The secret lives of yoga teachers

Yesterday Tara Parker-Pope wrote “An Older Generation Falls Prey to Eating Disorders” in her New York Times health column. It caught my eye because it profiles a 58-year-old yoga teacher who developed anorexia in her late 30s. “At 53, carrying just 85 pounds on her 5-foot-3 frame,” Parker-Pope writes, “Ms. Shaw checked herself in to an eating disorders program.”

Skimming readers’ comments, it’s clear that there are multiple issues involved. But here’s what struck me: Can someone personally unhealthy (or unhappy) nevertheless be a decent yoga teacher? (Granted, Shaw might be only a casual, occasional teacher and not the best subject to analyze. In this interview, she doesn’t even mention yoga.)

I once knew a therapist who by all accounts greatly helped her clients. She seemed self-confident, realistic, and content with her own life. So I was surprised when she got liposuction in her thighs and an eyelid lift. Some might argue that she was taking charge of her body and face. To me, there’s no good reason for risky elective plastic surgery; she must have been struggling with major self criticism. Yet there she was: an effective therapist with secret hangups of her own.

All in all, I’ve found that the best yoga teachers are relatively healthy and happy: neurotic, maybe; psychotic, no. At least one person in a yoga class must be stable and in control, and shouldn’t that person be the teacher?

Of course, we’ve all heard about teachers who behave badly (boundary crossing, materialism, you name it) and yet are revered by students. Can teachers be “bad” and yet “good”? Do we even know if our teachers are truly who they seem to be? If we are teachers ourselves, do our public and private selves match?

Perhaps it’s all a matter of degree. We’re all human with quirks and foibles. Perhaps if one is relatively “together,” one can help others despite needing a bit of help oneself.

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10 thoughts on “The secret lives of yoga teachers

  1. “At least one person in a yoga class must be stable and in control, and shouldn’t that person be the teacher?” — Haha! Funny, but true enough. I’ve observed, as you have, that sometimes the most loved teachers are the ones whose personal lives I would never want to be involved in. I guess if he or she serves the students appropriately and guides them with integrity, I can respect them as a teacher.

    However, as a yoga teacher myself, I know that I try to live my life as an example for my students, however feeble that attempt may be from time to time, and feel that doing otherwise would be hypocritical of me.

  2. Joseph Campbell said that the idea that all a teacher has to have is the information is a myth. The teacher has to have had his/her character changed by the discipline.

    So as kooky as some of these folks may be — and as unfortunate as it is that their lives have not been further purified, as it were, as I’d be wrong to judge — if their lives have been changed by the discipline, then they have something to pass on.

    My mentor says that his daily prayer is to ask his Creator “Please let me be a good example, or at least serve as a warning”.

  3. I think this is an interesting question.

    There are several issues here:
    1. Yoga can be a method of ‘control’- our body, our mind. There are rituals, cleanses and physical activity can be encouraged.
    2. I can see how practicing yoga would attract those who are ‘already at risk’ in developing an eating disorder. Not the cause, but vulnerable to assisting to.
    3. Eating disorders do not create ‘psychosis’ (Ii really have to be picky about that- I know you didn’t really MEAN that the yoga instructor was ‘psychotic’ with that reference, but it’s a bit much with regards to mental health issues….).

    Finally- are yoga instructors who have a mental illness fit to instruct yoga?

    That is the big question eh? I would say the answer is ‘YES’- as in like any other career, we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of mental health. And it is discrimination: we have no information as to how well this woman did her job- just that she has an eating disorder.

    Just like any other employment, I would hope that the person completing her job was judged by her competency and not whether or not she had a mental health issue.

    That said- I have a friend who is a recovering person with anorexia. And let me tell you- she is obviously recovering. She received training with Baron Baptiste in New York and is currently attached to a local Ashtanga instructor.
    I have to wonder about the decision into accepting her for the teaching training program in the first place- and whether the local Ashtanga instructor should be accepting her membership to his studio so readily.
    I say this because she’s using yoga (as well as kettle bells, running and the gym) to continue her struggles with her eating disorder. I know the local instructor, and he is not qualified to support individuals who have mental health disorders….

