Can the guru-student relationship be disempowering? We spoke with Rod Stryker about power dynamics in teacher-student relationships at the 2011 Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park. Stay tuned for more of the interview with Rod plus many other teachers, including Tias Little, Tommy Rosen, Paige Elenson, and more.
Many of the teachers we interviewed at this year’s Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park expressed that one of the greatest challenges they face as modern yoga teachers is finding a balance between honoring tradition/lineage and allowing the practice to evolve to meet the needs of modern practitioners. Many of them went to ashrams in India to study with their original teacher. Today, yoga is taught in fitness gyms, elementary schools, prisons, as well posh yoga studios downtown. Have we watered down the practice to make it accessible to the masses? What qualifies a true yoga teacher anyway?
In many ancient schools of wisdom — from Yoga to Buddhism to Sikhism and more — the guru-shishya tradition is believed to be the best method for passing deep, powerful knowledge down to future generations. At the heart of this tradition is the relationship between student and teacher. It is a relationship based not only on the devotion of the disciple, but also on knowledge, experience, and purity of intentions of the teacher.
Consciously or not, we have adopted subtle aspects of the guru-disciple tradition in the way we relate to our yoga teachers today. The word “guru” doesn’t just mean teacher; literally, a guru is one whom leads students from darkness to light. If you buy into that kind of thing, the guru is a self-realized master capable of unearthing the path to enlightenment (and I use the male pronouns with due intention). As Rod Stryker put it, these teachers are “fearless, joyful, and self-realized.” He said earlier in our interview that he’d only met two such masters in his life.
It’s worth noting, however, that the guru-disciple relationship of ancient practice was far more complex and involved than just showing up to a teacher’s public class every week. It was a deep, committed, even sacred relationship that took years to establish. You didn’t just “hand away your power” to anyone; in India, students took more than a decade to establish trust, commitment, and rapport. You didn’t just give anyone the power and responsibility to help guide you on your spiritual path.
Nowadays, students start calling their teachers their “gurus” after days, maybe months of attending classes with them. We project all kinds of weird psychological dynamics onto yoga teachers; unresolved parental issues, romantic desires, the projections certainly run the gamut. Scott Mandelker once said about the modern guru-disciple relation ship that “most students actually want to remain little children and idolize their holy daddy, and holy mommy.” And, as Patience Steltzer has written about at Yoga Modern before, there are plenty of dangers on the other side of the equation with teachers abusing power.
I enjoyed my conversation with Rod Stryker about this topic immensely. As one of the most well-recognized Western yoga teachers and one who’s been teaching for over three decades, he has… well, let’s just say he’s been around the block a few times. He’s watched Yoga evolve and transform in the United States over the past thirty years, mixing and melding with our cultural traditions. And I think he highlighted an important tendency that I fall into myself sometimes: “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” with lineage/tradition to avoid losing self-agency to a teacher who might abuse my trust.
So we’ve heard from the “expert,” I’d like to hear from our readers too. Do you see unhealthy power dynamics arising in teacher-student relationships where you practice? Do you have a guru?
Rod Stryker is widely considered to be one of the pre-eminent yoga and meditation teachers in the United States. He is the founder of ParaYoga and has taught Tantra, Meditation, and Hatha Yoga for more than thirty years. Rod is also the author of the new book, The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Happiness, Prosperity, and Freedom.