Not long ago, I was asked whether it’s important for a student to surrender to one’s yoga teacher.

My answer was that a student should never surrender to his/her yoga teacher. Moreover, it is a massive red flag for any instructor to explicitly or implicitly suggest that surrender to him/her is part of the student-teacher relationship or part of learning Ashtanga Yoga.

At the heart of the question is a fundamental misunderstanding between surrender and trust. Often, trust and surrender are used interchangeably, however, there is a huge difference between trust and surrender. They are not synonymous and their equation can blind yoga students and lead them into deep trouble.

A teacher who demands surrender from students has misunderstood the purpose of yoga practice, has an inflated ego and is on a Guru Trip or, in the worst case scenario, is being manipulative and abusing his/her position of power as the teacher.

Trust is built over time based on a student’s experience that his/her teacher possesses the expertise to teach and has the ability to tune into what the student needs.

Surrender has the connotation of abdication of personal responsibility. It is handing one’s personal power over to another and giving up one’s innate intelligence and intuition.

In a healthy relationship, there has to be a spirit of dialogue between teacher and student that allows the student to both understand the process and to feel understood. Teachers cannot teach by fiat nor expect students to merely follow orders. That’s not teaching.

Now, over a period of time, a student can come to trust a teacher to the point where there appears to be the illusion of surrender, but deep trust is still fundamentally different from surrender. It is also the antithesis of what yoga practice is supposed to do. The practice of yoga is about becoming mindful and aware not about being mindless.

R Sharath Jois has my trust. So did Guruji. From my experience of practicing with Sharath as my teacher, I believe in Sharath’s expertise and I feel that he sees me and knows where I am in my yoga practice and can read my capabilities and limitations. So, I really trust him and I am able to “surrender” when he adjusts me in an asana and listen to his direction. However, surrender in this case is another way of saying “I really, really, really trust him.”

In all my years with Guruji and Sharath, neither ever gave me the feeling that they wanted me to surrender to them. I also never felt that they in any way tried to manipulate or dominate me as a student. They taught and empowered me and it was my decision whether practice had value or not.

Here’s another way to look at it. I trust my accountant because he has proven that he has expertise in tax law and accounting, has good judgment when he makes his recommendations about my needs and has knowledge of my assets and priorities. Because he meets those criteria, we have had a relationship that has lasted for almost twenty years.

Now, if my accountant started to give me advice that made me uncomfortable, or advocated something that seemed questionable in its legality or intelligence, or no longer seemed to understand my situation and priorities, and/or had no ability to hear and assimilate my concerns, it would be pretty stupid of me to stay with this accountant. The smart move would be to fire him and find somebody new.

So, it should be no different with one’s yoga teacher than with one’s accountant.

Guruji and Sharath and my accountant, as examples, have my trust because they earned it and they continue earning it as a result of their behaviour.

So, why do yoga students give over their personal power? Yoga practice, particularly Mysore Ashtanga, is an intimate endeavor. There can be closeness between teacher and student not unlike between doctor and patient or psychologist and patient. As such, there is the strong possibility that a student can experience transference.

Students come to practice for many different reasons. Often, students bring to practice their own sets of desires that can be grafted onto a teacher. When a student starts to see and feel the benefits of yoga practice, he/she can be particularly susceptible to associating the benefits with the teacher specifically rather than attributing it to his/her (the student’s) individual efforts or to the practice itself.

Students also have the tendency to mistakenly assume yoga teachers are more evolved spiritually than we really are. Some aptitude in asana, a few Sanskrit chants and some knowledge of philosophy do not an enlightened person or yogi make. When students are looking for answers and start to feel like they are finding them, they can easily put their teacher on a pedestal.

A good teacher, like a good therapist, is prepared for the possibility of transference and will see a student’s adoration for what it is and will not step up onto the offered pedestal.

On one of our trips to study at KPJAYI in Mysore, Rachelle and I were sitting with Sharath in his office and catching up while registering for classes. We remarked to Sharath that he has become very popular and famous. Sharath put down his pen and answered, “it’s not me that is popular. It’s the yoga.”

From my experience, Sharath has no interest in being put on a pedestal. He gives any praise or accolades to the practice itself and to Guruji who taught him. Similarly, Guruji would say that he was doing what his guru had taught him.

The mistranslation of the opening chant of Ashtanga Yoga is another potential source of confusion to students. In some translations, Vande Gurunam has been mistranslated as “I bow to the Guru’s lotus feet” This, however, is incorrect.

Gurunam, is a plural noun which means Gurus’ or of the Gurus.  There is no suggestion or implication of surrender or bowing to an individual teacher in the opening chant. We bow to the lotus feet of all the Gurus as recognition of lineage and appreciation for all those who have taught the method so we can practice it. It doesn’t place any individual teacher on a pedestal. This is Parampara and it serves to remind all teachers to remain humble and to cope with the likelihood of students’ transference. So, Sharath gives the praise to Guruji who gave the praise to Krishnamacharya.

In a perfect world, the onus should rest on each teacher to anticipate and manage his/her student’s transference. Teachers should see their students’ enthusiasm and adoration as a symptom of the yoga practice starting to work and not as a result of their own abilities or charisma. Put another way, it should not go to a teacher’s head.

Teachers, however, are not perfect and are susceptible to falling into a “Guru Trip”. A yoga teacher with many students can get an inflated ego and start to see the students’ hard earned trust as a given. With a class full of adoring students, it’s tempting for the ego-driven teacher to just want the students to do what they’ve been told, to surrender to him/her.

A teacher on a Guru Trip who begins to expect and demand surrender and obedience from students is a ticking time bomb. Students who give up their power to such a teacher are left feeling angry, hurt and disillusioned when their teacher eventually goes too far. The news and internet, sadly, have ample evidence of what bad teachers on a Guru Trip are capable: injuring, sleeping with or conning students to name a few.

In a perfect world, yoga teachers would abide by the same code of conduct that applies to psychologists and psychiatrists. Unfortunately, many teachers do not.

Because trust is not something that’s set in stone, students need to continually evaluate for themselves how things are going with their yoga teachers. When things between a student and teacher have soured, what often happens is that students can get stuck reminiscing about the relationship they once had with a teacher, which obscures the realities of the present. So, the student stays with the teacher even though the relationship has become negative and the trust is no longer being earned.

As a student, if it feels like the trust between you and your teacher is being corrupted into a demand for surrender, you can try to communicate this to your instructor. Maybe you can help snap him/her out of a rut or bad pattern. However, if you find resistance or a threat to do what you’re told, you should probably get out before things get even worse.

*as always, many thanks to Rachelle for her editorial insight and support.

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