Yogi Assignment: The Teacher-Student Relationship

Om Saha Naav[au]-Avatu |
Saha Nau Bhunaktu |
Saha Viiryam Karavaavahai |
Tejasvi Naav[au]-Adhiitam-Astu Maa Vidvissaavahai |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

Meaning:
1: Om, May God Protect us Both (the Teacher and the Student) (during the journey of awakening our Knowledge),
2: May God Nourish us Both (with that spring of Knowledge which nourishes life when awakened),
3: May we Work Together with Energy and Vigour (cleansing ourselves with that flow of energy for the Knowledge to manifest),
4: May our Study be Enlightening (taking us towards the true Essence underlying everything), and not giving rise to Hostility (by constricting the understanding of the Essence in a particular manifestation only),
5: OmPeacePeacePeace (be there in the three levels – Adhidaivika, Adhibhautika and Adhyatmika).

One of the saddest things that can happen along the journey of yoga is discord between the teacher and student. The teacher-student relationship is traditionally considered sacred and any grievance between the two can be harmful for both the teacher and the student.

In the ancient times of Patanjali, the bond between teacher and student was serious business. To take a student under your wing meant to be responsible for the spiritual development of that student across multiple lifetimes. The teacher would bind themselves to reincarnate repeatedly until they had taught the student all that they had to teach. Any break in the chain such as from a wayward student who decided to quit the practice could potentially force the teacher to come back for many lifetimes until the student was finally willing to learn.

When Krishnamacharya was suggested to teach the first female Western student he didn’t make it easy. In fact he set up numerous tests for her to pass before he accepted, perhaps assuming she would fail. First, he asked this would-be student to eat only root vegetables for months. Next, he asked her to sit outside his gate for two hours each morning from 4-6 AMand then go home with or without teaching. Finally, after the passage of considerable time, he began to teach her. This student’s name was Indra Devi and she opened Krishnamacharya’s mind to the possibility of teaching both women and Westerners. Many of us owe her a debt of gratitude because her dedication and determination as a student opened the path for many of us all to follow in her footsteps.

The yoga of today is not the yoga of the ancients. We pop in to a yoga class and are taught by teachers with 200 hours of training. Instead of demonstrating our spiritual worthiness we sign a waiver and pay a drop-in fee. If we want to become teachers ourselves the one month 200 hour course is the basic level of training. There are few if any of the higher level tests like Krishnamacharya asked Indra Devi to pass. And, well, truthfully, there may also be few of these higher level teachers.

Yet, in both traditional and modern yoga, there are many different levels of teachers. The highest teacher is called a sad-guru and he/she is an enlightened master whose mere presence has the power to transform you and precipitate an awakening. Then there are yoga teachers whom you could call acharyas, or master level spiritual teachers. There are also gurus who are called “Guruji” by their students as an affectionate term for them. These are often master teachers but not considered to be enlightened beings living in samadhi. And then there are the rest of us, like you and me, whom you could call yoga aspirants and practitioners who teach to the best of their ability. It’s easy to get all this confused. Perhaps the most important thing for the yoga student of today to understand is that yoga teachers are by and large a group of students themselves whose efforts are sometimes flawed but often stem from a sincere place within their hearts. Within that group there are a handful of true master teachers. If you get the chance to meet and study with one of these rare master teachers you can consider yourself lucky. Most master teachers are not readily available on social media and most don’t fit the mold of the young, flexible, fit, hip, trendy, stylish image presented by the big brands that have tried to buy up the yoga market. Some don’t even have an email account and certainly not a social media following.

It is said that there are three ways that the traditional spiritual teacher works with the student. First, the teacher works with the student through positive reinforcement and praise. This attentiveness feels good and sometimes feeds the ego. The second method of instruction utilizes negative reinforcement to provide a challenge. This feels bad, but is still satisfying because you have the attention of your teacher. The last method of teaching employed is often the hardest. Here, the teacher leaves the student alone to stew in their own stuff and to see what they do when left alone, unguided. This can feel the worst for the student because you feel like your teacher is ignoring you, neglecting you and forgetting about you. For every student that yearns to become a teacher the last phase of unguided practice is the most important. Only by walking the path alone will you see if you have the will power and commitment to stay the course. If you walk away, quit the practice or get mad at your teacher when left to your own devices, it probably means that you’re not yet ready to be a teacher.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a teacher and what it takes to be student because I’ve been made painfully aware of a conflict with a former student. This particular student was someone who got into my heart and someone whom I believed in. He was talented, bright-eyed, energetic and everything seemed awesome. He had the stars in his eyes and was always willing to lend a hand whenever needed. He volunteered his services numerous times and seemed like someone who was just always willing to step up and rise to the occasion. I saw a bright future in him, but I did think he needed more time to demonstrate his commitment to the practice and more time to let the practice work on him. The biggest danger with someone this young and talented is often the temptation of the ego. Someone born with natural flexibility, strength and charisma can easily enter the practice with pride and entitlement. Students like this may expect certain things from the practice and assume that their teachers owe them special treatment. In this case, the most important part of the student’s journey happens when they are left alone, unguided without the attention these highly talented students so often crave. When they are left on their own and the practice is handed over to them to take care of, they either show that they are able to tend to the sacred fire of yoga or not. Unfortunately, this is a crucial test for every would-be teacher.

