Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Psychological Conundrums of the Teacher-Student Relationship.

Via on Feb 22, 2011

A recent Newsweek article, “Bow Down to the Yoga Teacher,” slammed yoga teachers as narcissistic posers and students as co-dependent enablers:

In America, yoga has become a mainstream and marketable cult . . . and its teachers are, in a sense, performers. That’s why the narcissistically inclined can be drawn to the job . . . Becoming a yoga teacher allows an insecure person to act spiritually superior. But the dynamic is two-sided. For the yoga teacher to become inflated, the student must inflate. Yoga acolytes, like rock-band groupies, hang on the approval of their favorite gurus—thus allowing that narcissism to flourish.

Pretty harsh, to say the least. But is there anything to it? Or is it just a more negative spin on the standard uncomprehending, cynical slant that mainstream journalists usually have on yoga?

Newsweek is definitely giving us an unsympathetic outsider’s take on the intense emotional charge that often surrounds a popular yoga teacher and her students. But it’s also true that hard-bitten journalists can be keen observers of contemporary life. And in this case, author Casey Schwartz may see something important that many yoga insiders might tend to take for granted, excuse, or gloss over.

In the same class that Newsweek sees only sick rock star-groupie dynamics, many yoga insiders might see only happy heart-to-heart teacher-student connection. And while there’s certainly no single truth, my guess is that in many cases, what’s really happening lies somewhere in between – more complex and multi-layered than such all-good or all-bad positions allow.

From Guru-Disciple to – What?

Of course, interpersonal dynamics are always complicated on some level. But there are particular things about the yoga teacher-student relationship that can make it a unique crucible of its own.

One of the most important factors is its inherent ambiguity. What’s the nature of this relationship, anyway? What’s it supposed to be? We don’t have any clear standards or models.

Traditionally, Hatha yoga was only taught in the context of a strict Guru-Disciple commitment. Today, we have a completely different set-up – but what, precisely, is it?

A yoga instructor stands in a different cultural space than an aerobics teacher or sports coach. Even if students are only interested in “fitness yoga,” most recognize that for others, yoga can involve not only the body, but also the mind and perhaps even spirit as well. Even if it’s not necessarily taken seriously, the fact that yoga is a “body-mind-spirit” practice is a well-known part of its “branding” and appeal.

Conversely, yoga instructors aren’t considered spiritual teachers along the lines of priests, rabbis, lamas, or monks. Yoga, of course, is not a religion, so that’s appropriate. But it’s also true that yoga teachers are trained in so many different ways, and have so many different outlooks and commitments, that it’s impossible to assume anything about their orientation to spirituality – or any of the “big questions” – at all.

While this is great in that it allows for openness, innovation, and authenticity, it’s also confusing.

This is particularly true because yoga, by its very nature, offers people a path into deep psychological and emotional territory. Even if you start yoga simply because you want to exercise and/or de-stress, it’s very common that sooner or later, you’ll start to have much more intense emotional, psychological, and perhaps what you might call “spiritual” experiences anyway.

The Unconscious is the Body

Most people don’t come to yoga looking for anything like body-mind integration (certainly, I didn’t). But sooner or later, they often experience it anyways.

A relatively new student, for example, may be hanging out in Pigeon Pose, trusting her teacher to lead her through this intense hip opening, trusting herself to let go of her everyday mind for the moment, breathing deeply, becoming absorbed in her immediate experience, when BOOM! Seemingly out of the blue, an intense wave of emotion rises up and washes right through her.

Pigeon Pose by Candy Barr (http://candybarrartist.blogspot.com/2009/09/pigeon-pose.html)

The first time this happened to me, it came as a complete shock. I had no clue that asana could unlock such strong feelings.

But it can and often does. As psychologist Alexander Lowen explained, while “head consciousness (e.g., rationality) has no direct connection with the unconscious, body consciousness does.” That’s why when people talk about yoga as a body-mind-spirit practice, it’s not just some abstract, airy-fairy idea. Rather, it’s a way of conceptualizing how human beings are wired. Deeply buried emotions unavailable to the conscious mind are imprinted in our bodies. An effective asana practice can loosen these imprints and allow deeply buried memories, thoughts, and feelings to come into our conscious experience.

In psychological terms, this could be called a shift toward the integration of the unconscious and conscious minds. In more traditionally yogic terms, it could be called a movement toward burning off karma.