    It’s an interesting and good question that we need to debate further. 🙂

  4. Hmm, good topic, interesting… My first reaction is to think that yoga teachers are first and foremost human so they are bound to not be solid, centered and perfect, at least not all the time… on the other hand I see your argument, yes shouldn’t the teacher be the centered one? that would be nice…

    I think that the best teacher is the one that is the most connected with spirit and that will stay out of the way in a way that will show the student the way, or rather, the way to find its own way… but what they do outside of the studio is their own life.

    Sorry for the ramblings, this post is giving me lots of food for thought 🙂

  5. Unfortunately, I have known several instructors who are suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders, sex addiction, etc., and they can still deliver an effective class. However, since these teachers, many with quite a following, are coming from egoic delusion, the class is a “performance” for them. They can even give an inspiring Pravachan, which could also be a projection of what they are trying to see through in their lives. Always be compassionate, not judgmental. If the energy of the teacher and the class do not feel right, move on and find the instuctor that best suits you. It is your practice afterall.

  6. This is a very interesting topic. As part of the universal fabric, yoga teachers too are part of the human frailty. I think that so long as we, as teachers, have our intentions set in the right place and are committed to becoming the best person (and teacher) we can be (especially if, as Mark La Porta pointed out earlier, our lives have been changed by the discipline) then we are in an ok place to teach – no matter where along the path that finds us. We are all works in progress, and we like our students may not have our personal lives 100% in order 100% of the time, but perhaps that brings more compassion to our teaching than one who maybe has never suffered? Another quote from BKS Iyengar: “”We must face up to our emotions, not run away from them. We do not do yoga just for enjoyment; we do it for ultimate emancipation. Most people want to take joy without suffering. I will take both. See how far suffering takes me.”

  7. Great question! I think that many yoga teachers come from a place of pain or yearning which is what attracts us to the practice of yoga in the first place. So yoga teachers may be more prone to mental/emotional struggles than the average person who shows up to a yoga class now and then. But… I do think teachers have an obligation to lead by example.

    I recently saw a yoga teacher smoking and boy did that ever push my buttons. I had never taken her class but I had heard that she was a great teacher. It made me never want to try her class but what does that say about me? I judged her in an instant based on my own aversions. Hopefully we are indeed all “in progress.”

  8. Hi Everyone,
    I remember my first yoga lesson (idea for another post?) – the teacher was exquisite. You could see from the first moment that she knew what she was doing. I didn’t like her feminine softness, her begging voice, but there was oh-so-much to learn from her. Ever since I’ve noticed each and every yoga teacher (and anyone else I know for that matter) slip – say something they shouldn’t have and realizing it, pushing the class too hard and regretting it etc. IF SOMEONE is not perfect it does not mean you can’t learn from them. The learning is done by the student, not the teacher. Therefore you can learn from a teacher’s mistake just as much. I remember a slip of the tongue from a teacher telling a pregnant student in a nasty voice “Oh, you don’t know what you’re up against!” Then the teacher realized what she just said, left her safe Teacher Position, walked across the class to the student, hugged her and apologized, and went back to teach.

    Just do your best, with non-attachment to the fruit of action…

  9. Wow! What a great question/topic! This is something I’ve thought about a lot.
    It seems to me that people who go through many trials and tribulations in their lives, who suffer physical and/or mental illness or trauma, have survived or overcome these hardships, and especially if it’s with the help of yoga or meditation, then these people as yoga teachers have a great deal to offer their students: empathy, compassion, true dedication, honesty, enthusiasm for the subject, knowlege of what helped him/her that might help put someone else at ease while looking for their own path. Because of their own past trauma or difficulties, they are often the best to recognize a struggling student, know when to share some of their experience to encourage a student find what works for them, and when to back off and allow students to find their own way.

    From my experience, most people respond well to someone who’s been in their shoes, or at least similar ones, and who will still allow them to find their own way to their goals, with a little nudge when needed.

    I could have made this a lot shorter by just saying I totally agree with Mark LaPorta and holdsteadyyogi!

  10. For me, I started off not liking yoga, and I don’t know if it was because of the class structure (more relaxed, unheated) or because I was too young and didn’t have the concentration required. Now that I’m taking classes that are more “yoga-ey” and difficult, I enjoy practicing.

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