When a Teacher isn’t Right for Us


Buddha garden at Upaya Zen Center. Photo by Jen

“It’s a simple answer, truly. If a teacher’s behavior causes you more conflict than you’re capable of practicing with, it’s better to leave. It’s better to leave. There has to be a fit between a teacher’s behavior and your capacity to handle and negotiate that behavior while still seeing it as a transformative tool.” Georg Feuerstein in The Guru Question: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher by Mariana Caplan

This is a very important point.  So often we are told that we should cultivate equanimity in yoga, and it can seem as if sticking it out in a bad situation is heroic or character-building.  We may believe the situation will improve with our devotion or that our karma bank will be filled up by our efforts.  We may badly want to remain a part of a certain spiritual community.  We may have a hundred good things to say about the teacher and only a few bad ones.  It all depends how aversive the situation becomes and whether we have the internal and external support to take something positive from the circumstances.

In my own opinion based on a few previous experiences of mine and stories shared by other students and teachers, this attitude that we should take whatever comes as a teaching can be quite dangerous.  Ultimately, yes.  However, while we are practicing we are especially vulnerable, or at least, we should be.  We have the incredibly precious opportunity to become intimate with the breath and to open up the core of the body and nervous system, bringing up our conditioning, memories, and sometimes very powerful sensations, feelings and emotions.  If we are constantly tensing in a state of hyper-vigilance due to negativity or some other kind of instability in the relationship with the teacher or others in the room, we can easily exacerbate patterns of fear and reactivity.  Sometimes this is just not worth it…  The practice is supposed to be liberating!

There are dozens of tales of people making monumental strides on the path with very controversial or even apparently unethical teachers.  These people must somehow have been thoroughly convinced of their path and the teacher’s importance in their lives.  Personally, I would have to admit that studying with an incompatible teacher and benefitting from it is more of an advanced practice than I am capable of at this point on my journey.  For incompatibilities to arise, it is not at all necessary that the teacher be a psychopathic demon.  In fact, the teacher may be very well-intentioned, knowledgeable, and adored by throngs of students, or even greatly loved and admired by you.  If you, however, feel there is a mis-match that is severely interfering with your practice, please do not suppress or disregard your intuition.  It’s your life and practice!

The recent talk of trauma-informed yoga is a nice start (see also a previous post about relational healing), but no teaching environment is safe for the student unless the student can, at least to some extent, trust the teacher.  This does not mean blindly doing everything the teacher says, nor is this simply a cognitive decision.  You may convince yourself that everything is just fine (and outwardly there may be no danger at all), but if you feel strongly otherwise on another level to the point of being distracted and distressed, it’s time to consider other options.

Both the teacher and student are involved in this process of trusting.  More important than the teacher’s technical prowess, I would say, is his or her ability to be open and honest, putting ego and desire to use the student for personal gain as far aside as possible, listening and observing with care, taking feedback from the student seriously and not invalidating his or her experience.  The student is the one inhabiting the body, and pain (mental, spiritual or physical) should not be dismissed as lightly as it often is.  It can come up for many reasons, and we must work with students to discover its nature and what if anything can be done about it and first and foremost, how we can best be with things as they are.  A little presence (without trying to manipulate the situation or turning yoga into a self-improvement farce) goes a long way!  As teachers, we need to be a great deal more humble and recognize the great variety of personality types and backgrounds that come through the shala door, while still doing our best to point out students’ inevitable blind spots and encouraging them to live up to their highest potentials even when they lose faith in themselves or endure trying times.

As students, we should also remain open and refrain from shunning those experiences in relationship with the teacher that are truly transformative, even if embarrassing or difficult.  We will eventually come up against our edges with any teacher, and we can learn to discern when the experience transgresses boundaries that we need to respect in ourselves.  If a teacher repeatedly grates on a weakness that you are not yet able to deal with or wears you down in ways you cannot recover from, making you feel less capable or worthwhile in your life in a way that feels wrong, consider taking a break and practicing at home or elsewhere.  Indeed some of our old patterns need to be broken down, but this too requires great vulnerability, and should be done with somebody we do feel has our back in whatever ways we feel are essential.

It is too much to ask of the great majority of us to face all situations as if they are Brahman, or whatever those people say who pretend to live in the Absolute realm.  Most of us need to accept that we inhabit the relative world.  We need to embrace our humanity and recognize and accept our limitations while allowing the practice to work on us on an often unseen level.  Greater communication between students and teachers could also help greatly!  It is a relationship like any other where both parties need to keep waking up to stay with the reality of the moment.


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