Relationships, Ethics, Abuse

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we explore ethical factors and psychological transference in teacher-student relationships.

Objective

Become knowledgeable about ethical factors in teacher-student relationships, including the likelihood of psychological transference, and reflect on how to wisely fulfill the responsibility of a teacher.

Description

Consider that a teacher’s role is to stay focused on the student’s experience while being mindful of projection or assumptions. Relate an approach that teachers can use when students ask personal questions of them. Describe the likelihood that psychological transference happens in yoga classes. Become aware of the importance of not encouraging a sense that the teacher can “heal” students or otherwise feed student fantasies.

Stay Focused on the Student’s Experience

The Foundation

  • Stay focused on the student’s experience (as opposed to yours).
  • Avoid giving advice. Focus instead on guiding students to find their own answers.

THE TEACHER’S ROLE IS TO GUIDE, NOT TO GIVE ADVICE

“When students are moving their body in yoga class, they’re connecting to… themselves in spiritual and emotional ways,” [Bo] Forbes says. “It’s natural for them to ask the person who is leading the experience about what’s going on.” The teacher’s role… is to guide—not to give advice. Teachers should facilitate the student’s process and evolution, explains Eddie Modestini…“Students are the ones who must navigate the territory of their journeys. It’s their responsibility to look at the congestion in their minds and hearts and take personal responsibility.” – Kristen Kemp

SUPPORTING STUDENTS IN TRUSTING THEIR INNER GUIDANCE

It can be easy to tell people what they should do for healing when they come to us with a specific issue. Maybe we know someone with the same problem and a certain pose or diet healed them. But before we go giving out advice, it is important to remember that as trained yoga teachers, people may look up to us with certain beliefs that aren’t necessarily true… Every person has within themselves their own teacher, a guidance system, a higher being, that is leading them to where they need to be. This may bring them into our class, but our job isn’t to “teach” them our knowledge. Oftentimes it is our job to simply remind them to trust their own guidance and intuition. We are here to bring them into their own practice and to get in touch with their own center, the unshakeable core we all harbor a deep connection to, yet so often lose touch with. – Rachel Nierstedt

Leveraging Your Experience vs Teaching Your Path

  • Be mindful about projection or assumptions that your own path or process is the best approach for your students.
  • Consider the difference between leveraging your experience in general (what we might consider the “framework” of yoga), as opposed to teaching your particular path (the exact “content” of what worked for your specific situation).
  • Your personal experience is vital to your embodied understanding and makes your teaching authentic. However, to teach wisely and effectively, you must avoid assuming that your particular path is the right one for each of your students. Focus instead on providing guidance that allows students to have their own experience and leads them to their own unique combination of answers.

AVOID SELF-FOCUS; TAKE CARE WITH TEACHING “PERSONAL REVELATIONS”

I used to practice to get a firmer grip on my mental and physical health, and my self-perception….

Because it worked for me, I taught it. That’s the pattern in this industry, which, for good or ill, commodifies personal revelations. But somehow, it also worked for me in a way that allowed me to see how it wasn’t working for others… I’m coming to feel that any self-focus that continues beyond a baseline of therapeutic functionality in life can easily become just another form of privileged consumerism, disguised in a spiritual glow… There’s a point at which the commodified medicine of personal work can become a social toxin that further isolates its patients. – Matthew Remski

Teacher-Student Relationships

Stay in Your Zone of Expertise

  • Be cautious about keeping your teaching within the bounds of yoga (unless you have complementary expertise and are specifically offering that). The point is to avoid veering into pop psychology or healthcare, for example.
  • Yoga is a gigantic subject and so there will be areas you are not yet steeped in. Avoid teaching such areas that are outside your zone of expertise.

Conversations with Students

  • Be respectful about acknowledging a student’s gratitude with a gracious “thank you.” Take such an opportunity to authentically note how the student’s own efforts and practice were the catalyst for the effects.
  • When students ask you about yourself, one approach is to graciously turn the discussion back around to the student and/or yoga. Example:

TURNING THE DISCUSSION TO THE STUDENT & YOGA

When yoga students ask about our weekend, our family, our health, we are at our best always directing it back to them. “I had a great weekend prepping for this class. What would you like to work on?” “My family is so grateful I am teaching, because I come home happier.” “I feel great. Aren’t you glad we get to practice yoga today? How are you feeling, head to toe?” – Danielle Zissou

Be Aware of Psychological Transference

  • Notice any tendencies your ego has of thinking that student appreciation is a sign that you are “more special” than others.
  • It’s extremely likely that some students will unconsciously make assumptions about their teachers. Being aware of this means you can take some responsibility for helping students to separate you from their projections. Successfully addressing this can have cascading positive effects in other areas of a student’s life.
  • Teachers are advised to study the topic of psychological transference. At minimum, stay aware so as not to encourage a sense that you can “heal” students, or to otherwise feed student fantasies.

