Yoga Teacher and Student Relationship



Navigating the yoga teacher-student relationship is a meditation on yoga itself. While “yoga” does mean “union,” one of it’s deepest values is “Brahmacharya” or conservation and wise use of life energy, a.k.a “boundaries.” In any relationship the boundaries are as important as the sharing because they make the sharing possible. You can’t share your unique perspective if it’s not unique, and students need a friendly, secure, contained atmosphere to allow their deepest hearts to emerge in practice.

The boundaries of this relationship are unique from teacher to teacher, even from student to student, and are different from any other relationship in your life. While being a teacher means learning from your students every day and releasing your own ego to perceive and respond from and with clarity, there is an asymmetry to a teacher-student relationship that asserts itself in the chummiest of friendships.

This is not to say you won’t become friends with students or have friends who also attend your yoga class. But it is to say that when you occupy the role of yoga teacher, your attention will be most likely be very differently focused than when you’re sitting with the same person over tea, dinner or adult beverages. You’ll have many people to attend simultaneously when you are teaching, and your students will expect to feel equal in your eyes. You may have to gently assert these boundaries with a friend who invokes private jokes or experiences during in-class interchanges and you’ll want to have thought through how you’ll approach this situation. If appropriate, you can explain the reference while looking at each person in the class, and include the whole class to demonstrate your openness with the class. But you might want to assert more of a boundary by ignoring the comment or gently re-interpreting the comment or question.

Can you date students, teachers or even have your significant other in your class? Again, this is a very personal decision, but one universal principle is that your choices in this realm should be the product of prior reflection and not stumbled into. One factor in making your decision may be the status of the relationship. If you’re considering having your life partner or spouse in class, you’ll have different questions than if you’re considering bedding that gorgeous specimen who always distracts you during Triangle pose. Another is your position regarding the class: are you the sub or is this your steady gig, the backbone of your retirement plan? If you choose to have your significant other in class, consider making it plain early in class with some casual acknowledgement and pay close attention to the intimacy of your adjustments and to sharing your attention with every student in class.

When considering teacher-student relationships, begin by reflecting on your own relationships with significant teachers in your life. Consider journaling these reflections over time and compiling a list of your significant teachers from parents to mountains, pets, trees and yes, yoga teachers. Think of those who have inspired you through their teaching or writing. Contemplate as well the experiences and people who have shaped you through pain, discomfort and tears. This time, however, look at all of these experiences through the eyes of the other in the relationship. What does it mean to you to be a teacher?

Reflect on any of the high profile scandals you may have heard about. How would you like your students to relate to you? In addition to intimate relationships, consider how you’ll respond to personal queries, either asking for details about your life or advice on theirs. How do you feel about gurus? Do you believe that there are some questions people can only responsibly answer for themselves? You know you can’t dispense medical or professional advice and to refer your students to their respective pros, but how do you feel about discussing feelings that arise in Camel pose? Remember that yoga is a practice of personal experience and in the end we’re each our own experts.

With some of your students you will know significantly more about the postures and system of yoga, while others may be your equal. What will it feel like when one of your teachers attends your class as a student? Remember that “yoga teacher” is a role you occupy with responsibilities as well as rights. When you teach a yoga class you are leading a practice and this requires creating a container for the practice. You set the tone by how you greet and interact with students from the moment they arrive as much as by the music you choose, the sequence you sculpt and the instructions you give.

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