… The teacher-student relationship is based on trust. As a teacher I want to build a relationship with the student that will withstand trouble over time. I must know how to hold the container within which the relationship occurs, one that protects both parties. Therefore I must not engage in so-called dual relationships with my students…

From “A Teacher’s Responsibility,” by Yvonne Rand, Zen Buddhist priest

My post “‘Cranking’ and ‘correcting'” was spurred by my fellow blogger Lauren Cahn’s HuffPost piece on the possible pitfalls of Ashtanga training and the Yoga Dork upload of that infamous Pattabhi Jois photo. In turn, my post led to Cahn’s subsequent Yoga Chickie post, “When I think about you, you touch my ass.”

Check out the comments to the string of posts regarding that touchy-feely photo. Some see Cahn (and any critic) as overreactors. Others see blatant misconduct (nevermind that it’s an old photo and one moment in a 93-year-long life). Whatever one’s opinion, it’s likely a gut reaction, based on who you are, not only as a person but as a yogi.

To me, the gaping split in opinion comes from one’s attitude about yoga. For some, it’s an occasional pastime, done as a workout, a social activity, or a stress reducer. For others, it’s a serious hobby, part of one’s daily routine and a guide to self study. For still others, it’s a deep personal endeavor, linked with commitment to a mentor and a way of life. And the list goes on.

Nowadays, yoga teachers are a dime a dozen; the majority are regular Joes and Janes with just a dash more experience (or merely the chutzpah to teach). Even the stellar teachers typically garner respect and loyalty, but not blind awe.

In any case, if a student is mature, rational, and clear on the boundaries between oneself and one’s teacher, all the controversy of teacher ethics is moot. That person would never end up in a vulnerable position (whether emotionally or upside-down, butt in air), nor would that person condone such behavior toward fellow students.

For some,  however, the teacher becomes a powerful figure. As powerful as a parent, a romantic partner, an authority figure or a religious leader.

These issues are nothing new. In fact, having followed scandals in Zen Buddhism, in yoga, in crazy cults, and in other such “paths,” I’m rather jaded on the subject.

But I hate the way critics of questionable conduct are painted as uptight vigilantes. While the vast majority of yoga students will never be even remotely harmed, there will always be the vulnerable few who, like sheep, will follow, follow, follow.

Then it behooves teachers to act wisely.

RECOMMENDED READING: In her remarkably clear-eyed piece “A Teacher’s Responsibility,” Zen Buddhist priest Yvonne Rand discusses essential elements of good teachers. Acknowledgment to Yoga Spy reader Marie Bainmarie for this recommendation.

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.”

Photo: Talkingsun