On Teaching and Power, Part II

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In my last post, I promised to follow up with suggestions on how we can explore our relationship to power and how it plays out in our teaching. I’ve been ruminating on this ever since and, as with many big topics, one answer tends to lead to other questions. Vichara, or self-inquiry, is a central tenet of yoga practice, so I consider this a good thing. As Einstein said, “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” Here are just a few questions we can ask ourselves that can shed light on how we relate to having power and help us avoid abusing it. While this is written with yoga teachers in mind, I think it is relevant to any kind of teaching, supervision or mentoring relationship. I welcome your feedback and thoughts

What am I actually teaching?

To me, all roads lead back to this. Your understanding of yoga can and should inform everything you teach. Postures, breathing exercises, meditation techniques, philosophy, scriptures, ethics and even values are often conveyed as ends unto themselves. However, what is the overall context? If you believe yoga is a system of beliefs and practices, you will likely need your students to agree with you. Even if the concepts you teach appear to serve the greater good, communicating them as essential beliefs can undermine everything.

Personally, I believe yoga is the freedom that results from the inquiry into the truth underlying our very existence. It is an experiential understanding that we are all essentially connected to the same source and, hence, to each other. If I truly believe I am teaching people to be free, how can I try to “make” them do, think or feel anything? I see my role as facilitator of an experience in which students can recognize their own patterns, and discover new options and possibilities. I support their journey but it is up to them to decide how far they want to go and what they are ready for at any given time.

How do I relate to authority and control?

One of my favorite recent memes is a take on the popular “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. It says, “Keep Calm, and Don’t You Dare Fucking Walk Out In The Middle of Savasana.” The kindest, most easygoing instructor can see red when someone gets up and disrupts the final relaxation, especially when the class has been instructed to stay till the end (that’s been me, more than once). The same holds true when students do postures the “wrong” way, or do different postures from those we’re teaching. While we often need to guide individual behavior in service of the group, the degree to which we feel enraged or upset can clue us in to how hooked we are to needing authority in that moment.

The fact is, most of us are educated within a hierarchical system that automatically creates a power imbalance. Our students often see us as authorities and are highly sensitive to our words and behavior. Once, I had a student who would fall asleep immediately after lying down for the final relaxation, every single time. I had never seen this before and jokingly commented on it, saying it was “weird.” Regardless of my intent, the student felt judged and self-conscious by my careless choice of words, and he never allowed himself to fully relax in my class again. Maybe this wasn’t an abuse of power, but it was certainly unskillful. I realized I had become too casual, underestimating the impact of my authority, and needed to be more sensitive.

Can I tolerate doubt and uncertainty?

At the core, life is inherently uncertain. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, or when. This reality can produce an existential angst that we’re constantly trying to overcome. Many spiritual teachings are meant to help us cope with this reality, but, ironically, are often met with the same need for control. Consider your teaching style and whether it makes room for your own uncertainty. For example, do you believe there is a “right” way? Do you believe the traditions and substance of your teachings are incontrovertible truths? How much do you need to be right yourself? In the beginning, I taught in a more rigid and fixed way because what I learned was new to me and my context was limited. This is a particular danger with inexperienced teachers or those who subscribe to a defined system. As I continued to study and learn from different approaches, I became comfortable saying, “This is what I believe and why, but you can try it on for size and feel free to find your own way.”

Have I experienced healing through yoga?

Some of the most effective teachers are those who have experienced yoga’s healing properties firsthand, but it is essential to understand that each person is unique and the same approach doesn’t work for everyone. Taking a prescriptive approach is at best simplistic (e.g., “5 Poses to Heal Depression”) and at worst a kind of therapeutic colonialism that implies that what is best for someone else is what was best for you. This devalues the individual experience and is potentially damaging when someone doesn’t achieve healing by following the prescription.

Another potential risk is that as you work through your own issues, you might become inappropriately invested in the progress of your students. This is a common pitfall in mental health treatment, and it is well worth considering here. There is a saying that goes, “We teach what we need to know.” Most of us teach the concepts and practices that resonate with us, but we need to be able to differentiate our own needs from those of our students, meeting them where they are rather than where we are. In this way, we empower our students to develop a complex, nuanced, authentic practice.

Have I been abused?

While you might think that being abused naturally results in a desire to uplift others, this isn’t always the case. It is said that “hurt people hurt people.” Many abused individuals develop an unconscious coping mechanism called the “internalized abuser,” in which they find their own stolen sense of empowerment through the abuse and oppression others. If we have been abused and not yet come to find our own power, then even if our intent is to uplift, we are at risk of becoming the very abuser we could not escape by utilizing the same techniques.

Do I respect my students’ boundaries?

Most teachers learn that adjusting students’ postures — i.e., touching their students — is an integral part of teaching. I believe it’s time to reconsider the function of hands-on adjustments and our approach to them. I can think of no clearer violation of a student’s personal boundaries than to push, pull or physically manipulate their body without asking permission first. It’s important to let our students know in advance if we will be moving around the room and offering adjustments, and imperative that we create an atmosphere in which a student can feel safe in saying no. More studios and teachers are thinking now about how to do this and that’s great, because even when people want to say no, they often don’t feel empowered enough to do it. I also think it’s worth considering the purpose and context of adjustments — remember “all roads leading back” to what you’re actually teaching? If I adjust a student in a posture, it could help them find better alignment or move through some resistance, opening them up to more freedom and energy flow — but if I do, then I become part of the experience. That may be fine but again, it should be made explicit and put in context.

Do I allow myself to be lionized?

Our students can also play a role in creating unhealthy dynamics by empowering us far too much because of their own histories and relationship to authority. Sometimes they inflate our egos by calling us a healer or talking about how much we’ve done for them. They even try to emulate us, and certain traditions say they should. When we take our role seriously and get a lot of our identity from teaching, this can be very seductive. I find “Follow the teachings, not the teacher” to be a good rule of thumb. We also need to be careful when sexuality comes into play. Genuine, egalitarian relationships between teachers and students can certainly develop, but it is incumbent upon us to be as mindful as possible about what our students are seeking so that we don’t find ourselves in an unhealthy mess.

A final thought: the people who abuse their power are likely not the ones who are going to be asking themselves these questions. Empowering our students to maintain a healthy sense of self wherever they find themselves studying will go a long way towards mitigating the abusive effects of the unconscious or downright deliberately power-hungry “gurus” out there. Om shanti.

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