However we chose to think of it, however, the point is that an effective yoga class can facilitate the release of powerful, but previously unconscious feelings. Beginning students will most likely not be expecting this, and even very experienced students may at times find stuff coming up that’s very difficult to work with.

Such dynamics can put yoga teachers into a fraught interpersonal space. You may be a great asana teacher, and know how to give students the tools to link body, mind, and breath in a way that opens them up to deep and potentially transformative experiences. That doesn’t mean, however, that you necessarily have any real insight into what they’re experiencing or know how best to work with whatever emotional forces may have come up in their practice.

Putting Your Teacher on a Pedestal: Transference

I’ve definitely seen yoga teachers showered with the rock star-like adulation criticized in the Newsweek article. Particularly with famous teachers, it’s not uncommon to see students hanging on their every word like they’re the embodiment of some divine oracle. And even with local teachers who aren’t famous at all, I’ve seen students treat them with a level of deference that might be appropriate for the Dalai Lama, but seems completely misdirected toward them.

And heck – I may as well admit it. I’ve put some of my yoga teachers on pedestals as well. I also experienced one brief, but intense crush on a teacher that I knew was completely irrational. As a student, I know what it feels like to unwittingly transfer some of the strong emotions released through asana practice onto a teacher.

From the other side, while I’ve never experienced rock star-like intense adulation as a teacher (oh well), I have felt students project strong emotions onto me, or had them share intimate confidences after class that felt weirdly unwarranted. So I have some limited idea of how it feels to be on the receiving end of such off-kilter dynamics as well.

While I can’t say for sure, my conjecture is that one of the strong emotions that comes up for a lot of students is an unmet, unconscious desire for an idealized teacher/parent figure who is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-embracing of them. Psychologically, this desire is transferred onto the yoga teacher – not deliberately or even consciously, but powerfully nonetheless.

In fact, the more this transference occurs unconsciously, the more powerful it is. When, for example, I knew that my crush was irrational, I still felt the feelings, but I was able to disentangle myself from them pretty quickly.

When I put a teacher on a pedestal without being conscious of what I was doing, however, it took a lot longer for me to recognize what was happening, let alone work through it and move on.

This was particularly true because (as I later realized) the teacher in question was herself perpetuating this dynamic – she wanted me (and other students) to keep her up on the pedestal. Not consciously, but again – all the more powerfully nonetheless. And this, I believe, is where things become particularly problematic.

Wanting to Stay Up on Your Pedestal: Counter-Transference

A student unlocks powerful emotions, unconsciously transfers them onto the teacher, and the teacher – rather than sensing what’s going on and working with it appropriately – is triggered into wanting to reinforce these projections in order to meet her own unconscious emotional needs. In psychological terms, this is known as “counter-transference.”

So: You put your teacher up on a pedestal. Unbeknownst to you, your teacher is not an enlightened being, but rather a normal person with lots of insecurities – and, in this case, a deep unconscious need for people to admire her as exceptional, knowledgeable, spiritual, or whatever. So when you and other students gaze up at her with insecurity-soothing adoration in your eyes, she unconsciously does her best to keep that dynamic going.

This can be done in many ways, ranging from the subtle to the punitive. But it’s the nature of such relationships that the dynamic established can be quite powerful – and quite unhealthy.

Which is why I think that the Newsweek article – crass and one-sided as it is – identifies an important issue that needs to be addressed more explicitly in the yoga community today. Because again, in psychological terms, the article was right on in identifying narcissism as a core problem capable of polluting teacher-student relationships.

While written about the relationship between college professors and their students, Carol Lakey Hess’s article, “When Narcissus Teaches: Teaching, Mentoring and the Danger of Narcissism,” applies beautifully to yoga as well:

When there are narcissistic traits in a teacher (grandiosity and need for admiration) and narcissistic vulnerabilities in the student (the need to be attached to an idealized person who approves and confirms worth), the two will mutually reinforce narcissistic pedagogy. The learner gains approval; the teacher gains compliance and admiration.

And while it’s almost certain that neither teacher nor student consciously wants this happen, it can – and I believe, all too often does – happen nonetheless.

Please note that this by no means implies that the teacher is a “bad teacher,” that the relationship is wholly negative, or that the student has learned nothing in class. On the contrary: Precisely what makes these situations so confusing is that the opposite can be – and probably most often is true. The teacher may be a gifted asana instructor, the relationship may have some truly positive dimensions, and the student may have learned an enormous amount. Nonetheless, at the root, the relationship can be poisoned by narcissism anyway.

