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Exploring the Student-Teacher Relationship

Sally Kempton gives insight into the student-teacher relationship dynamic.

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Yoga studio, meditation, teacher

In my 20s, I studied tai chi with an old-school Chinese master. He had been a general in the Kuomintang army, and he demanded a level of dedication that I’d never encountered before. Every morning at six, we met him in a park in East Hollywood, where he taught us, drilled us, and critiqued us mercilessly. For over a year, besides meeting daily with the master, I would run through the form on my own at least four or five times every day.

My teacher, in true martial-arts style, never praised me. In fact, he periodically busted me for not being serious enough about tai chi. His words stung—but they kept me practicing hard. The time I spent with him changed my relationship to my body and my energy. The main thing I learned from him, though, was what it meant to be a student.

On the face of it, being a student seems like a no-brainer. Obviously, if you’re going to classes, you’re a student, right? Surprisingly, not always. Studentship is a skill. Even when you’re just dropping in casually to a weekly class, your experience will depend to a great extent on how you are able to receive and hold instruction, on the kinds of questions you ask, and on your attitude toward your teacher.

That’s why, in the old days, when a student approached a teacher and asked, “Are you really my teacher?” the teacher would often answer with another question: “Are you really my student?” The question wasn’t rhetorical. In the relationship between teacher and student, the ball is ultimately in the student’s court. No one can teach you if you’re not willing to be the student. The corollary is true as well: A motivated student can learn from even a mediocre teacher. And when a real student meets a real teacher—that’s when the student’s world changes.

We live in a time of intense transition in the student-teacher paradigm. Classically, a teacher worked with a few dedicated students, vetted them carefully, and drove them hard. A good student possessed attributes you can find listed in the yogic texts—qualities like detachment, forbearance, devotion, humility, the ability to withstand hardship, and much more. Above all, the student accepted the teacher’s authority, at least for the learning period. In return, the student received the full download not just of the teacher’s knowledge but also of the teacher’s subtle state, his yogic attainment. This could take years. So, student and teacher committed themselves to stay together for as long as it took—and often beyond.

But just as the traditional model of the family is changing, so is the model of teacher and student. For one thing, in the West at least, we’ve had a fundamental shift in the way we view authority. Recently, a friend named Anna described to me an interaction with her teacher. He called her aside after she questioned one of his instructions and told her that she needed to learn to submit to his guidance.

“I’ve been contemplating what he told me,” she said. “I can see that he’s right in some ways. But I’ve been practicing for years, and I have my own inner guidance. Am I supposed to set that aside because he has a different opinion?”

Like Anna, citizens of advanced democratic societies tend to be suspicious of vertical hierarchies and of anything that smacks of “giving away your power.” Even with our contemporary tendency to turn yoga teachers into rock stars, many modern yogis are uncomfortable with what seems like a patriarchal tradition of omnipotent teacher and humble student. We often prefer to see our teachers as slightly more advanced peers, especially since the highly publicized “falls” that occur periodically for such yoga stars make us reluctant to give our power even to the most respected of teachers.

But even in a democratic yoga class, many of the old truths about studentship still apply. Aspiration, the capacity for surrender, and respect for the teacher and the teachings are as crucial as they ever were. Paradoxically, so is the willingness to ask tough questions and tune in to your own responses.

Below, I’ve tried to distill some practical guidelines for navigating the paradoxes of contemporary student-teacher encounters. Some of these come from the texts and lore of the yoga tradition. Others are the fruit of my own experience as a student and as a teacher.

Lay the Groundwork

Let’s start with the obvious. In a healthy student-teacher dynamic, the teacher is there to teach, and the student to learn. The teacher is accessible but keeps strong and appropriate boundaries with students, and the student understands that the teacher is not her new best friend, her lover, or a substitute parent. The student is not afraid to ask questions, and the teacher is not afraid to admit mistakes. There is ethical transparency on both sides of the relationship.

Along with all that, the student has to feel some basic affinity for the teacher. A teacher may be highly qualified, even a master, but still not be the right mentor for you. So, along with your commitment to learning, and hers to teaching you, there has to be some good chemistry between you. The more you feel that your teacher genuinely “sees” you and accepts you, the easier it is to accept being instructed and challenged by him or her.

Cultivate Aspiration

When you genuinely want to learn and grow, your aspiration itself will help guide you, even if the teacher is not “perfect.” The old adage “When the student is ready, the teacher appears” is true at every level of our practice. The more priority you are willing to give your yoga practice, the more open you’ll be to receiving teaching wherever you find it.

