Reciprocal relationships

In my third year of law school, I took an elective called “Law and Literature,” taught by John Jay Osborne, Jr, author of The Paper Chase, a novel (and movie and TV show) about a Harvard law student and his obsession with his intimidating contracts professor.

In this offbeat course (even at Berkeley), we escaped “black letter law” to analyze Shakespeare (King Lear) and Melville (Bartleby, the Scrivener), plus films such as Rashomon and Thelma and Louise. Discussing his own story one day, he focused on a final scene: Hart (Timothy Bottoms), the law student, converses with Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), whose presence ruled his life for a year. The professor stares blankly. “What is your name?”

Lack of reciprocity in the relationship

After all of their heated debates and encounters, Kingsfield is oblivious to Hart. Osborne summarized the theme of that scene (and their dynamic) as a “lack of reciprocity in the relationship.”

Those words captivated me. Lack of reciprocity in the relationship. It seemed the crux of all unbalanced, frustrating interactions. Rude neighbors, bad bosses, random jerks. I’d silently resurrect Osborne’s theme as a catchall for any bitter relationship.

But is it really necessary to have reciprocity in a teacher-student relationship? Does it matter whether a teacher acknowledges you? Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for The Paper Chase suggests that Kingsfield is only pretending not to recognize his students, to emphasize that it’s not the relationships formed in law school that matter, but rather the knowledge attained. Kingsfield himself says, “You teach yourselves the law. I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you’ll leave thinking like a lawyer.”

Teacher-student relationships

In yoga, I’ve always chosen a “main” teacher for regular (weekly or more) classes. Then I’d experiment with others’ teachings, through their writings and workshops. This contrasts with today’s trend: folks elevate their affiliations with far-flung, big-name teachers, whom they might meet at mega workshops and Yoga Journal conferences.

Sure, I might be influenced by teachers I know only through workshops or drop-in classes. But I’ve always found my relationships with my main teachers much more important. Only with a firsthand give-and-take (week to week, year to year) can teaching can be specialized and monitored. To be observed and adjusted by a teacher: invaluable!

Back to The Paper Chase: Kingsfield and Hart might have lacked a personal reciprocal relationship, but their exchanges suited law school (and Hart did learn). Between you and your yoga teacher, there should likewise be reciprocity, whatever that means to you.



  1. Very true. It’s important to have a teacher in your life who is tried and true, in my opinion. I have always felt the absence of this during the points in my practice it was lacking.


  2. Interesting post!

    You stated above: “In yoga, I’ve always chosen a “main” teacher for regular (weekly or more) classes. Then I’d experiment with others’ teachings, through their writings and workshops. This contrasts with today’s trend: folks elevate their affiliations with far-flung, big-name teachers, whom they might meet at mega workshops and Yoga Journal conferences.”

    I’ve noticed this as I’ve grown in my practice and started exploring other studio’s and instructors. I agree – there seems to be this prestige in saying “I’ve trained with Insert-Big-Name-Here” or “I’ve gone to India to study with Insert-Big-Name-Here, but what kind of rapport can you develop with an instructor in a 200 person class? Or a weekend workshop? You might be influenced by their philosphy, but I would hardly call that a relationship.

    I’m much more likely to resonate with someone who doesn’t flaunt WHO they study with, but rather, what life experiences they bring to class. What has shaped them as a person? How does that person connect with every person in the room on a personal level? That’s what I like in an instructor.

    On the flip side, as an instructor, I do try very hard to learn my students names, and they alway seem pleased when I can remember their last name as well. It’s a small thing I can do to make them feel accepted and welcome in my classes.


  3. Such an interesting thing to explore, the teacher-student relationship!!

    On the one hand, on the occasional time I have attended a large workshop, I have learned a lot from teachers who I’m sure don’t remember my name. Just like in a large class at University, a teacher can influence your mind (and in Yoga, your body) through their energy and their words, without necessarily having a personal connection.

    I optimistically think that many of these ‘big name’ teachers have big reputations because they are great teachers – and a truly great teacher can teach to a room of 2, or 200.

    That said, the day-to-day student-teacher relationship is very different. It’s great to build a relationship with someone who knows your body and can help you with specific things you are working on. As a teacher, I know my student’s physical habits more than I know anything about them personally! Which ones round their shoulders, hyper-extend their knees, carry their stress in their jaw. This helps me to focus on their individual needs, even in a group class.

    However as a student, at what point does this become stale? I think at some points you may need to seek out new perspectives and a fresh pair of eyes, too. Perhaps the best teachers I’ve had are the ones who I return to every now and then – so they have the advantage of knowing my practice, but because they don’t see me every day, they will be able to notice my progress and new habits I’m developing.

    Just a few thoughts on this great topic!


  4. Dear yogaspy,
    “Thy business is with the action only, never with its fruits; so let not the fruits of action be thy motive, nor be thou to inaction attached.” Gita: Chapter II-47.
    Reciprocity partly means expecting something in return for your actions, which will surely bring suffering at one time or the other, when the other side doesn’t meet your expectations.
    This perfectly explains what you mentioned about ‘unbalanced, frustrating interactions. Rude neighbors, bad bosses, random jerks.’ You expect something from people and when you get less in return, you suffer, you lose balance.
    Likewise, if you expect attention from your Yoga teacher and fail to get it, you might try to prove yourself, you might feel hurt, etc. On the other hand, if you are able (and this is HARD!) to lose interest in reciprocity, but rather focus on your own part of the deal, ignore the bad results, and occasionally enjoy whatever good comes your way, then you are immune to failure and instability. This is, in my opinion, Karma Yoga. For me this was a real revelation and it changed my life. Not expecting anything from my family, from my clients, from my friends had made life SO MUCH better and simple…
    So I would conclude that Yoga is also about letting go of reciprocity, and with your Yoga teacher most of all. But that’s just my opinion…
    All the best. guy.


    1. Great comment! I agree that a teacher need not individually address audience members to deliver a worthy lesson. Perhaps I was trying to reach those who gravitate only to big-name traveling teachers, ignoring any excellent local teachers. Both have something to offer. But in today’s yoga “market,” celebrities rule.

      But I do agree that one shouldn’t navigate life expecting reciprocity. Same with our personal relationships, many which hinge on unconditional love (no expectations!).


      1. Great blog! 🙂
        To take the discussion even further, although I was thinking of the relationship with your ‘main’ teacher, the quote I mentioned also applies to a teacher talking in front of 200 people, or The Paper Chase (BTW it brings back pleasant memories of watching TV as a kid with all my family).
        Such a teacher, much like an author, a movie director or a blogger 😉 gives whatever they have to offer without even having the ability to realize the full consequences. Some of the students will find it boring, some will misinterpret, some will gain something, some will be offended. But all this is not the teacher’s business. Their business is to focus and do their part as best and as accurately as they can.
        So keep it up Spy!


  5. I have a home practice, it thrives and has gotten better, when I let go completely of my relationship with cold, aloof, pushy teacher. If I am paying for something that even in its group class form, is to me a financial sacrifice, I do expect the teacher to like me as a person. No exceptions need apply here, and this cuts across styles and venues. Just saying, teaching is a market activity since it no longer is a non-market activity.


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