This complicated reality can be very painful and difficult to disentangle and process. Of course, it’s also tremendously liberating to do so. It’s a co-dependent relationship that’s bad for both teacher and student alike – although the student, being less powerful, typically suffers more.

Psychology and Relationships

Personally, I think that it would be a good idea for the contemporary yoga community to have more in-depth discussions about the changing nature of the teacher-student relationship. It’s no longer Guru-Disciple – but what is it, really? And how does that compare to what we might ideally like it to be?

I also think that it would be useful to think more deeply about how Western psychology might help us gain insight into the nature and potential pitfalls of the teacher-student relationship. Therapists are trained to understand issues such as narcissism, transference, and counter-transference, and to work with them in their practice. While yoga teachers aren’t therapists and shouldn’t try to be, I think that it would be helpful for them to have more familiarity with these concepts as well.

Conversely, it might be helpful to think about how best to create a culture that truly empowers students. Psychologically, it’s not necessarily bad for them to go through a phase of idealizing their teachers – provided that it functions as a passage toward greater independence and empowerment, rather than a rut of dependency and illusion. How best to support such a process is a big question to explore.

Happily, the way in which yoga is taught today typically has strong built-in protections against the abuses that can occur when teacher-student relationships really get out of hand. Since they’re typically only together for classes, they aren’t subject to the crazy intensity that can build up in a live-in community. (This is not, of course, to suggest that ashrams or residential communities are inherently bad, just that the potential for unhealthy relationships to become truly abusive is obviously higher.)

Hopefully, criticisms like the Newsweek article can be an opportunity for the North American yoga community to reflect on its dynamics more deeply, rather than circling the wagons defensively – or lashing out bitterly. Jack Kornfield writes insightfully about how spiritual communities have always had to deal with even more vexing teacher-student issues, and counsels:

As we air the dirty laundry, let us not be too hasty to judge. The impersonal forces of idealism and inflation, the depths of illusion and fear, the subtleties of self-deception and ambition are a part of our human nature. The Greek plays, the Indian Vedas, the African tribal myths, the Zen koans wrestle with these forces, which have shaped our human lot since ancient times. To believe in a spiritual life with no shadow, where Mara never visits, is to imagine a sky where the sun always stays at noon.

About Carol Horton

Carol Horton, Ph.D. is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body. With Roseanne Harvey, she is co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Carol blogs at Think Body Electric, and enjoys social media via Facebook and Twitter.

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85 Responses to “Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Psychological Conundrums of the Teacher-Student Relationship.”

  1. Well, at least in the quote above, NewsWeeks columnist seems to be singling out America… You mention how Hatha yoga use to be taught only within the context of a strict commitment. That is not the case here in the states… In the west we tend to think that anyone is ready and able to do whatever practice they want because everyone can pay (for the most part). I have no problem with money being exchanged, but Yoga in the west is a huge business and sustaining that business is all about satisfying the customer. And satisfying the customer tends to mean giving them what they came there for. There is so much money made off of Yoga that it is obvious that there are alot of satisfied customers!
    So why do people come to yoga? Do they have a sense of self-disdain? And if so does a relationship like the one described in NewsWeek validate or confirm this self-disdain? Does it provide them with a platform to continue playing this self-depreciating game? If I do what he/she has done (the teacher) I will grow up to be a complete human being also. I suspect there is some of that going on, but I also think there are some real teachers out there. Real teachers with real students. They just don’t have 6 figure pay checks because 100′s of people do not sign up for such a relationship… It is way to painful! “Get to close to the teacher you’ll get burned; to far away you’ll get cold.” ~CTR

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by feng chen and Carol Horton, Red Fox. Red Fox said: Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Psychological Conundrums of the Teacher-Student Relationship. http://bit.ly/fqyc25 [...]

