Rod Stryker: Thoughts on the Yoga Student/Teacher Relationship

“This is a big deal for Texas,” said a representative from the Breakfast Yoga Club at a Thursday evening pre-party kicking off the first Dallas Yoga Conference, September 13-16.

As a newcomer to the great state of Texas, I don’t fully understand how big of a deal it really is. Yet.

It all started with a nice welcome to Dallas rush hour traffic. But so things go, as Rod Stryker, creator of ParaYoga and author of The Four Desires, reminded us when he began his class: Originally planning a lecture and meditation, he changed his plans last minute and delivered an asana practice as an extra bonus (and the weekend hadn’t even begun!). Unmoved by the last-minute request to include movement with the originally planned lecture, Stryker still found time to start the evening with a timely topic.

Coming on the same day YOGANONYMOUS reported John Friend’s (a Texas resident himself) return to teaching this fall, Stryker ruminated on the current state of affairs concerning the student/teacher relationship amidst a rampant culture of "yoga as exercise."

For Stryker, yoga is much, much more than just the physical practice. “Breath work and energy is just as important, if not more, to attain a full understanding of the true practice of yoga," said Stryker.

Slightly saddened by the current exercise craze surrounding yoga in the West, Stryker pointed out that Indians are now practicing more yoga, simply because Americans embrace it. But the popularity has not come from chanting a funny language and breathing like Darth Vader. Rather, the physical component of yoga has made it more accessible to suspecting Americans wary of a cult-like religion and transformed the practice itself in the process.

When asked how teachers can impart more wisdom to students while protecting the accessibility of a physically based yoga practice, Stryker challenged teachers assume the same level of responsibility as the student. His answer to dancing between accessible athleticism and ancient wisdom? Intelligent sequencing that sneaks in the subtleties.

“What is more important?” Stryker posited while we held a particularly long and low chair pose during his demanding asana sequence. “The practice of yoga or the qualities of a yogi?”

For Stryker, the student/teacher relationship is a paradoxical and delicate one. A firm believer in the guru, he also feels gurus should not aim to acquire "co-dependents." A true teacher is one who leads his or her students toward self-reliance, Stryker believes. As most yogis know, or have at least been told once before, the teacher is within all of us.

That said, student and teacher both must demand only the best to move forward toward a fuller understanding of a life free from suffering. The student must ask for more than just the alignment cues and muscle massages and the teacher must challenge the student to experience the practice for his or herself. A teacher who tells you what to do is no teacher, but a dictator.

Stryker reminisced on the elements of yoga that have largely been lost in its journey West to the shores of freedom, independence and Jazzercise. Take kavi, for example, a Sanskrit word that translates to whispering wisdom and the standard teaching methodology 2,000 years ago. The whispering wisdom was passed down from master to disciple through the spoken word, the true message contained within the vibrations of the sounds created. Today, the American master writes a book.

Published author, serial entrepreneur and founder of Sonic Yoga in New York City, Jonathan Fields recently wrote about his own thoughts on the student/teacher relationship:

“To make money, I've been told, you must position yourself as the wizard. The all-knowing sage who doth bestow knowledge upon the poor ignorant masses. You must be...the guru. The teacher of teachers. The one! I see this mindset in nonfiction book land in a major way. Publishers want to sign authors who proactively label themselves gods of their domain. Because they think it'll sell more books. Far more often than not, it doesn't.”

And so the balance delicately teeters back and forth between authenticity and money, the intersection between passion and business—an age-old dilemma. To make money, teachers often feel they need to reach the masses. They do this by writing books, launching marketing campaigns and focusing on the party tricks—handstands, side crows and the like, perpetuating an accessible package without mentioning the part that makes it work.

And here, Stryker, and other well-known American instructors, take issue. According to Jivamukti teacher Giselle Mari, the student finds the teacher not vice-versa. If the teacher lives his or her practice, the students will come. A marketing campaign might look nice, but a pretty flyer won’t inspire a student to seek enlightenment.

I moved to a northern town in Texas from Boulder, CO about a month ago. I wondered if I would have to change my style of teaching to appeal to the locals. Wichita Falls is not Boulder.

What I found was quite the opposite. Wichita Falls is still not Boulder. But we as human beings are all still one.

And so the teacher must lead, maybe changing a few words here and there, but he or she must not dumb down the practice, must not throw out the wisdom and must not crumble in the face of fear, confused faces or disagreement.

As Stryker wisely witnessed, “If they don’t get what they want, they won’t get what they need.”

The relationship then, is contained in the questions. The answers must be experienced independently.

Ashley herzberger

Ashley Josephine Herzberger offers short yoga practices for busy women on her website and helps guide her clients and students through customized wellness transformations involving alignment of body, mind, and soul.