Adam Keen talking to yoga student

The Yoga Teacher-Student Relationship

Is it really such a big deal, after all? Can’t we be adults about it like any normal relationship, apply our regular ‘boundaries’ and operate accordingly? The yoga teacher-student relationship can be tricky to balance.

Well, the problem with this is that it’s not a normal relationship. Instead, it is one we are most unprepared for. Its traditional context doesn’t have boundaries as such, places where the relationship stops ‘working’ for us. For it was never about that in the very first place. In modern society we have no model for this scenario.

Here, we either have friends, which means, those that in some way make us feel good, or, we have authority , demanding our conscription. In both cases, what we desire out of the relationship is our general good.

Relationships can also be dysfunctional, when we believe that we are not deserving of good, un-trustable, even shameful. This leads to the feeling we are deserving of oppression. One may feel the need for a higher authority to control us, perhaps. Believe it or not, this appears, to degrees, to be an inherent tendency also within us.

Spiritual Teacher in Modern Times

Either way, the role of the spiritual-teacher in modern-times doesn’t exist within this conventional, worldy framework. Its purpose is aiming at something other; not immediately about us. Our wish for pleasure, or ambiguous feelings of self-worth seeking alternately affirmation and (unconsciously) degradation.

It is neither based on our desire for pleasure, nor wish to be told what to do, or find our sense of definition reflected back at us by others. It is not, in fact, a relating outwards whatsoever. Rather, it is a kind of endeavour towards impartiality.

A model, at its best,  based on providing a reflection of all our various, effective and less so, wishes towards life, back to us.  Here, the ideal, real teacher embodies a kind of functionless function. They are not there to be our friend, neither our parent, solely our mirror.

To this end, the true teacher is nothing at all; formless, odourless, a mirage. Indeed, the ‘teachers’ of many spiritual adepts have not often been in human form at all.

In The Vedas

The yoga teacher-student relationship referred to in depth throughout the vedas, is a very unusual one.  It is a relationship for the sole reason of showing us more clearly what we already are. Not for any other purpose in the either gaining  anything extra out of life. Nor adding to a further sense, definition of ourselves, in relation to others.

In more than one way then, it is like having a relationship in a vacuum. There really is no obvious reason for our interaction in normal, material terms, at all.

Suddenly then, we are free to have an open and radically honest one. The whole of life can potentially open up like a can-opener. We are free to relate to a person, intimately, but, with absolutely no investment at all in the process of doing so.  

The result is a critical stage on the path we are walking, when another is finally seen as such. For, what is seemingly so obvious, so rarely happens for us; outside of us lie simply objects. In contrast, to live is to understand the living reality that is shared in all that we participate with.

Relationship for it’s Own Sake

This may sound, in part, inordinately cynical, as well, as on the other hand, equally exaggerated.  We must acknowledge, however, that a relationship for the sake of itself is not at all a common one to enter into.

We may have it with a parent or child if we are lucky, but, even here there are roles to play, expectations to be lived up to. Still, under the current conditions  in which yoga is encountered, it is equally unlikely to happen. Within this sphere as it has only once more adopted the ‘reasonable’ parameters of material life. Here, people have ends; either as authorities or accomplices, essentially parents or pleasers.  

It is the same in the yoga teacher-student relationship (and why would we perceive differently without further reflection). A mutual need is established once more, between nominal ‘teacher’ and ‘student’.

The teacher normally needs the student for their own ends. These may be financial. Or having not resolved their sense of self to much of a degree. The sense of value achieved in the endorsement of their role as a yoga teacher.

For their part, the student wants a benevolent parent who knows what to do and will resolve their doubts about life, or a play-mate.

This may seem inordinately harsh, exaggerated, but it is only the same reflection of the two camps our relationships normally fall into. This is not to say, there are no benefits to the relationship at this level,  the teacher is a leader of a community that may be at times quite a source of comfort and support.  However, this is not the inordinately high-aiming original goal of the spiritual-relationship.

