February 22, 2011

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

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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