Teacher ethics and the limits of friendship and fear

Posted by Amanda Painter


Apropos of Eric’s recent writings on the Great Attractor, Amanda Painter introduces two interviews from The Yoga Lunchbox. Does a healthy close friendship necessarily run counter to a healthy teacher-student dynamic? Does the hierarchy in most Yoga classes encourage students to give up their power? Or is everyone simply too afraid?

I recently encountered a pair of posts on the New Zealand-based website The Yoga Lunchbox. Taken together, they create some food for thought about the nature of teacher-student ethics, boundaries, consent, power dynamics (real or perceived), interpretations of “friendship,” and whether a healthy close personal relationship necessarily runs counter to a healthy teacher-student dynamic.

Kara-Leah Grant (left) and Cameron Shayne in their video interview.

Kara-Leah Grant (left) and Cameron Shayne talk ethics, power dynamics, sex, freedom to choose, polarization and Yoga culture.

Both posts are focused on the environment of Yoga classes, but I suspect many of the ideas can be extrapolated to other teacher-student situations.

Of course, with Yoga, we get the question of how an ancient ‘spiritual’ practice with such an emphasized physical component (at least in popular culture) might add layers of complexity to the questions posed.

In the first piece, Kara-Leah Grant interviews author and Yoga teacher Donna Farhi. Much of the interview centers on Donna’s responses regarding the nature of the relationship between a Yoga teacher and their student. Farhi asserts that to become a personal ‘friend’ to a student weakens or subverts an effective teacher-student dynamic in Yoga, and clearly holds herself and others to high ethical standards.

This topic stems from Grant’s introduction of yoga teacher Mark Whitwell’s assertion that Yoga can only be transmitted in relationship, and that he defines that relationship as friendship. Normally I do not advocate reading the comments sections on most websites, but the comments under this piece contain the suggestion by a man that perhaps men and women define “friendship” differently and have different expectations around it, and that perhaps that is contributing to a misunderstanding.

In the second Yoga Lunchbox piece, Kara-Leah Grant introduces a video interview with Yoga teacher Cameron Shayne, who kicked up a shitstorm in the Yoga community when he wrote an article asserting that two consenting adults in teacher-student roles should be free to decide for themselves whether they want to engage in a sexual relationship.

As Grant notes, regarding the vitriolic comments and rebuttal articles Shayne’s piece engendered, “This is a hot topic — power, sex, ethics and the teacher/student relationship. The difficulty lies not in determining what is right or wrong but in our ability to communicate with each other when these buttons are being pushed.”

I encourage you to watch the full interview, no matter how much Shayne might rub you the wrong way at times. Apropos of Eric’s recent writings about Saturn conjunct the Great Attractor, Shayne’s stance and personality are polarizing. Are many of his statements just a cop-out on having personal and professional ethics? Or are his remarks about fear — how it teaches us, and how it shows us where our inner work is in this lifetime — right on the mark? If he pushes your buttons or provokes your fear (which might come through as anger), are you still able to listen?

I’m not sure I’ve entirely made up my mind about Shayne. But I think both he and Farhi raise important questions, and I offer kudos to Grant for holding space for the conversation.

4 thoughts on “Teacher ethics and the limits of friendship and fear

  1. Amy Elliott

    I think this raises the impossibility of blanket positives and negatives in situations like this. I agree with Shayne that there could exist healthy teacher-student relationships, in which no exploitation occurs; and which, if not wholly beneficial in their results, are necessary or appropriate for all participants.

    I can also see, however, the potential for abuse; particularly in yoga and in spiritual disciplines generally, where less regulation exists and it’s easier for power-trippers to retain followers. There’s also the possible issue of upsetting the group dynamic. No easy answers here, I reckon.

  2. Kelly Grace Smith

    “Many of the ideas can (also) be extrapolated” onto Eastern belief systems and religions, absolutely. Buddhism, Hinduism, and others, require a powerful teacher-student relationship in order for a person to move forward in their practice, skills, and abilities. This requires the student to open their power, their energies, to the teacher and/or to the group. Manipulation and control, often of a sexual nature, and sometimes abuse – whether physical, emotional or mental – are the result. Which of course is, in the end…spiritual abuse.

    Because Eastern thought, belief systems, and religions are “new” to many Westerners, particularly Americans, there is a naivete about the “purity” and inherent “virtue” of these beliefs, systems, and practices. These religions, practices, etc. are just as vulnerable to misuse and abuse of power as the ones we have witnessed with the Catholic Church here in the U.S. since the revelations in Boston in early 2002.

    Yoga can become about repression and suppression. Meditation can become about mind control and group mind control. Gurus can become masters of subjugation. That’s the nature of power, no matter what the context…religion, government, family, money, education, politics, etc.

    It’s an unpleasant reality, but a wise one to face in a world that seems to be “following” more and more with each passing day; witness the rise of Donald Trump.

    We will see more and more of this kind of fall-out over the next 20 years, unless we choose, as Gandhi so wisely said, “to be the change we seek in the world.” That is, we can turn the tide by cultivating the inner empowerment of our own Self; then we have no need to be dependent upon any outer power for our value or our worth. This frees us to discern wisely and well the religions, belief systems, yoga practices, etc. that support our inner knowing, individuation, and power.

    And then we are best able to bring who we are into the communities we value and share, whole-heartedly, from “being” that change we so earnestly sought in the world.

    Kelly Grace Smith

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