Chances are at some point you have heard someone gush about their yoga teacher. It usually goes something like, “I was completely lost until I found that class!” or even “That yoga teacher literally saved my life!” Maybe you have felt that way about a teacher.
These seem to be innocent—and flattering—comments. Yet when you elevate your yoga instructor to a sort of “holier than thou” position or place them on a pedestal, you unknowingly create an unhealthy disparity in the teacher–student dynamic. And that can be problematic.
See also: Find the Right Yoga for You
How yoga teachers end up on pedestals
When you find a yoga teacher whose approach to the practice resonates with you, and whose words are what wanted or needed in a particular moment, it can be exceptionally easy to project onto that teacher a belief that they have all the answers or are heavily connected to Spirit.
But yoga teachers are human. They are fallible and subject to all the same emotions, shortcomings, and liabilities as anyone. They might be able to create a powerful experience and facilitate “aha” moments for you and other students. But they did not necessarily sign up to fulfill a particular role for you or become an archetype in your world or even to live up to your expectation of flawlessness.
It can get complicated because, sadly, not all yoga teachers manage to stop themselves from buying into the praise or hype they receive, which can further exacerbate the power dynamics in the teacher–student relationship.
Yoga students: How to keep your yoga teacher off a pedestal
Learn to distinguish the types of behavior that could disappoint you—from the innocent to the undeniably unethical. A teacher could be acting in an entirely appropriate manner that you simply do not like. Or they could be transgressing an ethical line.
Innocent behaviors may include:
- Drawing a healthy boundary in their after-class interactions with you
- Offering honest feedback on your practice
- Delaying a response to a question you sent via DM or email because they have other priorities
Unethical behaviors may include:
- Lying or exaggerating about their experience or education
- Making medical diagnoses or claims about the “healing” (as opposed to “beneficial”) aspects of a pose
- Engaging in sexual innuendo or sleeping with students
What happens when a teacher turns out to be a fallible human?
One of two things usually happens when a teacher who haS been revered falls from grace in any kind of way.
Some students will give yoga teachers “a pass” for behaviors that they wouldn’t allow from “normal” folks. Students will either ignore or excuse the teachers’ behavior because they do not want to seem uptight, appear unappreciative, or disappoint the teacher. When this happens, students often look the other way because the teachers are perceived to be helping so many. Followers of some teachers have rationalized profoundly unethical behavior simply because the teachings of yoga were understood to be so valuable.
The second type of student will feel hurt or indignant and will abruptly break off the relationship. Sadly, many students do this without initiating a conversation with their teacher, which could create a learning opportunity for both parties. As a result, the student no longer avails themselves of the yoga that once made such a difference in their life.
If you find yourself making excuses for a teacher’s behavior, apologizing on their behalf, or avoiding difficult conversations to confront the teacher’s behavior, ask yourself what is making you uncomfortable. It may be helpful to address the situation with the teacher. When you kindly and compassionately hold your teacher accountable by raising your concerns with them, it can open a dialogue and create an opportunity for growth for both parties.
Yoga teachers: How to keep yourself off a pedestal
When you share the practice and teachings of yoga, it’s important that you do so from a place of helping others and not yourself.
Don’t get high off your own supply
When students project onto you, gush, or transfer feelings onto you, keep your head level and your perspective clear. Don’t let the hype embellish your ego.
Enlist a circle of high counsel
You need certain friends, family members, and mentors who are able to call you out and challenge you on your foibles. If you listen to no one beside yourself, you risk the danger of becoming grandiose or egocentric. Staying close to people who will kindly tell you when you are off-base will help keep you humble.
Don’t make claims about the healing power of yoga or your teaching
Doing this gives students the false impression that you have the power to heal them, which skews the power dynamic in the relationship. For example, “X pose will detox your liver” or “X pose treats fibromyalgia.”
Keep your blessings to yourself.
When you offer blessings of any sort to students, it implies that blessings can be conferred on them by you.
Sit or stand at the same physical level as students
By physically being on the same plane as the students, as opposed to teaching from a platform or stage, you encourage parity with them. Unless you are in a big auditorium-like setting with a large audience that’s having trouble seeing, sit on the floor or in chairs like everyone else.
Talk about your own foibles and the challenges you’ve been through so people are aware that you have the same vulnerabilities and human struggles—but without becoming too vulnerable. Your intention is to help students learn something, not to have them console you. Keep helpful stories in the classroom and save heart-wrenching personal stories that are unresolved for your therapist’s office.
Don’t negate someone’s past
Teachers who tend to abuse their power will make an example out of a successful student with statements such as, “Before starting yoga with me, Sally was a broken woman. But now….”
Set boundaries with students and actively refuse idolization
When students gush, idolize, or project you into the stratosphere with their praise, turn it around on them. You could say, “Thank you, but I assure you, I have bad days like everyone else, ask my partner!” or “That’s kind of you, but truly, you are the one who did the work.”
Continue learning: Read dozens of other articles about teaching yoga