Teacher-Student Relationship: Students Have Power Too

This entry was posted on Oct 30, 2013 by Charlotte Bell.

The Teacher-Student Relationship:  When to Call the Teacher Out

Twenty-seven years ago, in my first year of teaching yoga, I attended a workshop on using yoga to heal back issues. The workshop was a week long and was team taught by what was then a who’s who of senior yoga teachers. I had previously worked with only one of the teachers on the roster, so I was excited to experience teachings from so many others with stellar reputations.

Around mid-week, I was enjoying a class with a well-known senior teacher. While we practiced Dog Pose at the wall, the teacher came up behind me, placed his hands on my collarbones and ran them all the way down my front body, and yes, right over my chest. At first I shuddered. I thought, “What was that about?”

Then, quickly I began to rationalize. This was a famous teacher after all. I convinced myself that the teacher had a good reason to make this adjustment. I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable adjusting students this way, but of course a teacher of his stature could not have meant to grope me. I castigated myself for being judgmental and promptly forgot about it.

A few years later, I was shocked to find out that the same teacher had been called out for making adjustments that were far more intrusive than the one I’d experienced. When I heard the news, I had so sufficiently buried my own experience of an inappropriate adjustment that it took me a few days to remember. My youth and my starry-eyed pedestalizing of the famous teacher had caused me not to trust my own first instincts. In allowing the teacher to get away with a violation of my boundaries, I had unwittingly allowed the same thing to happen to who knows how many others.

This is an unfortunate pattern in the yoga world. Charismatic, famous teachers misbehave and their devotees ignore or cover up the behavior. I do understand why this happens. It is easy to be swept up in the high-energy current generated by a famous teacher and the happenings that surround them. The current feels good and right, and you get to be a part of it. How could there be a shadow? Plus, many times these teachers are knowledgeable. We’re learning good things from them, after all. We’re all human, nobody’s perfect; the rationalizations are endless.

Whistle blowers are rarely rewarded for their courage. In fact, they are often vilified and ostracized from their communities. By exposing problems, they are often blamed for causing damage. This is especially true when a community bases its image on goodness and light. Anyone who bursts the bubble of bliss—even if that bubble was an illusion to begin with—will be seen as a hater.

The teacher’s seat is an honored one. It is a seat that has been taken far too lightly in today’s environment of quickie trainings. A teacher not only needs to be versed in anatomy, philosophy and technique. A teacher needs to know himself/herself profoundly—all the places we shine, the places that trip us up, the situations where we are likely to act in integrity and the situations that might provoke us to act out of integrity. We must accept our humanity and the fact that we are all still on a path of learning. Humility is a teacher’s ally. Our students entrust their bodies, minds and spirits to us, at least for the class period. We are not entitled to that trust; we must earn it.

How I Wish I’d Responded

If I were given an inappropriate adjustment now, how would I respond? Well, first of all, it’s not likely to happen. Although I don’t have statistics to back what I’m about to say, my guess is that the lion’s share of inappropriate teacher-student boundary crossings happen between a teacher and a younger student. Most of us 50-somethings would be far more likely to stand up to this kind of behavior than a younger student would.

So here’s how I wish I would have handled the inappropriate adjustment long ago. I wish I had asked, “Can you explain that adjustment to me? I would not be comfortable making this adjustment to a student, so can you clarify why a teacher might want to make this particular adjustment?” This way of responding holds the person innocent until proven guilty—there is a chance that there was a good reason for the adjustment. At the same time this response acknowledges my own discomfort with the adjustment and lets the teacher know that.

I hope that the well-publicized controversies of the past few years and the evidence that teacher misbehavior had gone a long time unchecked will cause us all to think differently about the consequences of rationalizing inappropriate teacher-student relationships. The damage done by long-term denial is profound. People I know who have committed time, energy, money and heart to the communities embroiled in controversy end up confused, angry and often bitter. Had there been more transparency in these communities earlier on, the illusion may have been more manageable once it shattered.

As a community, we need to recognize that it is everyone’s responsibility to nurture yoga’s integrity. Teachers bear the responsibility of behaving within the guidelines of the yamas and niyamas, as they sit in the power position of the teacher-student relationship. But students also have the power to keep our fallible, human teachers’ power in check by letting them know when their actions are out of integrity.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.