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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 disappointednot to mention surprisedwhen my fantasy collided with the unwelcome reality. But importantly, my teachers 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 theyll be sensitive with their comments and wise with their timingall 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.
Teachers unsure of the teacher-student dynamic can get into trouble. They may not recognize that a students complaint about the heat, an unwillingness to use a prop, or an early exit might be an unconscious sign that somethings wrong. Its 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 arent 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, its 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 overwhelmedat great cost to the student, the class, and themselves. In addition, its 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 students 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.
Heres the good news: By borrowing a few concepts from psychoanalysisspecifically the frame, transference, and countertransferenceteachers 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.
Rules of the Frame
The rules that govern the relationship between therapist and client are called the frame. They define the limits of acceptable behavior, creating a safe zone in which a relationship can unfold. These rules apply to the time, place, and length of the sessions, to the fees and cancellation policy, and to issues such as whether touch is used as part of the therapy. When these rules are broken, a sense of danger or discomfort arises that can jeopardize the relationship and make it difficult for the patient and analyst to work together.
The rules that govern the relationship between yoga teachers and students also make up a frame. These have to do with the time, place, and length of the class; personal hygiene; the kind of touch used; and the kind of contact teachers and students have between classes. When teachers go way overtime, give aggressive adjustments, or ask students on dates, they are pushing the limits of the frame. And so are students who consistently arrive well past the starting time, wear clothes stinking of last weeks sweat, demand excessive attention, or flirt with their teachers.
Crossing the Line
As a teacher, I apply the frame to yoga in four ways. First, I register when a challenge occursI usually feel that a boundary is being crossed. Second, I remind myself that the challenge contains a message, one of which the transgressor is usually unaware. Third, I ask myself what that message could be. And fourth, I try to find an appropriate response, one that deals with the message in the challenge and protects the emotional safety of the student and the class.
Simon, for example, was a regular in my Mysore class. He would frequently challenge the boundaries I had established by talking and laughing during class. When I paid closer attention to his behavior, I noticed that talking and laughing relaxed him; focusing on his practice made him feel uncomfortable. I wondered if the unconscious message in his behavior was a deep-seated fear of getting close to his feelings.
Since students in a Mysore class go at their own pacethey practice a memorized sequence with occasional help from the teacherwe had ample opportunity to talk during class. When Simon was distracted, I would step up to his mat, stress how hard it is to focus, and encourage him to be present. In doing so, I was trying to put his struggle into words, to show compassion for its magnitude, and to offer him a solution.
At first, it was difficult for Simon to improve his focus, and he was uncomfortable with the feelings that arose during practice. Eventually, he noticed that he was afraid of success, which in yoga meant mastering the postures and the breath. He came to believe that his distraction during class was an unconscious strategy to slow his progress in yoga and therefore avoid the discomfort of succeeding.
Still, Simon continued to concentrate. Over time, he was able to stay present for longer periods. As he slowly became more skilled at the postures, he was able to free himself from the safety of failure. What began as a breach of the frame led to an exploration of Self. The hidden message in Simons behavior was at least partly revealed, and he started to allow himself to succeed.
In the teacher-student relationship, as in the psychoanalyst-patient relationship, theres a difference in power. In psychoanalysis, its 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 messageone of which the student is unaware. Third, I ask myself what that message could be. And fourth, I try to formulate an appropriate response.
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 didnt 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 didnt see it that way. She soon asked if she could bring a list of postures into class. When I didnt 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 didnt 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 correctit 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 wouldnt 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 successand keeping transference in mindchanged how I worked with her. I realized I needed to be softer and more supportiveless like the parent I imagined shed 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.
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 Im not seeing the student. Second, I remind myself that the countertransference contains a message even if Im 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 shamingthe exact opposite of my intention.
I wasnt completely surprised when William didnt return the next day or for the next several months. I didnt know whether hed simply left town or if Id driven him away. In either case, I had time to think about my reaction.
After some time, I came to understand that Williams 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 wasnt 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.
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.
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 Ive learned about relationships from psychoanalysis, that no longer seems to tell the whole story.
With the benefit of hindsight and wisdom, I must acknowledge that I challenged the frame. Now I cant miss the transference in my affection, and Im relieved she didnt encourage my feelings.
In the absence of the good fortune that preserved my relationship with my teacher, its important to appreciate the function of the frame and to look for the hidden message in any boundary violation, whether youre the teacher or the student. Understanding how transference and countertransference work can provide an emotional context for disruptive behavior and make it possible to identify unconscious motivation.
If we think about why we do what we do, especially in relation to our history and habits, we have a chance to deepen our sense of self, to make wiser decisions, and to act more effectively. And, again, whether were the teacher or the student, if we apply this understanding to our experience in the class, we have a chance to protect the precious relationship that lies at the heart of the practice of yoga.
Raphael Gunner is a yoga teacher and a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles. You can contact him via e-mail at