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Teachers: Do You Have Too Much Power?

The most recent sexual abuse scandal in the NYC yoga world has me wondering: Are we teachers aware that every time we walk into a class we automatically have power? We need to acknowledge this, and take a good hard look at how we relate to it so that it doesn’t get out of hand. Here are a few questions I ask myself to explore the subtle and not-so-subtle ways power dynamics can show up in my work.

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. If you believe yoga is a system of beliefs and practices, you might not leave space for freedom, discovery, and the individual experience. Even if you believe you’re teaching for the greater good, communicating yoga in a fundamentalist way can undermine your best intentions.

How do I relate to authority and control?

One of my favorite recent memes is the one that says, “Keep Calm and Don’t You Dare F**king Walk Out in the Middle of Savasana.” The kindest, most easygoing instructor can see red when students don’t follow instructions. While we often need to guide individual behavior in service of the group, the degree to which we feel enraged or upset when students appear to flout the rules can clue us in to how hooked we are to needing authority in that moment.

Most of us have already been educated within a hierarchical system that automatically creates and sustains a power imbalance by making us the “experts.” How can we know what someone is experiencing in any given moment? The more we can let go of control, the more we can meet students where they are, rather than where we are.

It’s also important to realize that our students can be highly attuned to us, and any comment or action we make can have a powerful influence. 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. This may not have been an abuse of power, but it was certainly unskillful, and taught me to be much more conscious in my communication.

Can I tolerate doubt and uncertainty?

Life is inherently uncertain. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, or when. This can produce an existential angst that we’re constantly trying to overcome. Many spiritual teachings are meant to help us cope with this, but, ironically, are often met with the same need for control. Consider your teaching style. 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? Even teaching proper alignment might take a back seat to someone’s need to simply be present in their own body. Teaching that allows for uncertainty is fluid, adaptable, ever-changing and endlessly creative.

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. 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 of others. This can come out in extreme ways, but it can also find subtle outlets through maintaining a prescriptive approach (e.g., The 5 Poses That Heal Depression) or a belief that we know what’s best for someone else, devaluing them as unique beings. We need to honestly and rigorously work through our own issues to make sure we have integrity with our students.

Do I respect my students’ boundaries?

Most teachers learn and take for granted that adjusting students’ postures is an integral part of teaching. I believe it’s time to reconsider the function of hands-on adjustments and our approach to them. It’s important to let our students know in advance if we will be moving around the room offering adjustments, and imperative that we ask their permission and create an atmosphere in which they can feel safe saying no. It’s also worth considering the purpose and context of our adjustments -- remember, what is it that we’re actually teaching? How do our adjustments serve that end?

Years ago, a young man I found extremely attractive began showing up in my class. One day during savasana I pressed on his shoulders and smoothed his forehead with a great deal of tenderness, letting my affection come through my touch. He never returned to the class, and I was overcome with guilt and shame when I realized how inappropriate I had been and how uncomfortable he must have felt. Since then I have made certain to maintain neutrality in any adjustment or touch.

Do I allow myself to be lionized?

Our students can also help create unhealthy dynamics by empowering us far too much because of their own histories and relationship to authority. Sometimes they inflate our egos by heaping praise upon us, calling us healers, even trying to emulate us, as certain traditions say they should. We needn’t blame them for this, but we do need to be aware. It’s time to realize that the “guru” is a myth -- everyone is human and no one is perfect. If we come terms with this, we will all learn to better trust ourselves, and to follow the teachings, not the teacher.

Karen Schwartz is a Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga facilitator and freelance writer. Click here to learn more about her.

Illustration: Sharon Watts, to see more of her creative work, click here.

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