Thursday, September 9, 2010

Teachers, Students and Ethics: Oh my!

This post was inspired by the discussion on It's All Yoga Baby around the ad featuring Jivamukti teachers from a NY studio posing naked for PETA.  Roseanne ends her post asking:

"Despite these positive aspects, there still is a  slight breach of professionalism in this ad – these are working yoga teachers, who will encounter students and potential students in class and in their communities. I think it illustrates the precarious and awkward place that yoga teachers hold in our culture, somewhere between entertainer and health professional."

A commenter on her blog, Dharma teacher Frank Jude of Mindfulness Yoga (yay, new blog!), left this insight that touched me profoundly:  

"Seeing my teacher in this and other social situations most definitely helped to de-construct any potentially de-railing projections, and did so without at all diminishing my respect and appreciation for him as a teacher. What it may have done — and I think this is a good and important teaching — is make it clear to me that ‘the teacher’ is a role; it’s not about the man/woman. When I take the teacher’s seat, this understanding leads me to have great reverence for the role without taking myself so seriously."

Which brings me to muse...  When we are teaching yoga, it IS a role we are enacting for a specfic period of time.  I personally can feel it pour down over me like a cloak when the clock strikes the start time.  It's like a switch goes on, it's a muse, it's a groove!  And when the final namaste is said and the lights go on, I feel it lift again and I become myself.  And thinking about Frank's comment, I don't want my students to put me on a pedestel, to think that yoga teachers are somehow elevated people, that we don't have flaws and beliefs and good days and bad days.

In Donna Farhi's book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship, the author talks about keeping "healthy boundaries" and maintaining a "necessary distance" between the teacher and the student.  In her view, maintaining this distance is a way of honouring the deeply transformative process that the student may be undergoing, and keeping it sacred by maintaining the formality of the relationship.  She also says that casual relationships with students are often more serving of the teacher's needs than the students.

Farhi goes on to say: "I have come to recognize that when a student becomes a personal friend, my ability to serve her as a teacher has effectively ended."  The key concept here is service.  Farhi isn't suggesting that you can never be friends with your students, just that the changed dynamic of the relationship and the recognition of the student as your "peer" will diminish your effectiveness as a teacher. Farhi suggests that the student may or may not decide to seek another teacher, or may be quite happy to maintain a "student-peer" position in class and a friend outside of class.

This example is specific to the student who becomes a friend.  But what about the friend who becomes the student?  When I was first teaching, I felt awkward about having my friends in my classes and found it hard to find my groove as a teacher, or would refrain from chanting at the end of class thinking "what will my friends think?".  As I have grown as a teacher I have become more comfortable with my role as the teacher and more able to easily slip into it.  And my friends who come to my classes also seem comfortable and respectful of my role: I have never had anyone try to use our friendship to modify what they get in their yoga class!

My musings also lead me to this question: as yoga teachers, how do we see ourselves?  In my yoga class, I strive to create an atmosphere that allows people as much choice as they want, a place that embraces all body types, beliefs, ages, sexualities as equals.  But outside the classroom I still have my own beliefs, body type, age, sexuality etc. that define me as a person, and that are important to my own identity. While I would never press these on anyone else in a yoga class, outside the classroom they give me guidance in my choices and make me who I am.  Where the boundaries exist are different for every different person I guess.

I live in a very small community and I teach classes to my friends, and some of my students become my friends.  Beyond these friends, I also see my yoga students at work, at the beach, in restaurants, and at parties. And (after the initial shock of seeing someone in another context!) I have never felt weird about that (I mean, this town is so small that it would be weird if I didn't see them!).  I think that if we are uncomfortable with our students seeing us outside the classroom, it's partly because we might be uncomfortable with ourselves. Perhaps we feel like we aren't living a "yogic" enough life.  So are we ourselves are holding ourselves up to some unrealistic ideal?

What do you think?  How does Farhi's "necessary distance" contrast to the notion of not putting the teacher on a pedestal?  Can you be friends with your students or teachers and still be effective as their yoga teacher or student? How do you feel about seeing your teachers or students in social spaces?  Do teachers have a responsibility to their students to live a "yogic" life off the mat?

