The Teacher-Student Relationship: Healthy Boundaries

This entry was posted on Feb 12, 2013 by Charlotte Bell.
teacher-student relationshipWhy Are Boundaries Important in the Teacher-Student Relationship?

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.




About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

9 responses to “The Teacher-Student Relationship: Healthy Boundaries”

  1. Avatar Carol Horton says:

    These are all vitally important issues and can’t be reiterated enough. Regardless of how the current allegations play out, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the issues raised. Personally, I think that a serious grounding in transference/counter-transference dynamics should be a required element of every yoga teacher training program. It is disturbing how many, if not most of the comments I’ve read on Yoga Dork and other blogs about this current Anusara issue show little, if any awareness of the critical psychological issues in play when it comes to this mix of power, charisma, sex, yoga, and the teacher-student relationship. Thanks for shedding some much needed light on this critical subject.

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      Thanks for your comment, Carol. I agree that grounding in transference/counter-transference should be a part of teacher training. One reason I felt compelled to write this blog is that so many of the comments I read on YogaDork miss this point, that a teacher-student relationship is not the same as a peer to peer relationship. The dynamics are completely different, and the many “whatever” comments really bothered me.

  2. Avatar Karin L Burke says:

    I echo the thanks. As the controversy unfolded I was surprised at my own level of hurt and discomfort: I know these are rumors, I know that power is abused in all segments of our world and yoga is not immune, and I have no personal attachment to the teacher or the brand. Indeed, I have already distanced myself from the brand. Why should I feel so much pain, then?

    In part, because I recognize how much power there is in the student teacher relationship, and how much harm can be done.

    And in part, because the misuse of power and boundaries as sexual violence are so quickly dismissed with a ‘so what?, it happens’. Anonymity is used to discredit the concerns, just as they are used in wider society when we discount a woman’s experience because she doesn’t report.

    Ultimately, I think that these conversations can make us better, as yoga students and teachers, as a culture, and as individuals.

    But the conversation is not being had. I am afraid the outcome, this time and so far, will be more silence, more confusion, less healing and more hype. I am afraid that will contribute to future boundary violations, and will make those who have been/will be hurt in the student teacher relationship more vulnerable to harm, more isolated, and less safe.

    Thank you for pulling it back around.

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      Hi Karin, You put it very well, I think. On one of the blogs, Carol Horton talks about how anonymity can be completely legitimate. Whistleblowers are quite often vilified by the organizations they expose. In the case of a huge, worldwide organization such as this, we can see it happening already. I also agree that ultimately, if a person’s account is discredited it will make it less likely that others will speak up in the future, and that is too bad. This kind of misconduct in uneven power relationships has happened throughout history and if we don’t discuss it and try to understand it, they will continue to happen.

  3. Avatar Karin L Burke says:

    I don’t know that I worded that entirely well. Boundary violations are of self, whether it be financial, sexual, professional, or simply in terms of personal development.

    I am afraid the attitude of ‘so what’, translates to the idea that yoga teachers are not bound and should not be bound to understand that transference or power. That there are, in fact, no boundaries.

    That scares me.

  4. Avatar Eileen says:

    Excellent and thoughtful thoughts on this subject (and applicable to any “uneven” relationships).

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      Thanks, Eileen. I hope that this incident starts a conversation about this issue. I think that many yoga teachers go into teaching unprepared for the issues that can arise when students project onto them. It easy to fall into believing the projections because they feel good. As Carol commented above, I think teacher-student dynamics should be a part of teacher training.

  5. Avatar Babs says:

    Donna Farhi’s book is rocking my world right now!

  6. Avatar Ann Van Regan says:

    I’m amazed that in neither the article or the responses is the word ‘victim’ used. Notonly is the yoga community hurt when a teacher sexually assaults a student(it’s not just a boundary violation) but the individual victim may not get the support she/he needs to heal and to continue a yoga practice.

    On another note…in Canada it is accepted that one out or every 4 women has been sexually victimized. This means that there are abuse survivors in every class. It is uncommon for these survivors to identify themselves so it is imperative that teachers keep this in mind.

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