Spiritual Mirror

The spiritual-friend as mirror, may not be possible nowadays, even, perhaps, wished for. However, it is important for our yoga, and to get what we want out of it, that we be clear of the level at which we are aiming with it. What is actually wanted in the yoga teacher-student relationship.

Here, there is often nothing wrong with the yoga teacher as authority, the group as a source of comfort, and the practise as relaxation or feeling a bit better, fitter, confident.

These are not bad aims, in fact, they are quite reasonable. Yet, it is also good to get a handle on the original patanjalian context of yoga, which has its interests in, perhaps, more immediately uncomfortable experience, but one that aims at an infinitely deeper level. In this endeavour the learning is of a wholly different type, and the teacher, not a human-relationship at all, but a symbol of all our longings, frustrations, sense of lack and wish to be loved, all rolled into one. Neither, here, does the true teacher attempt to answer these dilemmas, simply hold up a light to them.

On the other hand, the kind of learning that is more generally entered into is structured around the authority of the teacher, and the facts that this authenticates, by the weight of their value, to be correct. Where then, the teacher should embody a bounce-back process, inspiring trust in the student themselves finally; that whatever they feel is quite okay, but equally not ultimately them, the teacher, instead, becomes the object of focus. Evidently, we’ve seen this so many times before, not to need to go into the pitfalls of ‘spiritual communities’, the politics surrounding them, and the guru.

Feeling the Loss of Yoga

In the confusion, the student inevitably loses the feeling of yoga again, their original intuition. The attempt to accomplish once more in the material world in which we are all much more habituated.

As mentioned at the beginning, we also have this tendency for the wish for our own negation or suppression in some way too. A latent doubt and sense of shame at the mask we know we wear in the world.

Instead of the teacher helping to show us that its quite acceptable, but not necessary, at this point, instead, our confused mask-wearing in relationship is instead manipulated.

Having said all this, the teacher and the method must still be seen to serve a definite and appreciable use. If we claim the teacher is there to unsettle us out of our confusion and biases this leads to our further suffering, doubt, even misery.

Yet, equally the teacher ought not to be the source of immediate pleasure either, which makes it so confusing.


Our normal sense of a worthwhile relationship means an interaction that falls within our regular expectations and beliefs.

This makes it hard to judge whether the spiritual relationship is heading in the right direction. Their job is to help correct the views and habits constructed to keep us safe in the false boundaries of our previous knowledge.

A friend cannot help with this, without quickly being cast out of our orbit of attempted comfort. On the other hand, this traditional relationship hardly confirms to the values of modern society. Which demands a deeply problematic need of a quantity of trust. We are so wary, and rightfully so, of giving over.

This has been corroborated many times over by many so-called teachers who are happy to take this role on and abuse it. Moreover, these days, it’s  increasingly likely. Teachers often belong to no further framework of established conduct that might act as the checks-and-balances.

Often, there is no further body of regulation for their conduct, as individuals are more than ever distrustful of general establishments of hierarchy, there is usually a lack of any accountability whatsoever.  Is the relationship of spiritual-guide outmoded then for modern existence?

Loss of Commitment to Each Other

Certainly, the teacher can no longer expect the commitment from the student and visa-versa. The general demands and split-focus of life now of the yoga student living a wordly-life, as well as pursuing yoga, quite inevitably get in the way. The level of trust on both sides, and the work that goes into this incredibly unique and powerful relationship just can’t be reasonably expected.

On the other hand, this scenario between two people, still, can be approached with a level of wariness; so as we don’t do the same thing we always do in life with this relationship, also. We need to allow that it is different;  otherwise, it lacks the potential for our own transformation in taking us above and beyond our conventional boundaries and attitudes.

There must be a new way found to work with a special kind of trust, where this paradigm; as rude, frightening, and unwelcome as it may be, is allowed to exist somehow, albeit in a drastically amended form from its traditional context. Trust is still the bridge that can potentially take us further than we ever would otherwise have gone. It is, however, an incredibly delicate balancing-act, perilous at times.

There is still no conclusive answer then on how to manage the yoga teacher-student relationship. Only the further encouragement that some skilful, circumspect and careful, attempt at it be made.

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