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 makes 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.