Or should we all just go for ice-cream? ;)


  1. It's a tough one. On the whole I try to keep a distance between myself and my students. In many ways this isn't entirely to do with ethics and is more to do with the fact that I am not the most sociable butterfly in the box and have a tendency towards hermitising myself anyway.

    On the other hand I too live in a relatively small community where everyone knows everyone else. I have friends come to my yoga classes. They are sweet and sit at the back and try not to giggle. I've grown used to it.

    I do think I have a responsibility towards my students but I also think it's important they know I'm human too. I swear, I cry, I have a bad temper, I'm impatient. A lot of them read my blog. They know what I'm like.

    As I said I'm not particularly social. I don't go to pubs, I hardly ever go out to eat. I prefer my social space to be my home. I guess that just fits in nicely with teaching yoga.

  2. I do think that yoga teachers are in a very unique and special place compared to other popular "sport" activities... in that yoga isn't a sport and has a strong spiritual bend.

    As a student myself, it took a while for me to realize that unconsciously i was holding these unrealistic expectations to the spiritual nature of my teachers.

    As a yoga teacher, you're not just a teacher, but a leader or guide on someone's spiritual journey. Which is quite different.

    that being said- I agree with you and with Frank in that it is important for students to step outside of the framework and recognize the human-ness of their teachers instead of attaching a more "guru" (in the pejorative sense) view.

    Also, our little "Coffee and Yoga" student crew recently became good friends with a local yoga teacher. Hanging out with her is a little weird, but good. I worried that her demeaner in classes would change, but it hasn't (or not that I can tell, she may be adjusting- but hiding it well!).

    She'll be teaching yoga at our wedding, and it was a bit weird in that all of us felt it was awkward in figuring out where she would stay the night before, feeling like i had to formally invite her to the bonfire and wedding breakfast- as she isn't technically invited to the wedding but we'd love to have her there- but she's hired to teach. lol.

    much thoughts (sorry for the long comment!)

  3. so various comments
    as a teacher, i see myself the way i am, i've been teaching classes for dancers, non dancers, actors, advanced or beginners before i start to teach yoga, my main had always be to make theirs bodies ready and connect with mind for explore emotions after on stage
    as a yoga teacher, the relationship is different, also because people pay the class, when i teach for the team, we are all paid for beoing here and others people who are coming the the everyday morning open class, also they don't pay.
    at the beginning, it gives me stress to have to take care of this money part, like if i could have less freedom but now i am use to it.
    each teach is for me to develop with all of them, them on the practise, me on helping and adjustements, and i do learn each time.
    as a self practionner, as a student when i can go to india or australia, as a teacher and as a simple woman

  4. Very interesting topic indeed.

    As a yoga teacher-to-be, I am not faced yet with this question. However, my coworker at my day job know about my upcoming teacher training, and there have already been talks about me teaching the team on a regular basis. I've been wondering about how to make the transition and switch between the two personae, the coworker they've come to know and who's come to know them quite well, and the yoga teacher.
    So I guess I'm gonna have to bookmark this post for when the time comes :-)

  5. Great post! Very thoughtful and relevant.

    I, too, live in a small town. I've been teaching for two years here and am just now running into students outside of class. Which is awkward for me because I am horrible at names, but I can ask them about their backs or knees or sciatica!

    On a totally dorky note...the wonderful husband and I were shopping for a new washer and dryer. We made a deal that I could get exactly what I wanted if I would see if I could fit into the dryer. Seriously. So, I climbed into the dryer I wanted...and as I was climbing out a couple of my longtime students were watching me. Seriously. Funny. I said hi and asked them how their backs were feeling...

  6. It can be a tough line to toe.

    Although yoga is nothing like being the "coach" of a competitive sport, it is important to maintain just an edge of authority over the yoga classroom. I didn't realize this until I had a student who questioned my authority and I noticed how it undermined me in the eyes of the others. So now I find that confidence before every class.

    So as I prepare to have friends come to yoga classes, I know I have to find that place so I can maintain a productive class (no talking over me, etc).

    That said, as soon as class is over, I let it go.

    Wonderful post, as always : )

  7. Nadine wrote an interesting post on this topic a little while back.

    It's here:

    In my teaching experience so far, I've had friends in my classes, and in fact, I'm friends with other yoga teachers and will go to their events. I'm even friends with the woman who runs the teacher training school where I studied.

