I had an email from a reader called Chris the other day. He was wondering what the bounds of an appropriate teacher-student relationship might be. He’s also given me permission to publish our conversation:
I am new to yoga, but does one have to be spiritually inclined to be a yogi? I am an atheist, and in honesty have little time for spirituality, but is being spiritual a prerequisite to be a yoga student?Also, what defines a good teacher/student dynamic? Should a student ask his or her teacher about poses, necessary diets, etc? With respect to diets, does one have to be a vegetarian to be a yoga student? In honesty again, I don’t think could live without eat lol..Lastly, and in reference to the above paragraph to some extent, I think I have a crush on my yoga teacher. She is relatively young (perhaps 25, though at 33 I don’t deem myself as old) but I think it’s largely based on her manner and her looks. Whilst we often put on fronts in different situations, from what I see she has a very welcoming and friendly manner. What is the best means to handle this? I do not think she knows or has grasped as yet.
My answer? You seem like a smart and very self-aware man, to be asking these kinds of questions.
WIth yoga, often, you feel good and you think it’s because of the yoga teacher. It’s not, it’s because you are doing something that makes you feel good.
As to the advice. Hmmm. You may have noticed from my blog that I disapprove of the more ‘culty’ aspects of yoga.
Self-ownership (or sovereignty of the individual, individual sovereignty or individual autonomy) is the concept of property in one’s own person, expressed as themoral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity, and be the exclusive controller of his own body and life. According to G. Cohen, the concept of self-ownership is that “each person enjoys, over himself and his powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that he has not contracted to supply.”
Ways in which teachers can foster sovereignty in their students:
- Keep bringing the focus back to the student’s experience: explain what they should be feeling in their muscles in the poses they are doing, and what dangerous sensation might feel like. If you don’t know this stuff, go learn it.
- If you are comfortable talking to it, teach students about the functional anatomy of their bodies. Their is nobody more empowered than someone who knows how their pelvis is meant to be behaving n triangle pose.
- If you do include chanting/philosophy/spiritual aspects in your classes, make sure you remind everyone that they don’t have to participate, it’s an individual choice.
- Refrain from telling people that they will only be real yogis once they are raw sattvic vegans. They were real yogis before they even got on the mat, given the word just means ‘in union’. Say it with me: if your body & breath weren’t in union right now, you’d be D-E-A-D. THerefore, you are a yogi all the time, without trying. Food rules are optional.
- Offer people enough alternatives to the challenging/circus monkey poses that they don’t feel like losers who can’t do most of the class. I recently went to class where I spent almost half the time in child pose, trying not to be to disruptive or roll my eyes too much. The teacher chose poses I can’t safely do because of my SI joints, and offered me NO ALTERNATIVES. Not sovereign teacher behaviour.
- Understand that those cute yoga students who are flirting with you are off-limits for dating. Sorry. No dating vulnerable people who like the idea of you but are unlikely to be able to see the real you. Understand they probably have a mild or not-so-mild case of transference going on, and you probably have a case of counter-transference.
Ways in which students can claim their sovereignty in yoga class:
- Ask questions
- Speak up if you are uncomfortable about how a teacher is adjusting you
- Ask if you don’t understand an instruction – that’s a problem with the teacher, not a problem with you
- Tell teachers about your injuries, should you have any and ask that they help you modify for them. If a teacher can’t do this, you need to find another one.
- If you feel to, express your discomfort with chanting, and say you won’t be doing it. A good teacher will tell you you don’t have to before you ask anyway
- Be honest with yourself. Should you start feeling attached to your yoga teacher, for heaven’s sake, don’t start creepily hanging around after class to walk out with her EVERY TIME. Definitely don’t google her then start sending her inappropriate emails. Understand that you are probably suffering from transference, and that the feelings you feel are not really personal to the teacher. Refrain from violating her or his sovereignty by trying to date them – yoga teachers are human too, and we don’t get adequate training on how to handle these situations, so sometimes all sorts of unfortunate consequences can ensue.