which isn’t based on anything There’s a reason we have advanced in our human condition in so many areas. We got beyond the limited understandings of single culture in a single place in time. Moreover, anything placed in the hands of the kind of people who are screened en masse to become yoga teachers will only be applied in a most limited way.

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