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Idol Teachings

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

By Raphael Gunner

Judgment Error
In my teaching relationships, I apply countertransference much the same as I do transference. First, I try to register when my countertransference is stimulated, which may be evident when I start behaving in uncharacteristic ways. At such moments, I feel that Iím not seeing the student. Second, I remind myself that the countertransference contains a message even if Iím not aware of it yet. Third, I ask what that message could be. And fourth, I try to respond appropriately.

William was a student who lived out of state and would drop in on my Mysore class when he was in town. He was fairly new to yoga but not easily frustrated. I appreciated his quiet, cool vibe. But his cigarette breath and the long hair that fell into his eyes, forcing him to struggle to see through his bangs, bothered me. I assumed he was shy and hiding behind his hair. And consciously, I applauded him for doing something healthy, even though he smoked.

One day, toward the end of a very busy class, William asked for help with Headstand. I went over to his mat, and when I found it cluttered and askew, I impatiently pointed to the chaos around him. Then I straightened his mat and helped him set up and get into the posture.

Though nothing more was said, I felt something had gone wrong. The tip-off was the image I had of me standing with a little boy at the door to his room telling him to look at the mess he had made. I felt critical and shamingóthe exact opposite of my intention. I wasnít completely surprised when William didnít return the next day or for the next several months. I didnít know whether heíd simply left town or if Iíd driven him away. In either case, I had time to think about my reaction.

After some time, I came to understand that Williamís smoking and messiness aroused in me an unconscious fear of being weak and confused, qualities that I had been uncomfortable with since childhood. When I stood in judgment over William, I also stood in judgment over myself, condemning in him the very same qualities I loathed in myself.

Eventually, to my relief, William returned to class and indicated that he had not felt injured in any way. This may have been true, or he may have wanted to protect me, or he may simply have not wanted to revisit the experience. But even if William wasnít hurt by my actions, the experience brought to light some of my own fears, the harsh way I treat them, and the danger that I will condemn in others the things I hate in myself.

Nerve Damage
This and similar experiences have taught me the importance of noticing when my reactions in the classroom are off. Invariably, it means some nerve has been struck, and I need to explore the underlying feelings. My hope is that by becoming more aware of these feelings, I will be less likely to transfer them onto my students. This, of course, is the work of a lifetime, but I cannot imagine a more valuable goal for a teacher.

Heart Felt
As I look back on the crush I once had on my teacher, the situation no longer seems so simple. Yes, she was beautiful, sweet, and supportive. But in light of what Iíve learned about relationships from psychoanalysis, that no longer seems to tell the whole story.

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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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