  3. Nadia says:

    This is the very topic that some yoga friends and were discussing only 2 days ago!
    While I don't think your conjecture is necessarily accurate as to why we easily idolized the yoga teacher, transference in any dynamic is always possible.
    What i think is more important to me as a teacher of some things, some times and equally a student of some things, yoga included, sometimes, is harnessing responsibility for a role that you've taken on. If we truly believe in the body-mind connection of yoga, then it seems evident that there necessitates yoga teachers to be more of a spiritual guidance. Maybe if this truth was not underplayed in ytt's more folks would re-think the fast jump into becoming a yoga teacher?
    A yoga teacher may not have the precise tools to be dealing with whatever emotional forces come up in as a result of practice they offer to students which opens them up.
    My question is if you don't have any or very minimal tools to deal with what comes from opening people towards deep and transformation experiences, if you can not support them, perhaps you may want to rethink what you are doing and why you are doing it?
    I come from a background in body-mind therapeutic work and this holds true in my field, you don't just go opening folks up without knowing how to support them once they are all exposed and in transformation. It's just not cool. I think that this ethic could easily and must be a core part of ytt programs if yoga is to survive its' own contemporary transformation.
    To me this is not yoga ethics, just basic human ethics.
    I very much agree that the modern yoga communities need to be having this conversation that redefines and explores the current student-teacher relationship and how it can evolve to best fulfill the evolution of modern yoga, within our own unique communities.
    Beginning dialogue is truly empowering because it begins to break down the barriers of misconception between students and teachers alike.

    thanks for this post Carol!

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Nadia: Thanks for your comment! I'd be interested to know what sort of training body workers get in this regard. Never having done any such work, I really have no idea.

      I would add however that even if you get some good training, it's not necessarily going to translate into real-life practice, at least without some mistakes along the way. I didn't think to write this in the post, but I do agree with Charlotte's comment below that the best thing that a teacher can do is to have an ongoing mindfulness practice, for exactly the reasons she states.

      So perhaps also relinking more serious meditation or mindfulness practices to YTTs – and giving trainees the tools and motivation to make this an ongoing practice – would be a good idea as well. (Of course, YTTs are incredibly diverse, and I"m sure that some are doing this already, but I kind of doubt that it's all that common – I know a lot of yoga teachers who barely have time for their own asana practice. Not that I'm blaming them for this – it's hard to make a living teaching yoga – but this adds to the mix of problematic factors that we have to work with today).

      • Nadia says:

        As far as what training body workers get in this regard, it's really a lot like yoga: it all depends! Trainings can vary from none at all, to a few hours of ethics and boundaries exercise, to full on required counseling, psychotherapy, NVC, conscious communication. It depends on the modality, the teachers, the course content, the country, state, province and their regulations.

        But i completely agree that even with this training there has to be some ongoing practice, personal and mentorship to actually translate it into tangible experience that can help students or clients. It happens in the bodywork world too, but at least the some training is a bit more across the board. And some version of mindfulness practice in whatever service work you do seems to be the minimum that we must be able to do.

        I think that this begs the discussion about ytt content and 'regulation', the same as in bodywork. Some cities have massage programs (like montreal!) where you can take a 400 hr program and boom! you are a massage therapist, no pre-req needed, no ongoing mentorship or service work, you are just out there working on people for money, and no requirement for continuing education. YTT's are very similar right now, 200 hrs and boom! you've got a class of folks who you can potentially open up and then what?

        The amazingness of yoga and its popularity and what it can tap into in terms of bodymind connection & excavation necessitates a revision of YTT standards for each individual community that offers YTTs.

  4. Charlotte says:

    Thanks so much for such a thoughtful post. Like Frank Jude, I have been involved in this world a long time, almost 30 years. Back in the day, there were occasional abuses of the teacher-student relationship, but the scale of it was far smaller than what we see today. Also like Frank Jude I am vigilant about not allowing the pedestal to form in the first place, and if it does despite my efforts, I am committed to kicking it out. I do not have the energy or desire to maintain the image of a "spiritually elevated being." The best thing I can be for my students is a fellow seeker on the path.

    I think one cause of the pedestal syndrome is that too many teachers are being trained in quickie trainings that are more concerned with teachers learning poses and routines than they are with teachers learning about themselves. This is probably at least partly due to the fact that those who teach the trainings have not yet learned for themselves what motivates them or how their conditioning colors what they do. Even though yoga teachers are not psychologists, because what we teach occasionally opens up deep wells of emotion, we need to be emotionally prepared ourselves to handle it.

    I love this quote from your article: "You may be a great asana teacher, and know how to give students the tools to link body, mind, and breath in a way that opens them up to deep and potentially transformative experiences. That doesn’t mean, however, that you necessarily have any real insight into what they’re experiencing or know how best to work with whatever emotional forces may have come up in their practice." The only way to learn how to be with students as they move through these states is to have allowed yourself to explore these in yourself as well—not just the occasional asana-induced outbreak, but to sit with them and become intimate with them, to watch them come and go, and come and go again.

