June 11, 2015

Tight Rope of the Student-Teacher Yoga Relationship.

Photo by Michael Notrica

Two things are important in a strong teacher/student relationship.

1) A lasting mutual respect. Without the respect in a long term way you can’t even call that person a real ally in your spiritual journey.

2) Both parties have to have a sustained passion for the subject. So if the teacher loses passion or the student loses passion then it will be very difficult to continue forward.

It can seem like a battle sometimes with your teacher and that’s partially because only a rebel spirit, someone with a deep individual bent, a need to find their own way, will do yoga. And when I say yoga I mean the solitary quest that takes your whole life. And yet the universe has conspired to make it so that you need a guide.

Even the most independent person needs help, an ally. And a good teacher is strong willed.

They have ideas about how the student should practice. And so there you have it: both of you stepping into the boxing ring. But you can’t box alone. You need each other. The student thinks they know where to go, but then there’s the teacher shaping the path for them. And there will be times when that process goes smoothly, they see eye to eye and the clash will be minimal.

And then there will be times when seeing eye to eye is much more challenging. Those are the tough times.

This brings us to something interesting to the relationship, which I think is really challenging for people. And that is the surrender aspect of the practice. The effective student/teacher relationship does have surrender in it. The student does surrender to the teacher. Even the sound of the word challenges people. Partially because of the potential of abuse. To give the teacher power through surrender is to potentially open yourself up to the flaws and the weaknesses of the teacher.

Om saha navavatu, saha nau bhunaktu
Saha veeryam karvaavahai
Tejasvi naa vadhita mastu
maa vid vishaa va hai
om shanti, shanti, shanti

OM, protect us both, teacher and pupil.
Cause both to enjoy the Bliss of Liberation
May we find out the true meaning of the scriptures
May our learning be brilliant
May we never quarrel with each other.
OM, Peace, Peace, Peace

And this is where the brilliance of the famous teacher/student prayer (Saha Navavatu) comes into our conversation.

Not only is the prayer put in the “we,” as in the teacher and the student are discovering yoga together, but it also deliberately creates space for imperfection and flaws. It acknowledges the teacher is not perfect. Somehow in various ways, neither party is going to be approaching the whole thing perfectly.

And so in a certain way it’s a miracle when learning takes place. That is why to learn is the greatest gift and so in that sense it’s so easy to kill it, to squash learning, to turn away from it and to negate it. That’s why both the student and the teacher ought to be willing to go to great lengths to protect their learning relationship.

Each must treat the process of learning as fragile and valuable. And so you surrender to the process and there’s a certain trust that even through the flaws the learning is going to come through. The right learning is going to come and somehow miraculously it does come, it really does.

It may seem odd that the relationship will cause both to see each other’s flaws.

It is obvious that in seeing the students practice each day, the teacher will see the students’ flaws but the student, through the unfolding process of being taught by the teacher, will also come to see the teacher’s flaws and short-comings. And both parties must go beyond seeing flaws in each other—there must be acceptance, patience, trust and tolerance of imperfection, but more importantly, each must recognize and celebrate the slow steady spiritual transformation that is taking place within both persons through dedication to practice.

There really is a “learning together” aspect to the entire process and that is why the Saha Navavatu prayer is so important and continues to be relevant through the generations.

It is something new to understand that the teacher and student discover yoga together.

This is partly based on the fact that yoga can truly only be discovered right now. Anyone and everyone who attempts to learn or experience yoga must be nimble, fleet of foot and of mind in order to catch even the faintest glimpse of the “elusive, unknowable” source aptly named by the poet Kabir as the “Secret One.”

Yoga is not a dead or canned subject that a teacher presents to a student. It is essential to remember the point: no one has a set of fixed answers, no one has a perfect map that will infallibly lead to the desired territory. Yoga must be discovered anew in each new instance.

Thus we need to rethink what we mean by the words student and teacher.


Here is a list of qualities that makes a strong teacher:

1)  A teacher has an ability to lead the experimentation in practice that can bring a new experience of yoga. The teacher has a skillful nose like a hound, and thus can get on the scent of new ways of experiencing the postures, breathing and other techniques.

2) The teacher is able to inspire and to create a healthy, charged learning atmosphere.

3) The teacher also will be lovingly steeped in the traditions enough to know how to set up the proper conditions for the spirit of the lineage of hatha yoga to emerge as result of the research. Thus, knowledge is not something fixed or solid, it is not passed down between people like Moses up on the mountain receiving the commandments etched on stone tablets.

The knowledge is not to be dictated and enforced from above. A good teacher does not walk into the room in tangible possession of the truth or the way. He/she walks into the room with the ability and skill to respond spontaneously and creatively to the circumstances that arise.

In that sense the teacher is not the infallible master, nor the ultimate wise person who knows all.

The teacher will have to do some amount of groping around in order to find the spark in the moment that will turn into an illuminative fire of knowledge. And the knowledge that becomes available will only be available in this instance. Tomorrow the door that opened you up to knowledge today will be closed, gone forever. Tomorrow a new door to wisdom will have to be found again.And since the teacher doesn’t walk into the room with all the answers, there will be experiments that don’t meet with successful outcomes.

Together the student and the teacher will come up against dead ends, obstacles, serious challenges where answers and/or solutions do not readily or easily present themselves. Thus not having ready answers to challenging, puzzling obstacles is not automatic grounds for judging or doubting the teacher.

4) A willingness to care.

5) A sustained ability to try.

6) Courage to reach for truth.

7) Humility to be open to learning in service of finding new possibilities.

The skilled teacher is not free of flaws or shortcomings, but he/she is able to put all else aside during times of contact with students when research and learning are taking place. Romantic or idealistic ideas about who or what a teacher is or is supposed to be can be harmful and block opportunities for the creativity and spontaneity that is required for learning to take place.

The higher the student puts the teacher up on a pedestal the farther the teacher will fall when the student knocks the teacher off the pedestal.




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


Author: David Garrigues

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Courtesy of Michael Notrica

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