The Ethical Teaching of Meditation: How the Healthy Student -Teacher Relationship gives Context, Safety & Resonance
Meditation can sometimes feel like it’s the missing ingredient in life or the answer to all problems. These days there is encouragement to meditate daily, coming from many directions. Your doctor might even recommend it to you while suggesting you get more exercise and eat more veggies. This article explores how yoga teachers everywhere can benefit from understanding the ways teaching meditation has a special ethical placement of its own. The unique context of a healthy student-teacher relationship and how meditations are taught provides a clear place for transformation and growth. The role of the “teacher” within the student’s heart and mind adds foundational values to the meditation practitioner.
This article explores how, when teaching meditation, the sheer nature of this act touches a student right between their parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system‘s response. The intimate nature of meditation requires an artful and ethical delivery. How can we, as yoga teachers, proceed with necessary caution, recognizing that the potential impact is so powerful? How is this done within the container of a healthy student- teacher relationship? The pulse of the heartbeat, the depth of the breath, and the working of the vagus nerve are deeply entwined in the art of teaching meditation and connected to the human attachment response¹. It works when teachers grasp the depth of the impact of their position and the opportunities for growth… and when teachers teach from a place of altruism and support for the student and not for personal gain.
¹Attachment response can be defined as a deep and enduring emotional bond between two people in which each seeks closeness and feels more secure when in the presence of the attachment figure.
The Student-Teacher Relationship: A Perfect Fit for Meditation Learning
Have you thought about how meditation seems like the most wonderful thing in the world ? Many yoga enthusiasts feel a sense of outright zeal about sharing what they know because their experience and belief in the positive effects of meditation are so strong. Yoga teachers teach from a place of personal inspiration; how incredible it can feel to do yoga/meditation, how many positive changes have happened in their lives because of it. The teacher’s zeal and inspiration interlock with students’ yearning to learn; they may be seeking help to improve their life and find their way spiritually. This can result in a healthy “connection” or a harmful interlock; healthy when the teacher holds the ethical boundaries of their influence or harmful if the teacher becomes personally enmeshed with the student.
This is why the journey may feel like a perfect fit or even a sense of “kismet,” where the hand fits into the glove so nicely. The student may be feeling deeply connected to “their” teacher. Luckily there are many ways a teacher can support a student as long as they are aware and conscious to not exploit this trust. Teachers can be cautious of over-promising the benefits of a practice or taking advantage of a student who may be susceptible to influence. The presence of the teacher, the short inspirational talks, and context that add to the experience, all play an important role in supporting the student’s direction as a practitioner. A teacher grounds the meditation experience, providing a frame of reference, circumstances, and setting that add value to the student’s life. The teacher reveals clear meaning and assists the student in the application of meditation to their life.
Simultaneously, teachers walk a fine line to avoid crossing boundaries and telling students “how” to live their lives or what value to ascribe to this practice. This is a balancing act and ripe with potential for ethical missteps, considering that the scope of practice² for yoga teachers is primarily “yoga/exercise instruction.”³ Because of the unique characteristics of the student-teacher relationship, where the student’s trust in the teacher can be profound, yoga teachers are best to remain mindful so that boundary violations or undue pressure on the student’s trust do not happen.
³As a Yoga Teacher, What’s Your Scope of Practice? (yogainternational.com)
Ways it can go right or wrong
Let’s say a yoga teacher, “Joe”, offers a class and many students come up afterward with questions. Joe compliments one student, Jane, about how well she did with some difficult postures. By itself this might be supportive and appropriate, but singling her out again for special praise (a sort of “love bombing”) can be a real concern. It is common for students to place a yoga teacher on a virtual “‘pedestal”. Because Joe knows he can never be certain of the degree of trust or respect a student holds, he can “pump the brakes” on further compliments. He doesn’t take advantage of the possibility that Jane is “idolizing” him. Instead, he may even directly remind the student when appropriate “don’t put any yoga teacher up on a pedestal, this practice is really about you and your growth, not about any particular teacher.”
Consent and the Student Teacher Relationship
If Joe were not so conscious of the ethical boundaries, the continued compliments and praise could start to feel to Jane like a flirtation or invitation to an intimate relationship. This does not mean that a yoga teacher should never praise a student, but caution can be in place here. Boundaries become especially blurred (or crossed) when the students’ trust and attachment begin to evoke Joe’s feelings of romance as well.
