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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

Power Play
In the teacher-student relationship, as in the psychoanalyst-patient relationship, there’s a difference in power. In psychoanalysis, it’s believed that this difference in power stimulates feelings from prior relationships, like those you had with your parents or siblings when you were young. When a patient transfers these feelings rooted in the past onto the analyst, it is called transference. And when the analyst transfers feelings rooted in prior relationships onto the patient, it is called countertransference. The same thing can happen in the teaching relationship: The student often transfers feelings rooted in prior relationships onto the teacher, and vice versa. Being sensitive to this tendency can help both of them understand the broad range of feelings they have toward each other.

Just as I do with the frame, when I apply the concept of transference to my relationships with my students, I take four steps. First, I try to register when transference takes place. The student often behaves in uncharacteristic ways, and in these moments, I often feel that the student sees me as someone else. Second, I remind myself that the transference contains a message—one of which the student is unaware. Third, I ask myself what that message could be. And fourth, I try to formulate an appropriate response.

Anger Management
Elizabeth was another student who used to take my Mysore class. She found it difficult to remember the sequence, and she became frustrated whenever she got stuck. Moreover, if I didn’t tell her the next posture immediately, her frustration swelled quickly into agitation and anger.

I could see these moments were very difficult for Elizabeth, but I thought they might eventually help her grow. If she could tolerate the frustration of feeling disoriented, she would be less likely to panic and thus more likely to advance. And if she could learn this skill during yoga practice, she might be able to use it in life.

Elizabeth didn’t see it that way. She soon asked if she could bring a list of postures into class. When I didn’t agree to her request, she got angry and stopped coming. This uncharacteristic behavior made me think about transference. I came to believe she saw me as a withholding parent, one for whom love was contingent on success. When I didn’t allow Elizabeth to bring a list, she seemed to feel that I was undermining her chance to succeed and consequently sabotaging her chance to be loved. Of course, I could not be absolutely certain that my interpretation was correct—it was less of a conclusion and more of a working assumption, open to revision as I got to know her better.

Despite her frustration, Elizabeth returned to the Mysore class a year later. This time I let her bring in a list, realizing that without it she wouldn’t stick with the program. With a minimum of frustration and anger, she memorized the sequence and immediately began to feel better about herself.

Seeing how Elizabeth responded to success—and keeping transference in mind—changed how I worked with her. I realized I needed to be softer and more supportive—less like the parent I imagined she’d experienced and more like the parent I imagined she yearned for. So, before telling her what she was doing wrong, I started telling her what she was doing right. In this way, I could keep her from feeling criticized and rejected. As a result, she became more receptive to my adjustments, and our relationship and her practice improved significantly.

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Reader Comments


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

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


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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