In August, HuffPost blogger Lauren Cahn wrote a revealing post about the perils of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga yoga. She caught a lot of hell for that one, with dozens of defensive Ashtanga yogis complaining that Cahn was generalizing and maligning the whole system. This week, Yoga Dork posted a … ahem … revealing photo of Jois manually correcting two female students.
Is all of that true about Jois? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. But one question nagged at me:
Why do students tolerate a teacher’s inappropriate behavior? (Any teacher, not Jois in particular.)
Why do they let their bodies be “cranked” into pretzel poses beyond their capacity? Why do they allow questionable “corrections” with no outcry. Even if Jois’s fingers (in the photo) were innocent, the students probably felt awkward; if so, they should’ve had the wherewithal to tell him.
But they probably didn’t. Teachers wield much power over awestruck students. With more fame comes more power.
Much has been written about the power imbalance in certain relationships: teacher-student, doctor-patient, therapist-patient, coach-athlete, clergy-disciple. So it’s no surprise that yoga teachers, too, influence their students’ lives (more than even they might realize). See Donna Farhi’s book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship and this article in the late ascent magazine for more on yoga-teacher ethics.
Examples need not be extreme cases of injury or abuse. Think about your own class participation. If your teacher directs you to ground your heels or to drop deeper into uttanasana, do you immediately comply? Or do you do a body check first?
Ultimately it behooves us to be measured in our regard. We can value brilliance without being blinded. Listen to your chosen teachers, but also to that “teacher within.”