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.

6 responses to “Teacher-Student Relationship: Students Have Power Too”

  1. Avatar Ann Van Regan says:

    It is always the job of the teacher to stay within ethical boundaries. It is not the responsibility of the student to monitor the teacher. Most students would not have the training needed to be able to choose words to challenge an errant or abusive teacher.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for your comment. I totally agree. There are several other blogs I’ve written on the subject that place the responsibility squarely on the teacher. If you look in the “Teaching Tips” category, you’ll find several articles on the teacher-student relationship and the reasons that teachers must be responsible for their behavior. I vehemently disagree with those who would make excuses for a teacher by calling both teachers and students “consenting adults.” By nature of the teacher-student relationship, a student can not give true consent because of the power imbalance. The point I was trying to make in this article is that in pretty much every case where a teacher has misbehaved sexually, the community knew about it and allowed it to happen anyway. The blog was a call to community members to call errant teachers on their misdeeds.

  2. Avatar Glenda King says:

    Thank you, Charlotte, for this article! I, too, was groped and inappropriately touched in yoga classes by a senior yoga instructor back in the ’80’s. I, too, discounted it as I was not traumatized by it and, after all, he was an amazing teacher in so many other ways and I learned so much from him! I could never really place this past episode in the right way though. I was in my 20’s and had absolutely no boundaries, in fact, I was practicing yoga to ground my flighty tendencies–I was an easy prey. It was wrong of the instructor and he was eventually called out on it, lost most of his students, was in the news media, almost lost his guru’s support but he has learned, adjusted, and rehabilitated as a more balanced instructor. I’m glad. I like to hear stories where a person is able to grow past their weaknesses. I, too, am in my 50’s now and am much more grounded. No instructor would touch me inappropriately now. Lessons learned from both sides. There will, however, continue to be errant (male) teachers preying on vulnerable students and your article addresses that. However, there will also always be young, vulnerable female students to prey upon….The yoga community today seems to be more aware of such misdeeds and does not seem to stand for it, for example, after the recent sexual allegations against Bikram Choudhury many of his franchised studios disassociated themselves from him.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Glenda. The teacher who groped me was also a very knowledgeable, competent teacher. He also learned his lesson after he got caught and continues to teach, but with much more balance and ethical restraint. I am also glad to hear about people growing and changing. We are all capable of rehabilitating our negative habits, but most of the time we have to have a reason, and usually that means getting caught and called on our stuff. When yoga communities continue to give implicit permission by hiding harmful conduct, it’s unlikely that a teacher will feel there’s a reason to change. I hope that we as a community mature enough to not be so taken in by the charisma of famous teachers. There are indications–such as Bikram’s case–that this is happening.

  3. Avatar Sadhvi says:

    Dear Charlotte, thank you for very insightful article! During my 20+ years of living within a spiritual yoga community with it’s leader occasionally preying on young female disciples I was less and less inclined to believe my own excuses for his inappropriate behaviour. Finally, I left the organization because of it. I came to realise that if we, his disciples, have had enough integrity to respond properly (individually and as group), it might have saved many young women’s lives and dreams from shattering, as well as our own. Unfortunately, most of us believed that our leader knew what he was doing, that it’s some kind of “test” or “healing provocation” process. Lack of integrity never helped anyone.

  4. Avatar Luna says:

    Psychologically, there is a LOT more going on in relationships where there is a power differential. It cannot be corrected by telling the subordinate to stand up for themselves. The student-teacher relationship is one of an imbalance of power. Often, people who would normally speak up for themselves in other contexts, do not when they are in a subordinated position, feeling intimidated not only by the teacher, but also by the “culture” of the class. Until the student can see through this dynamic and where it stems from, it is unlikely that they will be able to behave any differently than you did, I did, or other commentators have. We keep our mouths shut as we have been conditioned. This stems all the way back to obeying your teacher in primary school and it is conditioning most us carry into adulthood. I see it in every yoga class I teach. Education on appropriate behavior will not work without unraveling the conditions that got us here.

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