It seems to happen with alarming regularity that a spiritual teacher is exposed (no pun intended) for having misused his position to take advantage of students’ trust. Like most people participating in this conversation I do not know if the allegations are true. I don’t intend to discuss the issue’s veracity here, although I do trust that the blog that broke the story, YogaDork, verified the information to the best of their ability before publishing such a potentially damaging story. Whether or not the stories are true, I hope that the incident brings thoughtful, non-reactive conversation and greater transparency from all of us who teach yoga.
I also do not intend to fan the flames. But this is not the first time allegations of inappropriate sexual relations between famous yoga teachers and their students have arisen, and it probably will not be the last. My intention for this blog is to initiate a respectful discussion about an issue that many people feel strongly about. What follows is just my opinion. Please offer yours if you feel so inclined.
Ten years ago I learned that a well-known teacher I’d worked with a few times had been sleeping with young female students. I was shocked and disappointed. I had enjoyed his workshops and learned some valuable techniques from him, and I liked him as a person. The news made me feel sad.
Then the rationalizations began. I didn’t want to judge. After all, I was a college student/party girl in the ’70s who had not always behaved intelligently in matters of relationship. Who was I to judge? Two consenting adults should be able to behave however they feel is appropriate, I thought.
Despite my rationalizations, the issue kept bothering me. As I looked more deeply, I began to reflect on the role of a teacher and the incredible honor and responsibility it entails. First, I was reminded that a relationship between a teacher and student is not the same as that of two peers. Second, I realized that as teachers, we represent Yoga, and therefore have a responsibility to uphold its integrity.
The Teacher-Student Relationship
As teachers, our students put us in a position of trust, and sometimes misdirected transference can occur. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to paint ourselves as ordinary humans, our students may project qualities on us that may or may not be true. Some students may even place us on a pedestal. While this can happen with regular, local teachers, it is even more likely to happen with well-known ones.
There are good reasons that professionals such as doctors, psychiatrists and professors practice within ethical restraints regarding relationships with clients. The relationship between a person in a position of authority and the person over whom they have authority is not an even one. The power differential between teacher and student gives teachers greater influence and persuasive power over students, and can cause students to trust a teacher’s motives and actions implicitly whether or not such trust is deserved.
When a famous, charismatic teacher singles out a student, that student is likely to feel special and perhaps further advanced along the path than her peers. It feels good to be singled out, so in order to maintain this elevated position, a student may feel that she must follow whatever instructions or practices the teacher prescribes. In addition, inherent in practice is the idea that in order to find freedom, one must surrender to the practice and to the teachings—and sometimes, to the teacher. The student may feel—or be made to feel—that setting boundaries will hinder her growth. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the teacher to set healthy boundaries.
On the teacher’s side, admiration and praise feel good. We all want to know that we are inspiring and uplifting our students’ lives in some way. When a community of admiring students reaches worldwide proportions, it becomes easy for the teacher to inflate his/her sense of importance. Fame does not have to distort our understanding of ourselves. There are many world-renowned teachers who have remained humble in the face of fame. But when it does, an inflated sense of importance can make it easier to rationalize unskillful, even harmful, behavior. I’m fairly certain that if the current allegations are true, the teacher under scrutiny did not believe he was causing harm to his students.
Donna Farhi’s book, Teaching Yoga, is a wise, compassionate exploration of the teacher-student relationship. I highly recommend it to all teachers who want to learn how to navigate the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship skillfully.
Our Responsibility to Yoga
As teachers, we all have a responsibility to Yoga to represent this practice with the integrity it deserves. Famous teachers, who represent Yoga to tens of thousands of students, and to many people outside the yoga world as well, have an even greater responsibility to represent the practice honorably. To legions of people, they are the face of Yoga.
I was troubled to read the many comments on YogaDork’s blog vilifying the messenger of this news. Some comments criticized YogaDork for damaging yoga through gossip and rumors. It is not the reporting of teacher misbehavior that damages yoga’s reputation. It is teacher misbehavior itself, if true, that has wrought whatever damage is to come from this, and past or future situations. If Yoga’s quest is for truth, transparency is essential, no matter how unsettling it might be.
As teachers we have the responsibility to represent Yoga as a whole, not just asana. Engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships with students violates brahmacharya (wise use of sexual energy) at the very least. If either party is already in a committed relationship, it is likely that the teacher-student tryst also violates satya (truthfulness) and ahimsa (non-harming). These principles are the foundation of Yoga, and enjoy a status in the eight limbs that’s equal to that of asana.
It must be intoxicating to feel the love and respect of thousands of committed, intelligent students, and to know that you are contributing to their happiness. I don’t know if I could handle fame any more skillfully than anyone else. But I will say that not sleeping with your students seems like a no-brainer. That it happens so often bespeaks the power of sexuality and the tendency for power relationships to play out through this avenue.
My hope is that this incident, whether or not it turns out to be true, will inspire teachers—famous or not—to reflect on the honor of teaching and our responsibility to this precious path of Yoga.