I’m guilty of it, and maybe you are, too: holding teachers accountable for my own spiritual evolution.
In all areas of my life, I am very much a student. I search for meaningful bonds with professors, mentors and yoga instructors. I have a real appreciation for certain kinds of authority, and I’m a glutton for constructive critique – which might explain why I experience bouts of disenchantment and confusion with regard to the student-teacher relationship.
Truth be told, I expect quite a bit from a teacher. I’m looking for someone grounded yet wise, stern yet compassionate, adored yet humble. I want straight talk and poetry. I want to know my teachers and be known by them—from my aches and pains to my favorite adjustments and poses to my own psychospiritual quandaries.
Most would consider this a form of narcissism—most, including me. The yoga practice is a mirror, for better or worse. We begin where we are, and where we are is steeped in the decadent illusions of the ego. Yes, yoga is a discipline that is largely based on the individual. And yet, we often experience divisive or troubled feelings with regard to a teacher because we think that s/he isn’t paying enough attention to us, that we deserve more love and support. Not only that, but we find ourselves wanting to demonstrate on a regular basis how truly committed we are to being the best we can be. We seek approval. We want a warm, loving gaze to be cast upon us and never let up.
The student-teacher relationship can certainly turn out to be a manifestation of unresolved conflicts that took root in one’s formative years. What we do not find in the most crucial phases of development, we tend to seek throughout the rest of our adult lives. Yoga can become a space for hashing out old demons, most of which originate within the very primal ties between child and mother, child and father, or child and guardian. There is much narcissism bound up in these relationships on both ends.
Part of becoming an adult and claiming your identity as separate from that of your parent(s) is a practice in shedding one form of narcissism in exchange for another. Once this is in the works, we begin to build up ideas of who we are based on what we are: what we do, what we like, what we don’t like, etc. Self-creation can be a lot of fun, but it can also become an ego-intensive obstacle to liberation. When we are too attached to finite notions of who we are, we experience the same kind of disappointment that is common in close, complicated relationships with parents and teachers and other individuals who are “supposed-to-know”. Of course, our parents are our first gurus—there’s no getting around that.
It’s important to contemplate spiritual relationships just as much as it is important to contemplate romantic or platonic or familial relationships. The fact that a teacher has chosen to live a life of devotion and practice does not make him or her any simpler than you or I. In the midst of our individual processes as students, we must ask ourselves, What is my teacher doing for me – not only practically, but psychologically and emotionally? What need is being fulfilled and what expectation hovers in the balance?
In the recently published oral biography Guruji, edited by Eddie Stern and Guy Donahaye, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’s students give detailed accounts of their experiences under the tutelage of the Ashtanga guru. Towards the end of the book, Ashtangi Nick Evans shares a story about Guruji himself breaking down Evans’ ego through a playful yet deliberate student-teacher exchange. Evans recalls when Guruji offhandedly indicated that Evans would be advancing into third series shortly – only to ignore Evans over the course of the next several weeks, thereby leaving Evans hanging in anticipation and confusion.
Needless to say, Evans began to exhibit resentment in response to feeling neglected by his teacher. Inadvertently, he was demonstrating to Guruji that he was in fact attached to the ego aspect of the practice. It was only through this process of breaking down and revealing his ego that Evans was finally allowed to advance into the next phase.
This is a prime example of the way a student-teacher dynamic has the potential to reveal much more than we are sometimes comfortable with. Ideally, one would like to trust that whatever is being uncovered is precisely what needs to be uncovered in that moment.
If you find yourself in the middle of an intense asana class, practicing deep hip openers, feeling absolutely tortured, exhausted, and bitter, sit with that feeling. Watch the feeling. Let it sink in and then watch it pass by.
When your teacher skips you during savasana adjustments and you feel a sense of longing for his or her touch, notice it. When your teacher leads you through meditation and you feel completely disconnected from what s/he is saying, or if you latch onto whatever s/he is saying without taking a moment to pause and interpret, consider where that impulse of either rejection or clinging comes from.
A process of examination such as this needn’t revolve around words like good, bad, or should. There isn’t anything wrong with finding yourself projecting your maternal or paternal hang-ups on your teacher(s), but it’s up to you to incorporate the acknowledgment of these correlations into your own growth, and to recognize these tendencies as behavioral patterns. Your teachers can only give you so much, and then it’s your responsibility to meet his or her offerings halfway, with all the trust, love, compassion, and dedication you can muster.
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