    Maybe I'm just too new to teaching, but so far I haven't come across any issues with having friends in my classes. I haven't found it awkward at all.

    Yoga teachers are human, just like anyone else. The projections of a student onto a teacher are real though, I've had to struggle with such things in the past myself with my own teachers.

    My guru has said to his students: "You need to find a real way to engage and interact with me as a teacher, otherwise you're wasting your time".

    And I tend to agree - things need to be real and we can't spend our lives putting other people on pedestals they didn't want or ask for. And if you meet a teacher who wants to be put on a pedestal, I suggest running away as fast as you can! :)

  8. Great topic and one that I've often had a discussion about with my friends who are either students, teachers and/or both.

    I think it comes down to the personality of individuals and as a duty of care, teachers need to be able to discern when a relationship is being developed that is not healthy by keeping the relationship totally professional and class based. I think as you get to know your students, it is only natural to become friends with some of them.

    As a student, I have naturally become friends with some of my teachers over the years and invited some of them outside of the class environment. I still go to their classes and maintain a healthy level of teacher/student respect and would never want to blur those lines. I guess I keep my lines drawn as well then to protect myself as a student.

    Some of my other teachers do keep that Farhi distance completely though but they leave me feeling cold and I'd prefer not to go to their classes.

    This is just me and my experience. I believe yoga is about connecting and nurturing healthy relationships with yourself and everyone around you. It doesn't mean you have to be best friends.

  9. Lots of thoughts on this important topic...
    I wrote about being human and being a teacher here:
    And I wrote about treating all students equally here:
    Loved all the comments- thanks everyone for sharing all the different perspectives!

  10. great comments.
    Teaching yoga is an opportunity to share. people pay to come to class because they want to be shared with and to learn the things you know and they like the way you share. some people are really good at sharing while others are just good at sharing, but we each do it in our own way and that appeals to different students.

    I think the student-teacher relationship (always) needs to be respected above all else. But respect doesn't mean limited or still.

    relationships develop naturally. A student-teacher relationship does as well. They tend to develop in a way that maximizes impact. People become lovers when they think that they will have the most influence on each other as lovers.

    Yoga teachers and students develop in the same way. At a certain point it is clear that there is more to be shared or there is not. at this point, with respect, the relationship can develop differently.

    And I don't know about you all, but when I open my heart to someone. A friend or more, the learning explodes, the impact explodes. The risk explodes, but when have we not learned from taking risks and opening our hearts?

    By not allowing this process aren't we putting ourselves on pedestals? We are all teachers we are all students. we are all learning and teaching.

    Ben - Solyoga Trips

  11. Wow, so many great responses here!!

    @ Rachel - I am also quite antisocial! But in a town with only 2 grocery stores and 10 restaurants I do end up running into people.

    @ Eco - Yes, those "shifting relationship" moments are the most awkward, where the boundaries are getting redefined. Farhi suggests that it can help just to voice the awkwardness to dispel it once and for all!

    @ Lila - The money part is the MOST awkward at first. For me, I know that I'm not doing it for the money, so it helps me accept it more gracefully - if that makes sense.

    @ Emma - Yes, that would be a weird transition! It's certainly one that I would have to think hard about making.

    @ Babs - you crack me up, girl!!! :D :D :D

    @ Jamie - That authority IS hard to maintain sometimes and occasionally we all get students who challenge it! The trick for me has just been to always be honest... And occasionally to ask the person that if they have any concerns they can talk to you outside of class.

    @ Svasti - I have also attended friend's classes and it has never been awkward. When other teachers attend my classes though, it varies... Sometimes you get the feeling they are judging you and it's hard to maintain a distance from that feeling (i.e that's their issue, not mine!). As for putting teachers on a pedestel, I think it's a natural tendency. So as teachers we have to be aware of that and make sure we are also coming across as "real" people, too!

    @ Rand(OM) - Thanks for mentioning duty of care. It's an important concept and it relates to the potential for yoga teachers to exploit the "teacher pedestal" in an unhealthy way. Farhi talks a lot about this in the context of sexual harassment. It's the hardest line to gauge as a teacher I think, when performing adjustments etc.

    @ Grace - Thanks for the links!

  12. @ Ben - I love the analogy of opening your heart. The risk is usually worth the rewards!