Photo: Jessica Coup Photography 

It wasn’t until I started teaching yoga outside of the United States, that I truly experienced this thing they call “rock star-like” status. Even though I have two successful studios in the US, and sold out classes in the festival and conference circuits, people outside of my yoga community circle still don’t  know who I am or how to say my name. Its shifting a bit with the popularity of Social Media, but it’s as though I have two separate identities, teaching in the US verses China for example. 

It has taken me years to be remotely comfortable with the intense adulation from the yoga students in China. The strong emotions projected onto me, and an almost idolization feels weirdly unwarranted. So, I have a limited idea of how it feels to be on the receiving end of such off-kilter dynamics. 

While I can’t say for sure, my sense is that these strong emotions that comes up for a lot of students is perhaps an unmet, unconscious desire for an idealized teacher or parent figure who is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-embracing of them. This is common in the world of yoga, but I am especially aware of it in regards to women in the Chinese culture. Psychologically, this desire is transferred onto the yoga teacher – not deliberately or even consciously, but powerful nonetheless. In fact, the more this transference occurs unconsciously, the more powerful. 

I think we have all had a crush (or two)  that we knew was irrational, but our feelings were very real. The challenge to disentangle can be pretty intense, but must be done. 

When I have put a teacher (or anyone for that matter) on a pedestal without being conscious of what I was doing, it took a lot longer for me to recognize what was happening, let alone work through it and move on.

This is  particularly true because (as I later realized) the teacher in question was perpetuating this dynamic – he wanted me (and other students) to keep him up on the pedestal. Perhaps not consciously, but again – just as powerful. I believe this is where things become particularly problematic.

For example, a student unlocks powerful emotions, unconsciously transferring them onto the teacher. The teacher, rather than sensing what’s going on and working with it appropriately, is triggered into wanting to reinforce these projections in order to meet their own unconscious emotional needs. In psychological terms, this is known as “counter-transference.”

So, the student puts the teacher up on a pedestal. Unbeknownst to the student, the teacher is not an enlightened being, but rather a normal person with lots of insecurities and a deep unconscious need for people to admire them as exceptional, knowledgeable, spiritual, or whatever. So when the students gaze up at them with insecurity and soothing adoration in their eyes, the teacher unconsciously does their best to keep that dynamic going.

This can be done in many ways, ranging from the subtle to the punitive. But it’s the nature of such relationships that the dynamic established can be quite powerful and unhealthy.

I have seen this happen in my own studios and definitely in the larger yoga arenas. Its an important issue that needs to be addressed more explicitly in the yoga community. In psychological terms, these actions could easily point to narcissism as the core problem, capable of polluting teacher-student relationships.

When there are narcissistic traits in a teacher (grandiosity and need for admiration) and narcissistic vulnerabilities in the student (the need to be attached to an idealized person who approves and confirms worth), the two will mutually reinforce narcissistic pedagogy. 

The learner gains approval; the teacher gains compliance and admiration. And while it’s almost certain that neither teacher nor student consciously wants this to happen, it can, and I believe, all too often happens. 

Please know that this by no means implies that the teacher is a “bad teacher,” that the relationship is wholly negative, or that the student has learned nothing in class, on the contrary. What makes these situations so confusing is that the opposite can be the fact, and probably most often is true. The teacher may be a gifted asana instructor, the relationship may have some truly positive dimensions, and the student may have learned an enormous amount. But at the root, the relationship can be poisoned by narcissism. 

This complicated reality can be very painful and difficult to disentangle and process. Of course, it can also be tremendously liberating to work through it. Let’s face it, its a co-dependent relationship that’s bad for both the teacher and student. Although, In most circumstances I have witnessed that the student, being less powerful typically suffers more.

I think it would be a good idea for the modern yoga community to have open and real discussions about the changing nature of the teacher-student relationship. Its no longer Guru-Disciple, so what is it, really? What would we ideally like that relationship to be? 

I think that it could be useful to think about how Western psychology might help us gain insight into the nature and potential pitfalls of the teacher-student relationship. Therapists are trained to understand issues such as narcissism, transference, and counter-transference, and to work with them in their practice. I realize that yoga teachers aren’t therapists and shouldn’t try to be, but I think that it would be helpful for us to have more familiarity with these concepts. 

Its important for yoga teachers to start thinking about how best to create a culture that truly empowers their students. Psychologically, it’s not necessarily bad for students to go through a phase of idealizing their teachers, provided that it functions as a transition towards greater independence and empowerment. But too often I witness it turning into a rut of dependency and illusion. 

The question to explore, is how best to ensure a healthy teacher – student relationship. 

Thank goodness, the way in which yoga is taught today typically has strong built-in protections against the abuses that can occur when teacher-student relationships really get out of hand. Typically students and teachers are only together for classes, and aren’t subject to the crazy intensity that can build up in a live-in community. (This is not, of course, to suggest that ashrams or residential communities are inherently bad, just that the potential for unhealthy relationships to become truly abusive is obviously higher.)

Hopefully, criticisms about the yoga community can be an opportunity for us to reflect on its dynamics more deeply, rather than simply air the dirty laundry, and hastily judge. The impersonal forces of idealism, the depths of illusion and fear, the subtleties of self-deception and ambition are a part of our human nature. The Greek plays, the Indian Vedas, the African tribal myths, Biblical Tales all wrestle with these forces, which have shaped our human lot since ancient times. To believe in a spiritual life with no shadow, where ego never visits, is to imagine a sky where the sun always shines and there is no night. We need the darkness in order to transform. 

I think that it’s important to allow our hearts and minds to dance together in order to inform us. To be wary of the teacher who speaks in black and white, right and wrong terms. If the teacher gossips or speaks negatively and judgementaly about another lineage or teacher, remember that is a form of  fear based manipulation. A teacher should encourage the student to ask more questions, and provide tools that help the student connect to their own truth in order to discover the answers. To seek within, rather than give the student what can truly only be considered an opinion and their own experience. 

In gratitude and love, 

Tymi Howard