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.


Personality & Enlightenment



“That the personality of enlightened beings and advanced mystics remains largely intact is obvious when one examines biographies and autobiographies of adepts, past and present. Each one manifests specific psychological qualities, as determined by his or her genetics and life history… What these awakened beings have in common is that they no longer identify with the personality complex, however it may be configured, but live out of the identity of the Self. Enlightenment, then, consists in the transcendence of the ego-habit, but enlightenment does not obliterate the personality. [This] raises the crucial question of whether enlightenment also leaves untouched traits that in the unenlightened individual might be called neurotic. I believe this is so… The traditional spiritual paths are by and large grounded in the vertical ideal of liberation from the conditioning of the body-mind… This may explain why so many mystics and adepts are highly eccentric and authoritarian and appear socially to have weakly integrated personalities. Unlike transcendence, integration occurs in the horizontal plane… Having discovered the Divine in the depths of his or her own soul, the adept must then find the Divine in all life.” — Georg Feuerstein in Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision

The Lama and Unpredictability


IMG_2764“The Lama is the ecstatic, wild, and gentle figure who short-circuits your systems of self-referencing. The Lama is the only person in your life who cannot be manipulated. The Lama is the invasion of unpredictability you allow into your life, to enable you to cut through the convolutions of the interminable psychological and emotional processes. The Lama is the terrifyingly compassionate gamester who re-shuffles the deck of your carefully arranged rationale. To enter into vajra commitment is to leap from the perfect precipice. To find yourself in the radiant space of this choiceless choice, is the very heart of Tantra. To leap open-eyed into the shining emptiness of the Lama’s wisdom display, and to experience the ecstatic impact of each dynamic gesture of the Lama’s method display is the essential luminosity and power of the path” — Rig ʼdzin Dorje, in Dangerous Friend: The Teacher-Student Relationship in Vajrayana Buddhism

(It would seem we ought to be quite cautious if we decide to allow somebody into this role in our lives given the advantage so many spiritual teachers have taken of their students that did not appear to have ecstatic consequences…)

What if the Guru isn’t Perfect?!


IMG_2764“Guru-yoga is not necessarily about doing everything your guru tells you—discernment must always be operative in that dimension, for you cannot shortcut your individual process of realization. The practice of seeing the guru as divine in spite of his human flaws—in other words, of having unconditional love for him—is preparatory to extending that sentiment to all other beings.” — Christopher Wallis in Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition

Real Gurus Inspire Change

fire puja rt molokai

Fire ceremony lead by Robert Thurman at a retreat in Molokai. Photo by Jen

“Watch yourself. If you see yourself changing, growing, it means you have found the right [Guru]. He may be beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant, flattering you or scolding; nothing matters except the one crucial fact of inward growth. If you don’t [grow], well, he may be your friend, but not your Guru.”  —  Nisargadatta Maharaj in I am that : talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Since the Guru is largely considered a dangerous, taboo or excessively esoteric subject, it is rarely talked about openly or positively, in terms of what the relationship could be at its best.  How then, can practitioners who want to take practice more seriously begin to discriminate between a good teacher and a bad one?

I personally feel that it’s important to read an abundance of opinions and see how they resonate with me.  I am drawn to this quote because a teacher might indeed have to be unpleasant and scolding at times in order for us to see our inner process reflected more clearly.  The teacher should not reward conditioned behaviors that keep us feeling smaller than we truly are!

Coming to the practice with very little idea of what it is for and wanting mostly just to feel better somehow, we tend to want flattery more than anything else.  We believe that if the teacher invites us to have dinner, that must mean we are excelling on the path, when in fact we are likely just playing the same ego games we have our whole lives, seeking approval from others and giving up our own sense of inquiry and responsibility.

I am not suggesting that a teacher cannot be a profound kind of friend or implying that teachers have full license to be mean just for the sake of it!  This quote leaves it up to us to decide whether we are changing or not, and if so whether it’s for better or worse.  When we feel a teacher is having a poisonous effect without overriding redeeming value, there is no virtue in sticking around and torturing ourselves, which in the end is another way of making ourselves small.

It can be very confusing to tell whether a teacher is worthy of our trust or not, but in my case, my guts are usually shouting loudly, and it actually takes a lot of my energy for me to ignore or act against them.  We ultimately know whether what the teacher says makes sense for us or not and can learn to take what is valuable and leave what is harmful.  Certain authoritarians might argue that this is self-indulgence or taking it easy, but I feel this is a starting place for developing discriminating awareness (the goal of yoga practices in the Ashtanga tradition).