Make a Commitment

Some traditional teachers advise spending at least a year with a teacher before committing yourself. Things move faster now, so I suggest giving it six months. During that time, you make a provisional commitment to follow the teacher’s guidance as rigorously as possible. This doesn’t mean you don’t ask questions, air your doubts, or even challenge the teacher at times. But once your doubts have been cleared, it’s important to give the teacher credit for knowing what she’s about. The only way you’ll know whether a teacher is right for you is to give yourself to the process long enough to see how it affects you. There may come a time when the guidance you’re getting from within supersedes the teacher’s guidance. But usually, in the beginning, it’s best to assume that the teacher knows what she’s doing, even if her approach is different from what you think is the right one.

When the period that you’ve committed to is over, take time to evaluate your experience. Then decide if you want to go further.

Stick to a Consistent Approach

It’s fine to study with one teacher for asana, another for meditation, and a third for text study, rather than expecting one teacher to have expertise in all three. But it’s important, especially in the early stages of your practice, that they come from compatible traditions. If one of your teachers, for instance, is a hard-core practitioner of Patanjali’s eightfold path, while another is a devotional Tantrist, you can expect to hear opinions and instructions that appear contradictory. It takes a lot of experience to integrate different approaches without getting confused. That’s why, in the old days, one of the “rules” for students was one-pointed fidelity to your teacher.

When you signed on with a mentor, you weren’t supposed to go to another teacher without your first teacher’s permission. The reason for this was simple—every teacher has his own style, and teachers may disagree.

So, if you decide to sign on for supplementary studies, check with your teachers to make sure that their approaches are compatible. Otherwise, you could end up not knowing which sequence to practice or even what to believe about the path!

Watch Your Projections

Respect for the teaching and the teacher are key for assimilating the teachings. As a student, your respect for the teacher protects you from arrogance and also from a premature belief in your own mastery. At the same time, it’s crucial not to idealize the teacher or put her on a pedestal. Anyone you idealize is probably going to let you down. And if you’ve invested too much in your idealized image, the letdown can destroy the relationship and sometimes your motivation for practice.

Two of the trickiest issues in student-teacher relationships are our natural human tendency to project our own feelings onto others and to experience what Western psychology calls transference. It’s almost inevitable that students will project their own higher qualities onto the teacher. Because most of us can’t fully own our own inner strength or wisdom, we look for someone else to “carry” those qualities for us and then idealize the other person for those qualities. Of course, this works the other way as well. Our unconscious weaknesses get projected onto the teacher. So when the teacher shows human flaws or fails to live up to our idealist projections, we will often flip into the opposite stance and demonize the teacher. The Internet is full of snarky, angry, and sometimes shockingly aggressive posts from students who have become disillusioned with a teacher. Sometimes the critiques are legitimate. But in many cases, they’re a reflection of a student’s unexamined personal issues, such as how they’ve been parented, or their feelings of having been insufficiently recognized or encouraged.

The issue of transference is especially tricky. In transference, we transfer our psychological need for love and approval onto the teacher—often to the point where we get a serious crush. This happens even to very experienced students, especially when the teacher is charismatic. And if the teacher is also unaware, romantically susceptible, or manipulative, it can lead to life-altering, even life-shattering, romantic entanglements.
So if you find yourself crushing on your teacher, try a little self-inquiry. Ask yourself: “Is what I’m feeling really about her? Or is it the effect of the yoga practice? Is the energy of yoga allowing me to experience the self-love that I may not have felt before?” Self-questioning can help you take back the projection and even redirect your feelings inward, so that they add flavor to your practice without creating an external entanglement.

Be Honest With Yourself

And while we’re talking about self-inquiry, one of the great gifts of yoga practice is the insight it can give you into your own tendencies. For example, a teaching situation may bring up your inner rebel, so that you’ll automatically resist a teacher’s authority. Or it might activate your hidden approval junkie. We might get so caught up in trying to please the teacher that we forget to check in with our true experience. In that case, a little resistance can be healthy! I’ve heard students admit to being so afraid of hurting a teacher’s feelings that when the teacher asks “Does that help?” after an adjustment, they’ll say yes even though it hasn’t. The more you can authentically communicate your true experience, the more your teacher will know you and be able to give you instruction that genuinely helps.

See Your Teacher’s Flaws

Your teacher is a human being—with human quirks and vulnerabilities as well as areas of personal pain or dysfunction.
When a good teacher is truly standing in her “seat,” she is usually speaking and acting as her highest, wisest, and most conscious Self. That’s one reason why practicing with your teacher can help bring forth capacities that you don’t necessarily experience on your own.

