This question has been asked a bunch recently. I teach yoga and my answer is that this is the wrong question. It is wrong in the same way this question is misleading:
- Is your carpenter your friend?
First let’s understand what I mean by friend. A friend is someone who you like to be around, and they like to be around you. There is no other reason for this hanging out with one another other than you like it. You don’t spend time together because you are always “learning” from them, or you think they can be depended upon if your car breaks down and you need a ride. Friends offer rides, but that isn’t the reason you have them as a friend. If it were, you’d make sure your “friends” all had dependable cars. They’d see through that, they’d see that you were using them as a resource. That is not friendship, in the same way becoming friendly with someone at work who might be able to help promote you is not friendship.
Your carpenter might end up being your friend, but not because she is a good carpenter or a bad carpenter. You might be friends because you just...like her. There is no “reason” someone becomes your friend - it is not for some perceived benefit. There is a mutual respect and love, without any power differential, and a fair degree of honesty. You can say to your friend “Quit being an ass!” Your friend might be offended, they might laugh, but they’ll still be your friend.
So the question “Is your yoga teacher your friend” or “Can or should your yoga teacher become your friend” can be answered in the same way as “Should your carpenter become your friend”?
The answer is: you don’t decide that. Friendship happens to you, in the same way your eyes dilate when you walk into a dark room, in the same way you enjoy certain kinds of food, in the same way you find particular things funny and others not.
So your yoga teacher might become your friend, or might not. It depends on a lot of things you don’t control. If you want your yoga teacher to be your friend because you’d like to be illuminated by the reflected light of their celebrity, then you are not really their friend.
However, the question “Should they be your friend” implies there is some ethical issue here that needs dealing with.
There has been an enormous amount of predatory behaviour from yoga gurus directed towards their students. This is pretty well documented and I won’t go into it here. These gurus were not friends with their students - a friend would not take advantage of a friend in this way, to my way of thinking. In other words, this predatory behaviour was possible at least in part because of a perceived power differential between the guru and the student. Because of a lack of friendship.
The next argument that comes up in favour of maintaining a distance between teacher and student is the issue of discipline. How can a teacher maintain discipline in a classroom where the students are their friends? Again - good friends don’t require discipline in order to listen to what you have to say, if it is valuable. They like you and they want to hear you. If one thinks that student/friends will brush off what they have to say while teaching a class, that may be because the teacher’s current friends brush off what they have to say. The students don’t need more discipline in this case, the teacher needs nicer friends, and maybe needs to be a nicer friend...or say things that people want to listen to.
Finally (as far as this post goes) the issue of the teaching of yoga as different than something like carpentry. Hatha yoga is a wonderful practice that has the ability to encourage overall health, flexibility, calmness of mind (at least temporarily) and has many other benefits. Technique helps, and if hatha yoga is taught well, the student is empowered to learn in a way that creates independence in practice. But implying that the yoga teacher is in possession of some kind of mystical knowledge or awareness that can be, in some entirely unmeasurable and unaccountable way be transmitted to the student, is hucksterism. Friends don’t bullshit their friends. One can learn a great deal from watching anyone, be they a yoga teacher, a carpenter, or an older gentleman feeding the birds every morning. If any of these folks have words of wisdom, we can learn from them. And that is done well when we respect them, love them, and are able to tell them when they are out of line. When they are our friends.