Most yoga teacher trainings lack real testing that verifies the depth of study, knowledge and commitment. Almost everyone who joins a 200 hour training receives their certificate of completion and can register on the Yoga Alliance website. In my opinion, it might be better if we start thinking of these 200 hour course as prerequisites to join a teacher training program than a complete teacher training on their own. Most massage therapy certification programs range between 800-1,200 hours. A four year college degree includes close to 2,000 contact hours and only gives you a degree with passing grades. While I’m not proposing a new system for verifying teachers (just yet), my husband and I run a yoga center in Miami where we have had to grapple with the level of training that our teachers get before we consider them qualified. In response to the need to add more training to the basic minimums accepted by the only governing body to verify teachers in the U.S., we created a two year apprenticeship program. It is a grueling invitation-only program where the participants get around 1,000 hours of practice and training as a teacher. In order to join the program we ask that participants maintain a six day a week Ashtanga Yoga practice for the duration of the program and follow a strict vegetarian diet (I’m pushing for vegan but Tim loves his cheese). There is also assigned reading, research papers and mandatory workshops and classes. There is also an element of seva, giving back and volunteering. Training happens both in small group sessions and through assisting during the Mysore Style classes at our yoga center. Finally we ask our apprentices to travel to India to study with our teachers in Mysore, India. If we charged even the most basic fee of $10/hour for 1,000 hours, then the program would cost $10,000. But we don’t. We give it for free to those few who seem dedicated, committed and sincere enough to follow the path. Our goal is not to make money or take advantage of anyone in this program. Our goal is to train highly qualified teachers that add value both to our yoga center and also to the yoga community at large in Miami.

Not everyone who joins our apprenticeship makes it though the full two years, but we have really only had a few students drop out. We are strict because once you gradate from our program you have our full stamp of approval, something we don’t take lightly. One student dropped out because she wanted to do yoga three days a week and follow her other passion the other four days. One student dropped out because the schedule was too grueling and the body just couldn’t take it. Finally, we have had a student drop out because he could not maintain the six day a week practice, did not adhere to follow a vegetarian diet and because he felt undervalued. Those who have left the program have often done so with a seed of bitterness, resentment and hurt that has often been directed towards me and my husband.

My heart breaks for this. The few students we have invited to be a part of our apprenticeship program are the ones that we think have demonstrated a true commitment for the practice. They have each made it into our hearts deeply. We love each of them and we are sad and disappointed when things don’t work out. From me towards them, the love still remains. I am truly sorry for their hurt feelings. At the same time we could not simply let them slide in not fulfilling the terms of the apprenticeship program simps out of fear of offending them. Did we act perfectly? Certainly not. There are numerous lessons we have learned from each of the failed apprenticeships. We hope that we are growing and evolving and we hope that the students’ are able to learn and grow from their experience as well.

Being a teacher is about sharing the essence of yoga with others. It happens in quiet small moments of deep intimacy when you’re there for your students. If you keep teaching, the magical moments are not about when you spotted someone in a handstand or nailed that perfect pic. The magic happens when you and your students heal and grow together. Yoga is a sacred space that is shared on the mat in community. Yoga is real people who are ready to wake up and live a more peaceful life. I don’t know if there are any other students who harbor negativity towards me or my husband, but there probably are. I am not perfect and I grow when my students give me sometimes difficult feedback. Communication is a two way street and I welcome feedback (both positive and negative) from my students.

This week’s Yogi Assignment is the Teacher-Student Relationship. Students, this week I want you to honor your teachers. Send an email to that first yoga teacher and thank them for introducing you to the practice. Your first teacher will always hold a special place in your heart. Perhaps they still do. Or perhaps this person has let you down through their human faults. One of my first yoga teachers claimed to be a raw foodist who only ate apples but in fact was hiding Oreo cookies in jars to snack on. People are flawed. Myself included. No matter where you are along your journey, whether just starting, lapsing in your daily practice or fully committed to yoga, take a moment this week and honor your teachers. Forgive them for their faults and recognize that it is their work that led you to the practice. Teachers, thank your students. Without your students you cannot be a teacher. If there is a student that you have a grievance with, reach out to them and do your best to make it right. The teacher always has the moral responsibly to take the high road, to forgive, to send love even when the student doesn’t. While no teacher or student should ever tolerate abuse, the teachers has an obligation to model a more mature behavior to their students.

So many people think about teaching yoga for so many different reasons. Recently I met a young girl who said she wanted be a yoga teacher so that she could grow her Instagram and have a corporation sponsor her. The goal of teaching yoga isn’t getting sponsored by a corporation.

Teaching yoga is a service, but it is also an honor, privilege and responsibility. When a student comes to you looking for meaning in their suffering, it’s up to you to lead them to the practice. It’s not useful to send “good vibes” and tell people to be positive amidst the often traumatic experiences that bring people to the practice. I’ve had students show up to the mat for the first time after grieving the inconsolable loss of losing a child. I’ve had students start practicing amidst a heartbreaking divorce. So many students practice to heal their bodies and minds. Yoga works because it strips away all the escapism and denial and leaves your heart laid bare in all its vulnerability. I’ve been there so many times myself, when I cried the tears of a broken heart alone on the mat and was finally strong enough to feel all the pain. The teacher’s journey always begins as the student. If you aren’t strong enough to feel your own pain and do the work, you’ll never be strong enough to feel someone else’s pain and hold a torch for them as they take tenuous steps forward on their journey.

The goal of yoga isn’t the poses. The goal of yoga is about an inner journey to the center of yourself. No one can really measure our internal practice. The journey of the spirit is one that you take hand in hand with God.

No one other than a fully enlightened being is free from the bounds of karma. No one other than a fully englightened being can expect to never cause anyone else harm or make any mistakes. The yogi’s path is not one of perfection from the start but slow, steady, methodical evolution over many years and perhaps many lifetimes of practice.

I’ve said that I consider myself a protector of the sacred knowledge of yoga. But really, it’s you, the students, who are responsible for this practice. Without your wisdom, your commitment, your heart and soul, the practice fades away. It’s on you and I believe in you.

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