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Teaching Yoga

You’re a Yoga Teacher, Not a Therapist

Yoga students often bring their off-the-mat problems into the studio, looking for guidance. While it’s easy for teachers to get sucked into these conversations, it can be tricky to know what to offer in response.

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Breakups. Addictions. Loss of loved ones. Sleeping problems. These are just a few of the issues yoga students frequently bring up with their teachers before and after class. While it’s easy for teachers to get sucked into these conversations, it can be tricky to know what to offer in response. “I was 21 when I started teaching, and I wasn’t prepared for women in their 30s airing their dirty laundry to me,” says George Aliaga, a yoga teacher in New Jersey. “I didn’t possess the firmness to swerve the conversation away to something else. I would listen for an hour after class ended, and I’d feel really drained.”

It takes a lot of practice to learn where to draw the lines. “As yoga teachers, we are collaborators, not sole treaters,” explains Bo Forbes, a yoga teacher and clinical psychologist. We have to know the limitations of our training, she adds. Forbes has been a licensed psychotherapist for 25 years, and she believes there are definitive lines; teachers can do harm if they offer advice about mental health issues they haven’t been trained to treat.

Another teacher has a clear opinion: “You’re a yoga teacher. You are not a therapist,” says Alison Campbell, a restorative teacher from Powerflow Yoga in New Jersey. “If people share with you before or after class, do what a good teacher does—listen. That’s all!”

See also A Sequence + Meditation for Setting Healthy Boundaries

How the Yoga Teacher-Therapist Line Gets Blurred

A study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine notes that 38 percent of Americans seek complementary and alternative methods of treatment. Yoga, breathing and meditation are the fastest-growing methods, Forbes writes in an article for The International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization projects that depression will be the world’s leading disease by 2030. It currently ranks third.

Put simply: People go through hard times, and they often do yoga to help them. Even Yoga Alliance, the credentialing organization in the yoga world, acknowledges that yoga is inherently therapeutic, explains YA spokesperson Andrew Tanner who is also a teacher. “It’s good for you. But there’s a difference between dealing with diagnosed medical conditions and teaching yoga to people in a way that helps them holistically,” he adds. Yoga teachings may help with depression and other disorders, and that’s great. As long as you keep your offerings within yoga, you’re good. YA forbids teachers from making any kind of medical claims and doesn’t allow the word “therapy” in the titles of credentialed teacher training programs.

Because yoga and therapy both heal, it’s common for students to blur the lines between teacher and therapist. “When students are moving their body in yoga class, they’re connecting to the emotional body. They’re connecting to themselves in spiritual and emotional ways,” Forbes says. “It’s natural for them to ask the person who is leading the experience about what’s going on.”

The teacher’s role, though, is to guide—not to give advice. Teachers should facilitate the student’s process and evolution, explains Eddie Modestini, co-founder of Maya Yoga in Maui. In his own yoga practice, Modestini works on his growth psychologically, mentally and physically. “Students are the ones who must navigate the territory of their journeys. It’s their responsibility to look at the congestion in their minds and hearts and take personal responsibility.” He adds that yoga is a self-reliant system while therapy is dependent on collaboration with a trained professional. They often work toward the same goal, but in very different ways—with different experts.

See also 7 Strategies for Recovering from Yoga Teacher Burnout

5 Ways to Set Healthy Boundaries with Yoga Students

If a student talks about his problems before or after class, how should a yoga teacher respond? What and how much do you say? While it does take experience and practice to create healthy boundaries, there are some things you can start doing right away.

1. Have a list of referrals handy.

“As a 200-hour registered yoga teacher and a PhD in counseling psychology, I can say that I never received yoga from my therapist, and I would assume vice versa,” says Kathleen Williams of Bloomfield, New Jersey. “Most yoga teachers have no training in addictions, psychotherapy and disorders and should never dispense advice in these matters. It is a dangerous game, and it’s unethical. I would highly recommend that when students ask such questions, yoga teachers point them in the right direction with referrals.” And have more names than just psychotherapists at the ready. Tanner recommends yoga teachers have a network of acupuncturists, chiropractors, doctors, psychologists and nutritionists on hand to share with their students as needed.

2. Offer the teachings.

“What I do is teach the Yoga Sutras,” Modestini explains. “Yoga is the path of self-realization. Yoga gives you the window to see yourself more clearly. It’s the most powerful healing system on the planet. Teachers gain insights into how to help other students navigate through their process. But we don’t get distracted by becoming involved.” He doesn’t let things get personal. Instead, everything goes back to the information he has learned after 33+ years of study with Sri K. Patthabi Jois and BKS Iyengar. If a student is in a lot of pain and asks what he should do, Modestini would quote Jois and say, “Simply do your practice and all is coming.”

3. Listen.

“I find that when students ask questions, they usually want a listening ear,” says Marcie Appleton Wallace, owner of Jaipure Yoga in Montclair, NJ. “Often, when we are suffering, we feel we are not being listened to. So I will listen and not say much. My role is not to diagnose but to be a safe presence for the individual. That is often all that is needed for the person to then figure out where their next step is.”

4. Say “I don’t know.”

“As a yoga teacher, it’s important to come from a place of ‘yes,’” says Chris SantaMaria, a yoga and fitness teacher in New York City. “During class, I can create space, awareness and help them work their way toward acceptance and love. Now outside of class, I think it’s imperative that teachers have the tools to sometimes come from a place of ‘no’ and protect their own energy levels. Students will come to us for answers. It’s okay to say we don’t have them.”

5. Hold space.

“If I were to pull up to the scene of an accident, god forbid, I wouldn’t try to operate on someone,” explains Alison McCue, teacher and partner at Powerflow. “I would kneel down and breathe with that person or hold their hand. I can’t reset a wound, but I do know how to hold space for a student, look them in the eyes and breathe with them.”

Try a few of these tips with your students, and see which one works best for you. Rest assured that you don’t have to take on the burden of being more than a yoga teacher and you shouldn’t. It’s best for you, your students, and everyone else if you stick to what you’ve studied and know.

See also 19 Yoga Teaching Tips Senior Teachers Want to Give Newbies

Kristen Kemp is a 500-RYT yoga teacher in New Jersey and has been writing books and articles since 1996. She loves to practice yoga, run with her dog, read to her three kids and play with her six chickens. She’s the content creator and social media manager of Powerflow Yoga, a company of nine yoga studios in New Jersey.