Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's Liking Your Teacher Got to Do With it?

I've had a few spiritual teachers in my day. A couple of Zen teachers. Maybe four yoga teachers, if I don't count the one time only events. Of those, I worked closely with about half the group, and can't say I felt dislike for any of them while I worked with them.

But is liking your teacher necessary? Or even beneficial?

This post could easily be applied to any spiritual teacher or guide in my view. It's focused on yoga teachers though, and given my interest in teaching yoga - and presence in a yoga teacher training - it's a totally fascinating issue to consider.

Most Westerners focus on personality. Most want not only for their teachers to “like” them but, if they are also teachers, for their students to “like” them. Behavior is modified and softened. In other words, students kiss their teachers’ behinds, while teachers refrain from any criticism that might offend.

Yoga has grown very “social” in the West. Teachers and students often become friends (or more than friends). Personally, I steer clear from yoga cliques. In the primary relationship between teacher and student, however, I do seek real rapport. But is this necessary? Or am I filling another need in myself, too?

I remember wanting to be liked by my first Zen teacher. We had a pretty strong in-group, out-group thing going on in the zen center at that time, which I think was one of many issues that lead to the unceremonious exit of said teacher. I can still recall the first day of the first retreat I did, feeling entirely petrified for several hours as I tried to do the rituals and the rest "right," and worried I'd be called out for being a screw up. The intensity of my fear was so great at times that I could barely sit upright, let alone focus on my breath or much of anything else. And I can see now that at least some of that was tied to wanting to be accepted into the "in-group," to be liked by the teacher and more senior students, and thus be amongst those who could be called "the good Zen students.

Looking back, I can see this is both a totally normal thing to do, and also is quite indicative of a self-focus on overdrive. Being liked or disliked by a teacher really has little bearing on one's spiritual development, but at the time, I must have thought that it did.

Let's consider the "social" aspect mentioned above. I personally believe that it really can be wonderful when communities spring up around yoga, for example, because there is a decidedly privatized, individualistic streak running through the larger North American yoga world anyway. Many people arrive at a class 5 minutes beforehand, the class is run entirely by a teacher talking people through poses, and then everyone rushes out the door to their next destination. So, when genuine communities develop where people actually share their experiences, talk about the practice, think about the deeper questions behind the body practices, and just have fun together - that should be celebrated. I'll certainly celebrate it.

On the other hand, no doubt there can be yoga cliques in ways that are like what happened at my zen center. And no doubt healthy communities can devolve into insular groups where people reinforce the worst in each other, thinking they are doing the opposite.

But back to the specific issue at hand, it's interesting to consider how wanting to like, and also to be liked, might impact yoga practice in communal settings like studios. I love discussion, and even debating, when everyone is treated with basic respect, regardless of their opinions. I remember times in my Iyengar classes where our teacher would bring up some challenging topic for discussion, one or two of us would say something, and everyone else would just stare silently at the wall in front of them. What's this about? Many things perhaps. Maybe they don't know about the topic. Maybe they have no opinion. Maybe they had a rough day, and just can't think clearly. Plenty of possibilities.

But I also think that one reason could be that silence on a topic you might disagree with someone on in class, especially the teacher, maintains a sense of ease in the relationships there, and also keeps the likability factor up. There is certainly a risk if you disagree with your teacher. And if you have a regular group of students you're in, there's a risk in disagreeing with them as well.

However, what happens when people don't take risks, don't share what they have experienced or have learned about in such settings? In my view, everything stays on a more surface level. Your teacher may like you and you might like your teacher, but the learning lab you work in together gets stale at a certain point, and the murky, challenging issues of life fail to be surfaced and considered fully. On a recent post about yoga and men, a few commenters mentioned angst towards the syrupy, feel good language of some yoga classes, and that can end up playing a role in all of this. Yoga becomes a place to get a "feel good" hit, and then people go back to their "regular lives" and struggle until their next yoga class.

To flip the coin over, though, I personally have never been attracted to yoga teachers, zen teachers, or really anyone who defaults to harsh, almost militaristic methods of teaching. There is a strand of Zen teacher ancestors who regularly beat on students, called them names, shouted at them, etc. - all in the name of waking them up. I can imagine this benefits some people, but I don't think it's needed for the majority of us. In addition, the issues around liking a teacher can come up for people no matter how a teacher teachers. People can seek to cozy up to the drill sargent just as much as the gentle spirit: it just might look different.

In the end, though, I'll just repeat what I said earlier. Being liked or disliked by a teacher really has little bearing on one's spiritual development. So, perhaps it's most important to check in on your motivations and intentions when considering your relationship with spiritual peers and/or teachers. The same goes for teachers who feel a need to be liked. I certainly had that while teaching ESL and had to learn to have more open conversations with students, to disagree respectfully when certain viewpoints came up, and to be honest with students when, for example, they missed too much class or were arguing too much with classmates (this happened sometimes).

One of the challenges I see with yoga classes is that more often than not, there isn't really a somewhat stable community of students working with a teacher. So, the trust level needed to take risks, share painful stories, and to explore more difficult, uneasy issues is often lacking. Part of my interest in yoga teaching has to do with helping to develop more communities, so that the depth of the practice can be accessed for more of us, as well as to just bring about more coming together, being together, working together in a society that is filled with the opposite.

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