    Mindfulness practice is the best way I know to get in touch with our deep humanity. When we go deep enough to see who we are, we realize that we do not stand apart from our students, that instead, we are all walking paths, all learning. When the Dalai Lama defines himself as a simple monk, it's because he knows that despite the worldly power that has been bestowed upon him, that at his root he is truly a simple monk. And he knows this is enough. May we all, as teachers, remember this!

    • Brooks Hall Brooks Hall says:

      Charlotte! You are my hero! Ha! I love what you say! Yes! We must be so aware of the pedestals and quickly kick them away!

      And thank you Carol for going in deep!

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Charlotte: Thanks for your comment! Repeating what I said to Frank, I love to hear from you because you speak from what feels to me like a place of wisdom earned through experience.

      I totally agree with your point about mindfulness practice and how important that is. In fact, I think that it's unlikely that anything else would do nearly as much to get a teacher to the right place in terms of having the resources to deal with whatever emotional and psychological issues arise with their students in the healthiest possible manner.

      That said, I think that it's also very useful to have tools that our rational minds can work with too – and I very much like the conceptual language of a lot of Western psychology for that. There is a tremendous Buddhist literature that merges mindfulness and psychology – I would like to see much more of that in the yoga world. And not just in a way that replicates it, because we have a tremendously important new component to add, which is all of our work with the body.

      I will check out the Farhi book, thanks for the reference!

      • Charlotte says:

        I agree with you that the tools of Western psychology could be very useful for yoga teachers. Because yoga practice can take us into our depths, it is very important that teachers have the psychological and emotional maturity to be a support to students. Western psychology provides a useful framework for the sometimes confusing experiences we have as practitioners and teachers.

  5. Charlotte says:

    One more thing: Donna Farhi's book, Teaching Yoga, is a thoughtful exploration of the teacher-student relationship that ought to be required reading for teachers and trainees.

  6. 13thfloorelevators says:

    "As psychologist Alexander Lowen explained, “the unconscious is the body.” "

    Lowen knew there was no such thing as "the unconscious." Try again.

    • fivefootwo says:

      Maybe you can try again and explain why you know Lowen knew there was no unconscious. I'm sure she did not put that quote there to get you all exasperated.

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      OK! I am chagrined that I can't find that precise quote; maybe I did get it from a secondary source – I will keep looking and if I can't find it, change the reference!

      However, I can quote a relevant passage from Lowen's Bioenergetics that gets at what I was trying to say in a more in-depth way – maybe that will help:

      "Body consciousness occupies a mid-position between head consciousness and the unconscious, and thus it serves to connect and orient us with the mysterious forces in our nature . . . Whereas head consciousness has no direct connection with the unconscious, body consciousness does."

      Lowen goes on to explain that bioenergetics works as follows: "By expanding consciousness in a downward direction, it brings the individual close to the unconscious. Our aim is not to make the unconscious conscious, but to make it more familiar and less frightening. When we descend to that border area where body consciousness touches the unconscious, we become aware that the unconscious is our strength, while consciousness is our glory. We sense the unity of life and realize that life is the meaning of life." (pp. 318-320).

  7. matthew says:

    Great post, Carol. What we in 2.0-land are seeing (and of course pushing along with firm head-butts) is that, as yoga teaching becomes yoga sharing, and that practice evolves on a more wiki-type model, transference and countertransference will fade.

    Also, Conscious Communication and NVC should be mandatory in every YTT. There are no guru illusions without implicitly violent communication.

  8. yogiclarebear says:

    Excellent article Carol. So appreciated as a teacher AND a student. I can see formerly unconscious tendencies in myself both ways.

    You suggested that the yoga community needs to address this more, both in teacher and in student. I agree, and my first feeling was integrating this topic into yoga teacher training. How can we as teachers, keep ourselves in check, what do we look for, regarding? How can we set the tone with our students that we are just regular people doing our best in our every day, just like they are? (Most of us at least, ha!)

    This book might have some things helpful/related to the issue: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/12/review-eye

    It is funny how often people come to me and ask me to demonstrate some extreme asana that I wouldn't attempt in a million years, like it is assumed that I could do it. I respond by telling them my inner wisdom advises against it today, but they are free to observe me as I engage with the Divine sitting in meditation. Ha again! ;)

    Thanks for your wonderful article Carol.