Yet the fact that a teacher can be filled with light and wisdom while teaching doesn’t mean that the teacher is fully enlightened or even personally flawless. Sometimes, he may be totally off base. Someone can be a skilled teacher, capable of transmitting highly evolved states and guiding students with consummate compassion and wisdom, yet in private life can be eccentric, hot-tempered, congenitally nonmonogamous, or narcissistic. Even a very wise teacher may not be good at running an organization or even at having a good relationship with a romantic partner. Like anyone else, he has karmic propensities that can lead him to make dicey personal choices. That doesn’t make the teacher any less gifted. But it may be a deal breaker for you as a student.

Some students are fine with a quirky teacher or one whose life is unconventional. Others will only feel comfortable studying with someone whose overall values are in line with their own. This is a personal decision, but one we each need to make consciously.

One helpful tactic is to honestly ask yourself why you’re with this teacher. If you’re there to learn yoga or meditation, or to study texts, it might serve you to separate the teacher’s personal quirks from his capacity to teach you. If you find that the teacher’s values are disturbing or truly out of line with your own, or if you want a role model for your life off the mat as well as on, it’s a different matter entirely.

Sidestep Gossip

A studio or spiritual group can be a real refuge and a source of friendship. Your interactions with others in your teacher’s circle can provide valuable support and wisdom, not to mention helping you get a good look at your ego’s less functional manifestations. On the other hand, the other students can distract you from your reason for being at the studio. Many studios or spiritual groups are hotbeds of competition, gossip, in-group/out-group behavior, and other less-than-inspiring forms of group dynamics. And some communities make such a cult of the teacher or the method that you feel pressured to adopt the language and the cultural style of the community.

One way you know you’re in the right relationship to the others in the group is that your conversations are focused on what you’re learning and processing. You know you’re in a danger zone when you find yourself airing your grievances, putting down others in the class, spending hours critiquing the teacher and the setup, or purposely excluding other students from the conversation. Or when you feel that it’s not appropriate to ask critical questions.

Listen to Your Intuition

There are bound to be times when you question the validity of the teachings and the practice. When that happens, don’t dismiss your doubts. But ask yourself: Where is my discomfort coming from? Is this part of my pattern of walking out the minute I get bored or anxious? Is there something about the teaching that takes me out of my comfort zone? Am I being asked to stretch or to practice through a plateau? Am I feeling afraid that I’ll be taken too far too fast, or conversely, am I too impatient for advanced teachings? Are certain emotional buttons being pushed that I should look into? Any true teaching situation is going to confront you with your own personal issues like jealousy, resentment, and judgment. There will be people you feel competitive with. You’ll sometimes resent the teacher for critiquing you or ignoring you. You might get annoyed at the teacher’s presentation style, or think, “I’ve heard this before. Can’t you tell me something new?” You may have friends who are with other teachers and seem to be making more progress than you.

One reason it’s crucial to make a commitment to spend a certain amount of time with the teacher is to hang in there through the inevitable periods of restlessness or boredom or confusion. Just as we need to stay on the mat through an entire session of practice, so we need to give a teacher or teaching a chance to fully percolate and “cook” us.

Absorb the Teachings

In addition to the genuine motivation to learn, you might have an impulse to take what you’re learning and teach it yourself. In the traditional yoga world in India, people who pass on teachings before they’ve digested them are called “ladles.”

When you teach something before you have fully assimilated it—like a ladle that serves up soup without actually tasting it—you often deprive yourself of the opportunity to let that wisdom percolate in your own being. That’s why the traditions discourage students from teaching prematurely. It’s true that passing on wisdom to someone else can be a good way to learn something more deeply. But when you use another teacher’s knowledge as a commodity, you subtly short-circuit your own learning process. More than that, you shortchange the students who are receiving knowledge in a half-baked form. That’s when we hear people repeating a piece of yoga dharma like a catechism, as empty of authentic feeling as any piece of conventional wisdom. Even great truths like “You are already perfect as you are” become clichés when they come from the head rather than from embodied experience. Likewise, many yoga injuries are the result of teachers giving instructions or adjustments without knowing how to apply them to the individual.

Exit Gracefully

Not all student-teacher relationships are permanent. There may come a time when you feel you’ve learned everything the teacher can show you. It’s also possible that you’ll feel let down by your teacher or that you can’t grow in the community. Sometimes, a teacher will even suggest that you study elsewhere.

Concluding your association with your teacher is not only a lesson in impermanence; it might also be part of growing up. But even if the parting is painful or difficult, it’s important to honor what you’ve received, what you’ve learned, and what you’ve discovered.

Often, you don’t realize what you’ve learned from a teacher until later. A true student is appreciative, knowing that every stage in the process of studying with a teacher is useful—the beginnings, the endings, the triumphs, the false steps. And everything in between.

Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy.