Does it matter whether you like your teacher? Or your students?

In Hawai’i, studying hula can be akin to studying yoga: it’s physical training, but also mental and spiritual practices. Like yoga, hula also comes in many flavors, from flashy tourist shows to serious halau (schools) whose members consider hula a lifestyle choice.

An acquaintance (whom I’ll call Maki) studies with a renowned kumu hula (hula master) whose family is legendary in hula circles. This teacher is tough on all students but treats Hawaiian students much more favorably than non-Hawaiian students. (Maki is not Hawaiian.)

Nowadays teachers of any ilk avoid the slightest semblance of unequal treatment: it’s not PC. So Maki’s anecdotes seemed over the top. “Why study with a teacher who treats students unfairly?” I asked.

“I wanted to study a particular style of hula, ai’ha’a,” she said. “The first time I saw her halau perform, I knew I wanted to learn this style.

“I chose to study from a particular family and lineage. The driving force is this style of hula, not the teacher. She happens to be the ‘transmitter.'”

Naturally, I applied her story to my frame of reference: yoga. While I actually like tough teachers (and don’t mind abrasive personalities), I dislike favoritism. Harshness is acceptable if uniformly doled out. But Maki was sanguine about the situation (and patient with my probing). “Once again, I am there to study hula in the aiha’a style,” she said. “It’s obvious that she likes some more than others; I think that’s a given.”

“But her knowledge and strength as a kumu trump everything?”

“Yes.”

Regarding favoritism, Maki commented that her kumu (and also her Zen sensei) would say, “GET OVER IT. Practice, practice, practice, and practice some more.”

I found Maki’s perspective to be remarkably mature. (Let me clarify here that her kumu does show kindness and generosity to Maki sometimes at unexpected moments. The teacher never rejects the student; she just never tries to  “be nice.”)

Would I likewise study with a teacher who treats me more harshly than she treats others, but who undoubtedly has something to teach? Should the criterion be the practice, not the personality?

Most Westerners focus on personality. Most want not only for their teachers to “like” them but, if they are also teachers, for their students to “like” them. Behavior is modified and softened. In other words, students kiss their teachers’ behinds, while teachers refrain from any criticism that might offend.

Yoga has grown very “social” in the West. Teachers and students often become friends (or more than friends). Personally, I steer clear from yoga cliques. In the primary relationship between teacher and student, however, I do seek real rapport. But is this necessary? Or am I filling another need in myself, too?

Images: Merrie Monarch Festival 2008

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8 thoughts on “Does it matter whether you like your teacher? Or your students?

  1. I seek rapport too. It doesn’t always look the same teacher to teacher. Abrasive or quirky is fine. Is it necessary? I think it depends on what your yoga practice means in your life. What you are deriving out of a led class. What your purpose in seeking a teacher is.

  2. I had a teacher with whom the countertransference was very, very strong–but the only class of his that I could reasonably attend in his alignment-based style, was just a little too mild for me, and a little expensive. I don’t rule out the possibility of taking the more suitable-level class with him, but my schedule precludes this for the near future.

    Be it known that even at the more difficult open level, the class is mature-person-friendly (and I am one).

    Should I reach the point where my home practice is practically the entirety of my practice, I will find a way to take and to pay for his class on an occasional basis.

    Until that time, I search for classes in which the teacher is as vanilla as possible and as affable as possible in their teaching (even the class being in a totally different style).

    I don’t particularly like being offended, I only sort of like being over-challenged. And face it, nothing in the world beats countertransference from a teacher. That loving psychic embrace!

  3. I would never be able to study for long with a teacher who seemed gratuitously nasty, no matter how technically adept he or she might be.
    As yogis we’re supposed to be cultivating friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity. I expect those qualities in a teacher too. Which isn’t to say that a teacher needs to be a buddy, or to put up with inattention or sloppy work. That doesn’t serve anybody.
    I’ve studied with some big-name international teachers who came across as petulant, irritable, and prone to picking out a scapegoat for the course of the workshop.
    And as much as I might profit from their teaching, I know I wouldn’t study with them again.

    1. That is a smart thing to do. I had been suckered in by a former teacher’s silver tongued patter; and I’d grown to tolerate his showoffy asana pyrotechnics too for the “benefit” of the class (when I’d been a rank beginner it varied from intimidation to discouragement to fascination (as with a circus freak) and back again. Obviously, I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid that the teacher trainees in the studio may have. I became “flavor of the month” and the recipient of uncalled for “assists” to where I wasn’t going to go for a very long time, then held against my will despite loud and audible protestations. There is more to the story, but I am happy I am out of that jail, er, shala …

  4. Hmmm, perhaps along with ‘Harshness is acceptable so long as it is uniformly doled out’, it could also be said that harshness as a means of breaking through resistance can be a relevant teaching method. Sometimes, as teachers, we might need to focus the attention of a group or individual by what might be perceived as abrasive technique. But as you allude to, not everyone is open to that style, or as teachers, likes it back!

    1. To that I say, “Resistance is in the eye of the beholder …

      “My closed wallet? …

      “That is the style, dear teacher, in which I become your non-customer.

      “Yoga from YOU is in competition with other studios (six in an under one-mile radius from where I live – sophisticated, dynamic styles, too), with what I learn on the web and from books and other media.”

  5. When I was new to yoga, a friend drug me to her favorite Iyengar teacher. I realized immediately this guy knew his stuff and I liked the general vibe of the other students, but I was *terrified* of being called out by him. Initially I thought he was too persnickety, sniped too much at the more experienced students, and cared too much about what I thought were unimportant details.

    I continued coming to his class partly because my friend would come and get me, and partly because I made more progress spiritually as well as physically than with any other teacher I’d worked with. Pretty soon, I really started to get it. What I dismissed at first as overly pedantic, I came to understand as an amazing attention to detail to which I owed my growth. I also came to realize that though he was uneven in his criticisms, it was because he was doling out only what he thought the individual could handle/need at that moment.

    What I initially thought was harsh and uncaring comments, I came to understand as fierce and concise commentary ripping aside certain veils of ignorance and distortion. Once I came to know this man on a more personal level, I came to see a loving, spiritual practitioner who wasn’t afraid of getting on the wrong side of a few people in his quest to tell the truth. And believe me, he did. He also has a strong following of intelligent, compassionate students and teachers.

    I’m glad I stuck it out, paid attention, and looked beyond my initial misunderstandings to see a greater perspective.

  6. Well favouritism is deemed bad in some instances as all we believe all hold an equal opportunity to learn.

    As for harshness, I agree it can depend on personality, but also general civility. You’re asserting as if people enjoy being offended. Well no more than most would enjoy being punched in the face. There is no essential difference.

    That said, I contend it’s subjective, and that some may not care about harsh teachers. Also, historically perhaps the emphasis was not on the experience, but what was learnt from it irrespective of how the teacher behaved.

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