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Idol Teachings

Put your teacher on a pedestal? Tempted to date your students? Here’s a blueprint for a healthier teacher-student dynamic.

By Raphael Gunner

Once, years ago, I developed a crush on my yoga teacher. I even went so far as to write her a note saying so. At the time, it seemed simple enough: She was beautiful, sweet, and extremely supportive. She was also, as it turned out, a lesbian. Of course, I was disappointed—not to mention surprised—when my fantasy collided with the unwelcome reality. But importantly, my teacher’s response protected the boundaries of our relationship. She was still the teacher, and I was still the student.

Now, having finished my doctorate in psychology and become a yoga teacher myself, I realize that a solid relationship between students and teachers is an essential part of the practice of yoga. Truth is, the teacher-student relationship in yoga is not unlike the analyst-patient relationship in psychoanalysis. As yoga students, we enlist the aid of specialists, rely on their observations to deepen our sense of self, and hope they’ll be sensitive with their comments and wise with their timing—all the things we hope for in a therapist, too. And yet, while all therapists are taught to acknowledge the importance of the relationship and to respect the emotional vulnerabilities of the patient, most yoga teachers have to figure it out on their own.

Class Conflicts
Teachers unsure of the teacher-student dynamic can get into trouble. They may not recognize that a student’s complaint about the heat, an unwillingness to use a prop, or an early exit might be an unconscious sign that something’s wrong. It’s easy to see why these signals go unheeded: teachers may not be looking for them, unaware that they might be there to begin with, hidden in small, subtle attacks against the rules of the room. Besides, most teachers aren’t taught to think that way.

On a more serious level, teachers might get romantically involved or have sex with their students. This, too, is easy to envision. Because they teach in a culture that objectifies the body and assist students who often practice in revealing clothes, it’s not surprising that instructors may be tempted. Without acknowledging that such feelings might surface, and without developing effective strategies to process them if they do, teachers run the risk of being overwhelmed—at great cost to the student, the class, and themselves. In addition, it’s common for students, especially those in search of love and acceptance, to idealize a teacher. And it can be tempting for a teacher to embrace a student’s adoration. But this can be devastating to students and can short-circuit their chance to learn to tolerate powerful feelings.

Once teachers cross the line, students may stop feeling safe in class. They may wonder if the teacher is adjusting their alignment or checking out their bodies. When teachers fail to control their impulses, they may lose the respect of their students.

Lesson Plan
Here’s the good news: By borrowing a few concepts from psychoanalysis—specifically the frame, transference, and countertransference—teachers can create helpful boundaries and positive relationships with their students. Understanding these concepts can help both instructors and students deepen their self-understanding and more skillfully handle the subtleties of their relationship.

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Reader Comments

Gomi

I have had very unpleasant experiences with a yoga teacher.Very judgmental,sticking her nose in my private life,really crossing the boundaries.So i appreciate the article

pooja bhimra

hi,
iam a yoga practioner&soon going to start teaching,but i've still to find or rather seeking a guru.it makes life less complexed when u know u are always guided.as a matter of fact the innerself always keeps guiding.i would like u answer my query.thanks pooja

Esther

These are very interesting ideas, which can really be applied to any form of teaching, indeed even to parenting. But I think it's also important to remember that unless you know the student very well, you are essentially speculating. e.g. Perhaps Elizabeth simply has a bad memory, not a psychological issue.

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