What is the Yoga teacher’s attitude towards the student? Respect | Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

Mark Whitwell
5 min readDec 10, 2020
Teaching in Greece 2018 | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga
Teaching in Greece 2018 | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

What is the teacher’s attitude towards the student? It is respect. This is a technical point.

The hallmark of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar’s teaching is that Yoga must be adapted to the individual — to their body type, age, health, and cultural background. In order, to successfully give someone Yoga then you must get to know them, no matter how they differ from you, with a mood of respect.

The Yoga teacher respects their student by getting to know who they are. We want to know about our student’s background, body type, age, health, and their culture before we can be of use to them. And then if we can be of use, what is taught will be relevant to who they are. So, in Yoga teaching in a one-to-one basis, but even in a group, the mood or the bhav, that beautiful Sanskrit word, is one of respect.

In that mood of respect, you have a dialogue with your student in simple ways that is easy going for the student. Like, How are you? What do you want? How can I help you? What’s going on for you? And, Where are you from? What is your work, your profession? How’s that going? Are there any health issues? How’s the family? Just as you would have a dialogue with any person when you first meet them.

It was a teaching approach or point-of-view of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar, that there should be no teaching unless there is a sincere question. The reason is that if there is not a sincere question, an enquiry from the student, all you are doing is putting stuff into the student’s head that is confusing to them or probably not relevant to them. In order to teach what is relevant to the student however, you must respect them.

The Yoga teacher does not have this body of knowledge and information like: here is my information, you sit there, and I’m going to deliver it to you. Especially this matter of teaching cultural matters from another culture to that person or just a whole body of academic knowledge that the person may not be interested in. At worst, you get the person thinking that they have to get your body of knowledge to be an okay person and that is the biggest problem of all.

Nobody has to get a body of knowledge from anybody else to be an okay person! You’re fine just as you are, as life itself. The pure intelligence of life is functioning beautifully in everyone’s case, thank you very much. A person might not be able to rub two philosophical thoughts together. So what? Who cares?

Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga
Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

The Breath is All You Need

In our lives as Yoga teachers, we meet all kinds of people some of whom come from rural village settings and they haven’t had as much access to the kind of higher education that is familiar to those in wealthy countries. But they are the strongest, gentlest, happiest people and they are yogis. Krishnamacharya would say,

“If you can breathe you can do Yoga.”

If there is a sincere enquiry from the student, then the Yoga teacher gives them a Yoga that is right for them, with respect to their background, with respect to them as a a person, as life on Earth. We find out what the student’s needs are and deliver something that is useful.

But if the teacher dishes up a cultural package of learning, or at worst convinces the student that they need it, we are essentially behaving like a missionary who psychologically convinces others that they will become superior people if they get that knowledge. This is the problem itself.

All of us must pull the rug out from under that hoax. Religious missionary work and political power have gone hand-in-hand in this world for centuries and they’ve ruined this world by deluding themselves into thinking they are in a superior state and by having no respect for indigenous cultures and not understanding the value system that they hold.

There has to be a sincere question for a teaching to be given. That being said, we do not need to be ridiculous about it because people are shy, they might not know what they want, or what exactly their questions are, and that is fair enough. As teachers, we can be intelligent and flexible in how we relate to our students.

Often, I’ll be in a class and I’ll ask the question, “Are there any questions?” “Are there any issues?” “How is your practice going?” And there will be silence. If that happens, just wait for a moment and then carry on teaching with what you think will be useful.

It can also be useful to ask the question yourself so that you discover what the student’s questions are. If you ask your student how their work life is going then they might say, “Well, I’m really stressed out actually and I want some release.” And there’s the question. We can now perhaps be helpful to that person.

In our classes, it is good to do something that breaks the ice, that puts the student at ease in the Yoga teaching situation, so that honesty can arise. Then, when you feel relaxed and respect, the student will know what their question is and the teacher will know how to respond. We create a rapport together and then your question comes out and we go from there. The tradition of Yoga is vast and we pull things out from that tradition that are relevant to the person who has the question.

Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

What’s Wrong with Modern Yoga

Around the word, most of what is going on in the name of yoga teaching is not considerate or respectful to the student. Practices and talks are not tailored to the individual, there is little to no understanding of the breath principles that Krishnamacharya actually taught, and teachers are assuming the role of the authority or superior person who knows something about Yoga and life that the student does not.

Many people leave a typical class and never go back because they feel, consciously or unconsciously, that there is nothing there for them at a personal level.

It is time now to finish up with these naïve early experiments with yoga teaching in the west and restore the tradition to the most essential understanding that Yoga is relationship. My teacher Desikachar would say that the relationship between the teacher and the student is the heart of Yoga. That relationship is one of respect and mutual affection.

*If you would like to develop a personal home Yoga practice that is right for you then join our by-donation 8-week online immersion into the heart of Yoga.

Mark Whitwell

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Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.