I love my students and I love hugs.
I don’t like hugs from my students.
I remember the feeling when one morning in Istanbul, after my class, a student, who is also a good friend, walked up towards me and gave me a big long hug and a loud kiss on each cheek. I felt uncomfortable. Other students were gathering their stuff and getting ready to leave but they were still in the room. I was trapped in my friend’s need to connect and my own desire to take a distance.
It is not that I don’t like her hugs. When I see her outside of the studio we naturally kiss and hug each other as a form of greeting. This is the cultural norm in Turkey. When a person refuses to offer her/his cheeks to the other, the message that is often perceived is that something is not right in the relationship.
This is at least true among friends and equals.
I often have friends who come to my yoga classes both in Portland and in Istanbul. I heard over and over my friends saying that if they were going to start yoga, they would prefer to start with me. This is not a good idea. I would advise them to start with a good teacher whom they don’t know as a friend even if it feels uncomfortable at the beginning. In yoga we are not seeking the feeling of comfort anyway.
Teaching friends is a tricky business. There is always some degree of confusion by the student on the teacher’s authority when the same person is a friend under different settings. This is inevitable. The confusion arises from not being able to switch from one mode of relating to the other for both sides.
Not always but most of the time, it is student-friends who arrive to the class last and they are more easily distracted. Frequently, it is they who don’t see anything wrong with yawning when I talk while other students hide their yawns from me. The lingering of the friendship mode inside of the studio can make me feel uneasy.
There are various “modes of relating” to one another. Every relationship creates a space. That space is made up of agreements and boundaries that are recognized by individuals partaking in the relationship. Friendship for example is a relationship based on equality. It usually operates at an emotional level. It is because we love them, we stay connected to our friends.
Teacher/student relationship on the other hand, neither operates on the emotional level nor is it equal. It is a fine balance being kind and at the same time holding the space of authority. My teacher is the excellent example for this balance. I don’t hug my teacher and I can’t even imagine doing that unless he initiates it.
If the mode of relating in friendships is based on love, I believe respect and trust are the two central components of student/teacher relationship. It is not just the teacher in person but also the knowledge he embodies is the source of this respect and trust. The knowledge I am talking about here is not simple information. It is a kind of knowledge which we acquire as we discipline the mind and surrender to the teachings of a system. Discipline, paying attention and repetition are necessary components for this kind of learning process.
However what is equal –at least in my case- is the distance I feel towards each of my students. If there is a consistent group of students coming to my classes regularly, I feel a strong connection between us. Whatever other modes of relating we might have outside of the studio, do not affect the way I see them in the class.
My teacher always reminds us, the tools we need to operate during yoga are very different from the tools we use in our everyday relationships. During the practice, everyday tools of relating to one another, whether it be partnership, friendship or parenthood, must be suspended for a while.
This is also true for couples and families coming to yoga classes. It is a common thing when couples come to my classes, the husband sneaking peaks at the wife or wife feeling responsible for explaining her husband’s limitations. For a fruitful practice, it is best if we can forget our outside identities and emotional attachments to other people in the room. In the end, yoga practice is something we do in our solitude. Whether alone or surrounded by others in the room, we are on our own during practice.
That is why, when my student-friends switch to our friendship mode right after class. When they ask me what I am doing for rest of the day, a pattern for a knitted sweater, when they start a friendly chat about some stuff that happened the night before, when they want to give me a hug or a kiss, I can’t help but think that something is missing in my relationship with them.
I am well aware that it is my job to hold the space of the teacher and to evoke authority and respect. The desire to please or comfort someone may be an essential component of friendship but it should not interfere with teaching.
As a teacher this is something I am learning. And like all other challenges, I view the presence of my friends in my yoga classes as a good opportunity to grow out of my shadows and transform myself for the better.