Personal Relationships with Students

  • If a student indicates an interest in developing a personal relationship outside of class, you may wish to consider not only any ethical implications but if you truly have the time to give in this way (in light of commitments to your own practice, family, etc.).
  • Consider how you may wish to set conscious boundaries with kindness and honesty. (Danielle Zissou)

Asana Adjustments & Assisting

Hands-on adjustments or assists are a key potential aspect of how a teacher relates to students.

For some teachers and students, hands-on adjustments are central to their practice, a major component, or at least a welcome addition. We provide guidelines here — and hundreds of photos of adjustments — but we honor that as with everything else related to teaching, this is a big topic with no one right way. Each situation is unique and so we do not advocate one way but rather bring together many expert teachings to support you.

Why Not Assist?

There are perhaps more reasons *not* to provide hands-on adjustments than there are to provide them. In many cases, it isn’t safe or appropriate to adjust a student. Examples include:

Students

  • New to yoga
  • New to the teacher
  • Injuries or particular medical conditions
  • History of unresolved trauma
  • Uncomfortable with touch due to cultural perspective, personal history or issues related to body image

Teachers

  • Not trained in adjustments
  • Haven’t gained enough experience with adjustments
  • Uncomfortable giving adjustments for any number of reasons

Another reason not to adjust is that, for some types of teachings, there are simply other — and sometimes better — ways to communicate information to a student than through an adjustment. (One example is when a teacher is trying to encourage self-adjustment based on increasing ability to rely on one’s felt-sense.)

Adjusting Guidelines

If and when you choose to provide adjustments, we have a set of guidelines for your consideration.

More Readings on Teacher-Student Relationships

INTERACTING WITH STUDENTS WHO PUT TEACHER ON PEDESTAL

Erich Schiffman was asked, How do you interact with students who put you on a pedestal?

I don’t take it that seriously. Or, more accurately, I totally appreciate their appreciation. I take it in, and then in all sincerity I say, “Thank you” to them. It’s nice to be acknowledged, and it is respectful to that other one to receive their appreciation and express your thanks in return… But one of the main things you learn through yoga is that there really is an equality throughout Creation, that there really is only One of us here, and putting someone up on a pedestal as being more special than someone else is not where it’s at. – Erich Schiffman

PSYCHOLOGICAL TRANSFERENCE & TRAUMA

The thing is, transference is actually a healthy thing. You want transference to happen in psychotherapy. It’s where the gold is. And, it happens between students and teachers of yoga. It should, if we want yoga to do the things we say it does… [But,] RYT 200s are woefully unequipped to deal with transference or trauma, being nothing more than a representative sampling of society, themselves. Transformation happens interpersonally. Every single religion and intervention known to history knows this. We still know it in the context of education, medicine, and mental health. To deny that anything less is happening in a Core Power class, or an ashram, or a bunch of mats rolled out in a YMCA, is denial… I think it’s very nearly predictable that boundaries and sex and shame and abuse will come up. We’re dealing with bodies, after all. And I think until we recognize that people are coming to yoga with f**ked up psychologies at the same rate the general population has f**ked up psychologies, until we deny the ability to “heal” people or “transcend” suffering, this stuff will keep on happening. – Karin L. Burke

More on Ethics in General

Power Abuse & Sexual Assault

THE HEALING & CHANGES POSSIBLE FROM GIVING VOICE TO ABUSE VICTIMS

In the end, even for the Catholic schoolgirls, it was when they were finally able to talk about the abuse many years later that they began to heal… And, of course, all the people who eventually came forward and are still coming forward about sexual abuse in the Catholic church did a lot to bring system-wide changes in the church. From that perspective, this New York Times article did us in the yoga community a service just by raising the issue to the general public. I hope this will encourage others to speak up as well. – Nina Zolotow

  1. Yoga and #MeToo: Toward a Culture with Zero Tolerance For Sexual Assault — Important, painful reporting by Karen Rain about the sexual assault she experienced from Pattabhi Jois.
  2. Karen Rain Speaks About Pattabhi Jois and Recovering from Sexual and Spiritual Abuse — Important, painful video interview.
  3. Rachel Brathen Collects More than 300 #MeToo Yoga Stories: The Community Responds — Yoga Journal article, Dec 14, 2017
  4. Abuse of Power in the Yoga World — by Nina Zolotow
  5. Yoga Teachers Need a Code of Ethics — New York Times opinion piece, June 7, 2017
  6. Yoga Teachers Who Abuse Their Students — by Nina Zolotow
  7. Yoga Nidra, Satyananda Saraswati, and Sexual Abuse — by Nina Zolotow
  8. Trauma-Sensitive Teaching — We highly recommend you study our resources on this critical subject. We believe that it’s vital and think you’ll find our coverage an excellent support to you, whatever your experience level with this topic. Lessons learned from trauma-sensitive teaching offer yoga teachers skillful ways to prevent unknowingly causing re-traumatization and to more effectively support individual healing.
  9. Matthew Remski Blog — Remski reports on scandal and abuse in yoga settings, among other topics.