Teachers, Students and Ethics: Oh my!

This post was inspired by the discussion on It's All Yoga Baby around the ad featuring Jivamukti teachers from a NY studio posing naked for PETA.  Roseanne ends her post asking:

"Despite these positive aspects, there still is a  slight breach of professionalism in this ad – these are working yoga teachers, who will encounter students and potential students in class and in their communities. I think it illustrates the precarious and awkward place that yoga teachers hold in our culture, somewhere between entertainer and health professional."

A commenter on her blog, Dharma teacher Frank Jude of Mindfulness Yoga (yay, new blog!), left this insight that touched me profoundly:  

"Seeing my teacher in this and other social situations most definitely helped to de-construct any potentially de-railing projections, and did so without at all diminishing my respect and appreciation for him as a teacher. What it may have done — and I think this is a good and important teaching — is make it clear to me that ‘the teacher’ is a role; it’s not about the man/woman. When I take the teacher’s seat, this understanding leads me to have great reverence for the role without taking myself so seriously."

Which brings me to muse...  When we are teaching yoga, it IS a role we are enacting for a specfic period of time.  I personally can feel it pour down over me like a cloak when the clock strikes the start time.  It's like a switch goes on, it's a muse, it's a groove!  And when the final namaste is said and the lights go on, I feel it lift again and I become myself.  And thinking about Frank's comment, I don't want my students to put me on a pedestel, to think that yoga teachers are somehow elevated people, that we don't have flaws and beliefs and good days and bad days.

In Donna Farhi's book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship, the author talks about keeping "healthy boundaries" and maintaining a "necessary distance" between the teacher and the student.  In her view, maintaining this distance is a way of honouring the deeply transformative process that the student may be undergoing, and keeping it sacred by maintaining the formality of the relationship.  She also says that casual relationships with students are often more serving of the teacher's needs than the students.

Farhi goes on to say: "I have come to recognize that when a student becomes a personal friend, my ability to serve her as a teacher has effectively ended."  The key concept here is service.  Farhi isn't suggesting that you can never be friends with your students, just that the changed dynamic of the relationship and the recognition of the student as your "peer" will diminish your effectiveness as a teacher. Farhi suggests that the student may or may not decide to seek another teacher, or may be quite happy to maintain a "student-peer" position in class and a friend outside of class.

This example is specific to the student who becomes a friend.  But what about the friend who becomes the student?  When I was first teaching, I felt awkward about having my friends in my classes and found it hard to find my groove as a teacher, or would refrain from chanting at the end of class thinking "what will my friends think?".  As I have grown as a teacher I have become more comfortable with my role as the teacher and more able to easily slip into it.  And my friends who come to my classes also seem comfortable and respectful of my role: I have never had anyone try to use our friendship to modify what they get in their yoga class!

My musings also lead me to this question: as yoga teachers, how do we see ourselves?  In my yoga class, I strive to create an atmosphere that allows people as much choice as they want, a place that embraces all body types, beliefs, ages, sexualities as equals.  But outside the classroom I still have my own beliefs, body type, age, sexuality etc. that define me as a person, and that are important to my own identity. While I would never press these on anyone else in a yoga class, outside the classroom they give me guidance in my choices and make me who I am.  Where the boundaries exist are different for every different person I guess.

I live in a very small community and I teach classes to my friends, and some of my students become my friends.  Beyond these friends, I also see my yoga students at work, at the beach, in restaurants, and at parties. And (after the initial shock of seeing someone in another context!) I have never felt weird about that (I mean, this town is so small that it would be weird if I didn't see them!).  I think that if we are uncomfortable with our students seeing us outside the classroom, it's partly because we might be uncomfortable with ourselves. Perhaps we feel like we aren't living a "yogic" enough life.  So are we ourselves are holding ourselves up to some unrealistic ideal?

What do you think?  How does Farhi's "necessary distance" contrast to the notion of not putting the teacher on a pedestal?  Can you be friends with your students or teachers and still be effective as their yoga teacher or student? How do you feel about seeing your teachers or students in social spaces?  Do teachers have a responsibility to their students to live a "yogic" life off the mat?

Or should we all just go for ice-cream? ;)