We know whether we feel ashamed because we’ve been found out (and agree that we have stumbled upon something that want to work on) or whether we are simply being abused.  (With time and practice, I feel a little less shame and can have a bit more sense of humor when I get caught identifying strongly with whatever ridiculous ego clinging pattern!)  If we have teachers whom we do trust, we might ponder our interactions with them deeply to examine what they may have been pointing towards and consider how we intend to investigate that further.

Unfortunately, we hear language that requires us to either obey unconditionally or rebel continuously, when in fact, it would be a rare case where either of those solutions would be expedient.  Teachers are usually not 100% perfect, and we can still benefit from associating with them as long as we accept this and practice becoming more comfortable in the uncomfortable space of not knowing how any given scenario will play out.  In fact, as in any relationship, every moment changes.  We need to stay alert and pay attention to what is happening now in order to experience that being in front of us fully.  A real teacher will always be prodding us gently to stay on our toes in just this way.



It seems the Standards for Yoga Teachers used to be somewhat higher!


IMG_2764“[The teacher] is one who is endowed with the power of furnishing arguments pro and con, of understanding questions and remembering them, who possesses tranquility, self-control, compassion and a desire to help others, who is versed in the scriptures and unattached to enjoyments both seen and unseen, who has renounced the means to all kinds of actions, is a knower of Brahman and established in It, is never a transgressor of the rules of conduct, and who is devoid of shortcomings such as ostentation, pride, deceit, cunning, jugglery, jealousy, falsehood, egotism and attachment. He has the sole aim of helping others and a desire to impart the knowledge of Brahman only” (Śankarāchārya in Upadesa Sahasri).

Trauma, Relationship, Guru

rf laghuvajra

Richard assisting me in laghu vajrasana in 2011. Photo by Chris Croft

“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only in the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In her renewed connections with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic capacities for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy. Just as these capabilities are originally formed in relationships with other people, they must be reformed in such relationships.” — Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery 

The importance of the therapeutic relationship in psychotherapy has long been recognized.  It has been purported to be the single biggest factor (or even the only necessary and sufficient factor) contributing to positive treatment outcomes for a variety of problems and disorders.  How many of us feel a bit disempowered and disconnected from others?  This is often why we turn to therapy or to yoga.  We could all benefit from profound and selfless relationship, which is not so easy to come by in this world.

Such relationships seem to be growing more and more scarce in the yoga world as it becomes less and less “cool” to accept a guru or make any commitment to study with somebody who is truly qualified to teach.  In its popularized form yoga is seen as yet another fitness and fashion craze, and its ultimate goal (Self-realization and rediscovery of interconnectedness, the very opposite of disempowerment and disconnection) is forgotten.  Considerable disillusionment comes from having watched so many apparently advanced teachers succumb to the basest scandals.  However, instead of jumping on board and behaving abhorrently or losing faith altogether, teachers and students might deeply ponder the gravity of the role and do their best to uphold the highest standards.

It is well-established that memories are stored somatically, so when we work with the body in yoga, we have the potential, to a greater or lesser extent, to re-awaken traumatic experiences and relive them to some degree.  Even if we consider ourselves to be in the fortunate minority of people who have experienced no dramatic or excruciating trauma, we still carry with us whatever we have encountered throughout our development during at least one lifetime!  The choice of who will share this very intimate practice space with us while we undergo these processes is quite a sacred one.

When you fold into that hip-opener and associations with your X or difficult family members bubble up (explicitly or not), it would be ideal if the teacher would not reenact those old pathological scenarios and behavior patterns, reinforcing them in your system!  How terrible (and re-traumatizing) is it to feel unsafe, abandoned or subject to compounded injury and negativity in times of vulnerability…?!  How incredible would it be to share with somebody who supports you and sees your highest potential and reminds you of it in that moment?  A present being can often help us to face difficult feelings with more mindfulness than we can alone.  What a gift, to progressively work out ticks and misconceptions that we have adopted strategically in order to survive, but which build up those very barriers that alienate us from what we truly desire!  Sharing even one instant in true relationship with a genuinely compassionate being can reconfigure how we respond in analogous cases (or overall) for the rest of our lives (and perhaps beyond)!  Then, we learn how to be there for ourselves and others in that same nurturing way.

The necessity and therapeutic-transformative potential of the student-teacher relationship is stressed again and again in the shastras.  Through relationship we either drive ourselves further back into our shells or melt away resistances to states of fullness that we generally feel are too nice and therefore not possible for us.  I would like to beseech everybody to reconsider what is possible in relationship, whether in the shala or on the street (and hopefully here on this blog)!  We can practice this all the time…