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Clare: Thanks for reading and for the book suggestion. I had never heard of it before and it looks interesting. "Discernment" is a word that I'd like to hear more – particularly to balance out the emphasis on "non-judgment" that is so often invoked. It can be a fine learn, but it's crucial to cultivate discernment while also working on our tendencies to be defensively judgmental. Thanks.

  9. Thanks for the post Carol, very insightful. I agree that more attention needs to be brought into the area of transference and perhaps it would be to generate ideas on how to better cope with it, weather it is from the point of view of the teacher or the student. I appreciate your post, leaves me thinking and wondering…

  10. Cyn says:

    I've seen too much overt manipulation on the side of studio owners and teachers to put too much of a blame the victim spin on this. The deeper yoga business can be pretty dark and I can't really fault the student no matter what they are doing on a psychological level.

  11. Daniel Slanger Dan Slanger says:

    Great stuff, Carol. Thanks for this.

  12. Joe Sparks says:

    When are people ready to be yoga teachers? When they can do a good job, when they can be models, models of effort, not models of not making mistakes, but models of correcting mistakes when they are made. Such people are ready for teaching. Yoga schools have to choose among people who are prepared for teaching and leading: those who are open, whose patterns are not self-defeating, who are not operating on pretense, who will not make "messes" and leave them for someone else to clean up. Yoga teacher trainings have to take a look at people's motivations: are they human motivations, going against timidity and fear, or are they irrational motivations, trying to fill a "frozen need" in some way by being a teacher. If the Yoga community can do this, we have teachers available.

    • Carol Horton CarolHorton says:

      Hi Joe – Unfortunately these ideas, good as they are, are very hard to square with the fact that as far as I know, most TT programs take anyone who can pay (or have very minimal, standardized prerequisites, like x years of yoga practice). This will continue because it's an open market with a lot of demand, and because TTs are one of the most (maybe the most) important ways for a studio or established teacher to make money. And given that yoga is not a very easy way to make a living, this financial incentive is super-compelling. At least that's my understanding . . .

      Thanks for commenting!

  13. AMO says:

    Beautiful, thoughtful response to the article. Oh how I love how you point to the likely balance point between a loving connection and a weird sick worship thing. The ego can be incredible, especially from the American Yoga Taliban, those who insist that the only yoga is their yoga and the only way is their way and that they know what the REAL yoga is. I don't feel the writer was saying all yogis are like this, I didn't hear that. I heard him pointing to how some yogis are like this. And he's right.

    When I posted the original article on my wall with a note saying I don't have a guru, or want to be one, I was surprised at the anger and vitriol from the fundamentalists. So enraged at the idea that someone could practice yoga with out a guru or teach it without being one. It reminds me that years ago, when I began doing massage therapy, a wise teacher told me that we are drawn to the healing professions to heal ourselves and that while we should focus on the client and their needs, we serve them best when we remember to minister to our own wounds with loving care as well….

  14. Sean Conley Sean Conley says:

    Carol, an absolutely great read! A topic that is certainly gaining steam today out there. I was just going to comment a lot more but if I do I think I would just be paraphrasing Hilary's excellent notes.

    I think for teachers it all comes back to intention. is there true intention to share yoga or to say "become popular" to satisfy their egos or insecurities. Many teachers have the ease and place to seduce students(and Im not referring to sexual seduction) but seduction in a sense of dependency or spiritual knowledge above their students, where the students need them.

    Only the teachers themselves know what they are doing. some students can probably sniff this out as Hilary says but some may be in a place where they can not . and even then who knows for sure where the teacher is coming from. yoga teachers are not the "gurus".

    • Carol Horton CarolHorton says:

      Hi Sean, thanks for reading and commenting! Like I said to Nancy above, I think that for many of us who grew up in homes with insecure attachments, it can be a long learning curve to work through these relationship issues. Here I am referring to the whole psychological school of thought known as attachment theory, which is too much to go into in a blog comment, but it's a very rich and robust research tradition that sheds a lot of light on why these dynamics are so powerful for so many people.

  15. Carol. Another brilliant essay. Thank you for bringing your mind and your heart to us lucky Elephant readers.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  16. Mish says:

    Wonderfully written. I really enjoyed this read. Thank you.