The reality for a yoga teacher is, because of the inherent power imbalance in relationship to students, there is no such thing as consent by any student to a romantic or personal relationship with the teacher. It’s a dynamic where one person holds the other in a higher place of trust and esteem, relying on the other to provide something for which they have a deep longing (e.g., spiritual guidance, a pathway to “belonging”). The one in the “reliant” or “dependent” position might fear displeasing the teacher and also have a desire to please them. Even if the student “appears” to go along with romantic overtures, there is no “consent.” The student’s feelings and desire to please make them more vulnerable and dependent, and inhibit any ability to freely consent to sexual relations or any other type of personal intimacy.
A healthy intimate relationship is between two equal partners. If a teacher and student enter into a romantic relationship, it is automatically lopsided and upends the student’s journey of learning. It is a violation of the sacred trust in the student-teacher relationship. Yoga teachers must abide by higher ethical standards than what is normally required, both socially and legally, just as physicians, teachers, ministers, and therapists are held to higher standards, and prohibited from having personal or intimate relationships with any patient, student, congregation member, or client. Such a relationship can be a profound violation and result in many years of trauma and harm.
A teacher can cross boundaries in many other ways. For example, let’s consider for a moment the end of a yoga class after meditation. Students are in a very subtle state. They feel refreshed, in a state of oneness, and they are open, even susceptible, to suggestions.
Because of this susceptibility at the end of yoga class, it’s advisable for a teacher to refrain from selling products or “pushing” during this unique time of openness. For example, a teacher starts to promote her upcoming retreat in Costa Rica. Maybe she leans into a bit of exaggerated framing, “Those who choose to come to this retreat will really grow spiritually. Those who do not attend… they will be missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity for spiritual growth.” Would you say this is a bit of undue influence or sales at a vulnerable moment?
Let’s now consider the yoga teacher who has just ended a class with a very deep meditation. She points to the class schedule and briefly lets people know about upcoming workshops and then adds, “There is info about some great retreats and other events on the back wall if you are interested. Let’s gather in the lobby and share some cookies and tea. I’d love to hear how you experienced this meditation.” This teacher leaves the choice of attending the retreat in the students’ hands, without laying any sort of undue influence on the student. She also gives the students an opportunity to ground themselves after a deep meditation. She brings the focus back to learning to meditate and centered on their experience rather than her own personal needs to fill the retreat.
There are many ways a teacher can influence a student: their words, the values that they share, how they organize and support the community… These all play a critical role in the experience and teaching of meditation.
4Influence by which a person is induced to act otherwise than by their own free will or without adequate attention to the consequences.
Pumping the Brakes: Teaching Meditation with Caution
As a meditation teacher or guide, you are supporting people’s ability to practice self care. If we think of how few of us had a parent that taught us how to “self regulate” and what a critical and important life skill this is, we see the unique position that any meditation teacher is in. They are filling in a gap in a person’s life and sharing direction and life values at a moment when the student is very “open”. The context within which a practitioner learns to meditate, the interactions with teachers and with peers is all a part of shaping the experience of meditation, its significance, and how the experience is integrated and interpreted.
But this again, is the same reason why caution should be taken. Teachers who apply the appropriate ethical boundaries, realizing the students openness and vulnerability, serve the student without risk of exploitation.
The Dangers of Meditation as “THE” Answer
As society evolves, more and more people learn to meditate and it becomes a mainstream part of life. There can be a tendency to promote all alternative or eastern practices as “THE” answer. It is often framed within eastern practices such as meditation, Qi Gong, or acupuncture, as the ultimate solution to life’s problems. But in reality, looking to eastern practices as the best “way” or as “THE” answer” could be a disservice.
The exoticization of and “magical” qualities attributed to eastern medicine are not helpful to those seeking answers. Framing eastern or alternative practices as the “best” remedy to life’s ills can result in harming the student. For instance, overpromising results can lead to medical conditions not receiving proper attention, a student’s needs not being truly met, and/or the student feeling despondent when they do not experience the promised results and perhaps feel there is something wrong with them.
Remember, there are many unique ways to help or support someone in any given scenario. There are still many years of scientific studies that need to happen in order to detail the impact of eastern and alternative practices.
When a yoga teacher applies ethics to their teaching practice, they can hold the container for the student and use their influence in a way that supports the student in genuine empowerment, without risking overstepping or over controlling. Bringing a careful study of ethics into the equation of teaching meditation and yoga is imperative for the student’s health and benefit and supports the best results for all involved.
The way that the teacher frames the practice of meditation not as “THE” answer but as a possible option for life enhancements; plays a key role in the students integration of the meditation experience. Each student is bringing so much individual experience to their practice that the teacher’s capacity to model openness, receptivity and respect for the practice as well as the student allows for a deep integration of the material.
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