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

Via Carol Horton
on Feb 22, 2011
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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.

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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.

Comments

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

  1. yesica says:

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

  2. 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

  3. 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?

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

  5. 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!

  6. […] 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. […]

  7. […] 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 […]

  8. […] 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 […]

  9. […] 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 […]

  10. 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!

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

  12. 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.

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

  14. 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.

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

  16. manuela says:

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

  17. 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.)

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

  19. 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

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

  22. […] 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 […]

  23. […] 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 […]

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

  25. […] 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 […]

  26. […] 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: […]

  27. […] do like many of my EJ posts a lot. Still, if I had to chose, I’d say that my top two would be “Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Psychological Conundrums of the Teacher-Student Relationship” and “Shopping Right (Wing): Lululemon’s Political Values.” These, I think, were particularly […]

  28. […] 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 […]

  29. […] 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: […]

  30. […] Teacher crushes. We all get those teachers who totally speak to us, who we wish we could be like, whose classes we try and schedule our days around. I have two, one male and one female. They are awesome. It makes my day when I see them at the studio and get a chance to chat with them before or after. […]

  31. PetreFarha says:

    I'm hoping people are adult and wise enough to make strong and wise choices regarding this topic.