  17. Roger Wolsey BrotherRog says:

    I can't help but notice the striking similarity to the same phenomenon in Church circles where there is a danger of pastors creating congregations around "the cult of personality" – that is centered around the charisma, charm, and appeal of the pastor. This may be more common in independent, nondenominational, and unity type churches where there is little external accountability on the part of the pastor — but its found across the board. Highly dysfunctional. Some pastors have a need to be needed and to be seen as an expert, master, guide, holy, etc. and some congregants have a need to place their pastors on a pedestal and defer to, or lavish on, them. Seems both realms can learn much from each other in addressing this unhealthy trap.

  18. linda s. mcgrath says:

    brilliant!

  19. NotSoSure says:

    BrotherRog-Thank you for reminding us that unwarranted idolization is not limited to the yoga world. Your focus was the church but I see this as pervasive in almost all walks of life.
    A personal gripe I have is the attempt to make every sports star a "role model". And then when the "role model" acts like an actual human being that "role model" is then accused of "letting down the children". Running fast or jumping high does not a role model make no matter how nice the athlete may be.

  20. Pamela says:

    This has been a very interesting post and all the comments as well. After practising yoga for twenty five years I am just about to get the courage to teach for the first time. I thought, I was teaching because I have faith in the yoga method and wanted other people to have the opportunity to find that for themselves. A little like a woman pregnant with her first child, all I have thought about is the birth , with not a minutes thought as to what it was actually going to be like with a baby to look after. Next week I will be going in primed with these insights and humbled by the fact that I know so little.

  21. marc says:

    very interesting and insightful post about an eastern discipline written from a very western perspective.

    I like the quote from the Buddha when he was asked about the role and importance of the teacher:

    "When a man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger. "

  22. yesica says:

    Everything is what I make of it *** even yoga practice *** be happy and let others be happy

  23. samgeppi says:

    I really liked this article, Carol.

    I recently wrote about a similar subject here at Ej.com

    I hope you don't mind me sharing this link with your readers.

    If I am already God Why Do I Need a Guru?
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/02/if-i-am-al

  24. timful says:

    Maybe the problem is not so much that we put yoga teachers on pedestal, but that we spend so much time tearing everyone else down? Which is really the illusion? Ever since I realized how high I had put my yoga teacher on a pedestal, I have been working to put everyone else up there with her. And so I grow smaller each day, but my world grows larger. Of course, she is only human, but what is more amazing than another human being, if we only open our eyes to see?

  25. [...] Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Psychological Conundrums of the Teacher-Student Relationship. [...]

  26. Lisa says:

    Thank you for writing this. I personally experienced a very bad time with a "rock star teacher" here in Los Angeles. His classes are packed to the gills mostly and I enjoyed going and feeling the energy of a big class. I decided to attend his "Yoga Teacher Training". That is when I experienced the real person behind all the flowing, well rehearsed diatribe of the class. We clashed as I really wanted to learn and I have thought learning incorporated questioning. I was told by this "teacher" that I was a difficult student. His behavior became erratic with me, to the point of profanity laced phone calls and strange, unbalanced text messages. I was also accused of "disrespecting his guru" when I asked why we were being made to spend precious class time visiting his personal guru who was visiting and staying 2 hours away from Los Angeles. Not once but twice we were required to go. This was never listed in a class outline, he just decided what he wanted to do as we went along. I had no one to go to in the studio for help as his girlfriend is the studio manager. I bring this up as it illustrates much of what you talk about. I never imagined something like this was going to happen in this YTT. It is frightening as people really don't need any formal training to set themselves up as a Teacher and go on, with no governing body to monitor their behavior, and act this way-and take a lot of money in the process. This teacher has a HUGE ego and a HUGE guru complex yet in most of his classes he talks about "suppressing the ego". That should have been a red flag, yet it wasn't. He still brings in big classes and teaches many training and illustrates exactly what you lay out here. The studio he works at is part of a large chain(not Yogaworks). They are only more happy to promote him and put up with whatever he does as long as he keeps pulling in the $$$. During the teacher training many of the students questioned the hypocrisy presented when people lined up at the door Sunday morning to get into his class and pushed anyone out of the way to get in. How could this possibly set up a positive vibe for the class-and why did he allow it. The result was he meeting eyes with his studio manager girlfriend and sharing a giggle with her. I emailed him your article, as yet-no response!

