Observing your Teacher and why their social media account doesn't matter as much as you think.
Recently, I had a teacher deliver an unintentional lecture on the guru / pupil relationship and the inherent flaws in upholding this multi-generational practice of modern yoga. The lecture concluded with cautionary tales of what the latest disciplines had descended into the likes of dangerous cults.
It's been no secret that yoga has had its fair share of controversies in these dynamics. There are countless accounts of yoga-teachers-turned-yoga-criminals and well documented instances of the awakened leaders spiritually licensing themselves into massive corruption and dangerous acts (like in the Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country on the rise and fall of Osho and his cult of disciples).
I've personally bore witness to a few accounts of abuses of power within the yoga class including racist commentary, unwanted touch that led to injury of my own body, and behaviour of teachers off the mat that made me question whether or not they actually practiced what they preached or were simply on a quest to be powerful in some respect of their lives. I've fallen prey myself in my own enforcement of late policies until a student made it known that from the outside it seemed unnecessarily harsh (I'm not perfect). All this to say that my bullshit radar (both of my own behaviour and others) has been markedly improved over the years as a result of dedicated focus and an unwavering interest in critical reflection and actively deciding to seek out another course of action.
After all the whole idea of yoga is union - not hierarchy, freedom - not dependence, discernment - not blind agreeability.
Despite the marketing of yoga teachers as "special" creatures that have elevated themselves to near-heaven-on-earth perceptions on their instagram accounts and in class poetry reads that doesn't make them anything more or less than humans. After all the whole idea of yoga is union - not hierarchy, freedom - not dependence, discernment - not blind agreeability. All this questioning is a part of the process despite yoga's marketing as a panacea for self-help, fitness and wellness adjunct to the sales of kombucha, matcha, and t-shirts touting one's ability to wish themselves into a mermaid. (No judgements if you're into becoming a mermaid.. I like my legs just fine, though). This narrative only emphasizes yoga as a method for self-advancement instead of a practice of self-connection which further muddies the waters in how to identify a teacher in service to their students instead of a teacher in service to their self-image. (Honestly - this could be a whole different post in an of itself...)
If yoga has taught me anything, it's that for every piece of light there is a shadow - and this might just be a shadow of becoming a powerful teacher.
Here is what I've learned in the quest of not only examining my own conduct in class but also from the wisdom of teachers more experienced.
Questions I now ask myself in evaluating teachers patterns of behaviour as well as my own:
- Do the other practitioners in class seem balanced?
- Is there worship of the teacher amongst their students? Is this adoration encouraged by the teacher?
- Do students rationalize behaviour of the teacher in a "they could do no wrong" manner?
- Does the teacher encourage dependency on them to deliver yoga / spiritual advice?
- Does the teacher encourage pain as gain?
- Does the teacher emphasize a narrative that they know students bodies better than the students do?
- Does the teacher have good boundaries?
- If you tell them no, do they undermine your answer with negotiating? Do they undermine other no's like attempting handstands or headstands when a student is hesitant?
- Does the teacher actively tell you what to think? How do they react when questioned?
- Do they engage in name calling or belittling of students practices?
- Do they assert that they hold the answers even though the questions are outside the boundaries of a yoga practice?
- Are they more concerned with the aesthetics of any given pose rather than the benefit to the practitioner? (i.e. forcing "fuller" expressions)
- Is the teacher open to student feedback?
- Are students that question the teacher asked not to come back to class?
- Are students that question the teacher belittled?
- Does the teacher remain open to student's experiences? (i.e. if you were able to tell a teacher that something made you uncomfortable - how do they react?)
- What does your gut say?
- Do they make you uncomfortable?
- Is their a climate of punishment / reward amongst students?
- Are there sales pitches in lieu of answering straightforward questions?
- Do they take credit for your accomplishments on the mat? Spiritually?
Information that doesn't really matter - but outside influence might tell you that it does:
- How physically flexible / fit / attractive your teacher is.
- How rich or popular your teacher is.
- Whether or not your teacher owns a studio.
- How many instagram followers your teacher has.
- How many lifestyle brand sponsorships your teacher has.
Although instagram, popularity, and clout in a yoga community might be a flagpole to draw people into the practice of yoga, authenticity and selfless service are really what a teaching practice is about. Questioning a teacher is an important part of that teacher's growth as much as for the growth of the student. If critical thought and discernment aren't welcome - what education can you receive? What kind of growth will a teacher make over time without challenge or prompting from a student?
What ultimately makes a teacher is students. If no one shows up to be taught the teacher isn't made. Who you practice with will ultimately mold your practice - be selective in your teachers. Spend time in their classes and get to know them before entrusting them with influence on your yoga practice. As always - if something trips your radar that isn't listed in this post - listen to your intuition. If it doesn't feel right, it might just be wrong.