  27. [...] Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Not that we’re returning to the days when spiritual gurus were fashionable, but as Carol Horton points out, it’s easy to see how Yoga students end up idolizing certain teachers. … A yoga instructor stands in a different cultural space than an aerobics teacher or sports coach. Even if students are only interested in “fitness yoga,” most recognize that for others, yoga can involve not only the body, but also the mind and perhaps even spirit as well. Even if it’s not necessarily taken seriously, the fact that yoga is a “body-mind-spirit” practice is a well-known part of its “branding” and appeal. [...]

  28. [...] DVD is a product, not a mode of instruction. Yoga is an initiatory tradition that requires a direct connection between guru (teacher) and shisya (student). The heavily mediated teacher-student relationship [...]

  29. [...] me to exit my safety zone by trying new postures, and by simply moving forward in life. As a yoga teacher, it’s fulfilling to help students do the same thing. The hard part, however, is that no one can [...]

  30. [...] mat is your sanctuary,” whispers the dulcet-toned yoga instructor. “This is your space, your island in the sea of reality, where you are always welcome, where the [...]

  31. Jennifer says:

    I was saddened by the Newsweek article as well. As a yoga student, I actually feel bad for the person who penned the Newsweek article – she completely missed the point and didn't open the story up to differing experiences/viewpoints. It's great to see the spirited thoughts on this blog. I also wrote commentary on my blog at http://www.jenmaguire.tumblr.com. Namaste!

  32. [...] Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Psychological Conundrums of the Teacher-Student Relationship. [...]

  33. jaltucher says:

    As someone new to this world its a helpful reminder to note that many of the so-called teachers in the yoga community have less experience and less life experience than many serious students (as noted above by several commenters). Ultimately, i think each person should learn to be their own guru and use correct judgement. Keeping a checklist in mind (always) of whats appropriate in a teacher-student relationship is helpful (A) was a touch appropriate. B) is there intrigue? C) are my feelings reaching outside of correct boundaries?) Keeping focused on a checklist can keep the boundaries safe even when the teacher isn't.

  34. [...] Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Psychological Conundrums of the Teacher-Student Relationship. [...]

  35. Dianne says:

    As a clinical psychologist and 13 year ashtanga practitioner, I have often thought about these topics, but have never read anything so insightful. Thank you.

  36. [...] Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Psychological Conundrums of the Teacher-Student Relationship. [...]

  37. manuela says:

    pueden traucirlo al español? me interesa. lei algo, lo entendi, pero si es que esta en español me gustaria recibirlo y leerlo

    • Ola, manuela. No en espanol, pero "Google translate" es bastante bueno http://translate.google.com/# .

      (Google translation:
      manuela: can translate into Spanish? I'm interested. I read something, I understood, but if it is in Spanish I would like to receive and read
      Bob: Ola, manuela. No Spanish, but "Google translate" is pretty good.)

  38. [...] of the big yoga teachers are now sponsored by large brand names and also work as spokespeople for the Department of [...]

  39. Rhonda says:

    Great article. Recently found you and enjoying your essays a lot. Here's a related blog I wrote a while back: http://rhondageraci.blogspot.com/2010/08/yoga-tur

  40. [...] a newly minted yoga teacher and certified yoga therapist, I still have a lot to learn about this practice we all call yoga. Photo: Lululemon [...]

  41. [...] benefit to him or herself but also the group at large—A fisherman, a carpenter, a well- digger, a Yoga instructor, [...]

  42. [...] in your yoga, not a yoga robot. Don’t just always do what the teacher says! Even the best, most expert teachers don’t have the experience of being in your body. Trust your instincts. Play. Explore. Be willing [...]

  43. [...] scenes surrounding certain “yoga stars.” (For me personally, the many comments on my “Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal” post came as quite a surprise – I had absolutely no idea that discussing the psychological [...]

  44. [...] not speaking of the pedestal-perched, holier-than-thou yogis. I’m speaking of the truly golden, the truly humble. The benefits of [...]

  45. [...] get angry or resentful. This is not your problem. I know of a yoga student and friend of mine who only saw me as a yoga teacher and had real difficulty seeing me in my role as mum, writer and everyday woman with common [...]

  46. [...] a lot of spiritual wisdom. But its packaging cuts off any chance of putting you up on that dharma teacher pedestal at the knees. Seen from that perspective, it’s a really interesting move. And it makes me wonder: [...]

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