Healthy Boundaries: The Teacher-Student Relationship

This entry was posted on Feb 12, 2013 by Charlotte Bell.

Healthy Boundaries:  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. It’s been just about a year since the Anusara scandal erupted, and just today, I read an article in the New York Times exposing a centenarian Zen teacher who’s being accused of proliferating a pattern of sexual misconduct.

When this happens, it is always shocking and disappointing, but not all that surprising. It has happened countless times over the milennia, and will likely happen again.

The yoga community is divided as to the actual damage (or not) that’s caused by inappropriate behavior on the part of a teacher. Should we look the other way and trust that all parties involved were consenting adults and therefore it’s no biggie? Or is it a problem, and why?

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.

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.

A year ago, early in the Anusara dust-up, many commentors vilified YogaDork—the blog that originally brought the allegations into the open—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 that damages yoga’s image. 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.

It’s Up to All of Us

Each time an issue such as this comes to light is an opportunity. It is an opportunity for self-reflection in the yoga community. (Isn’t that what it’s all about after all?) We can look inside ourselves:  Where do we tend to be more tempted to act outside our integrity—money, sex, fame? How can we shift our perspective to make our students’ well-being more important than our desires? And how can we, as students, keep our starry-eyed admiration in check so that we don’t become enablers to misbehaving famous teachers? These are all questions, of course. I don’t have the answers. The key is to keep questioning, and to look squarely at—not ignore—the issue when it arises, because it most certainly will.

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.

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

  1. Avatar Lois Kubota says:

    Just wondering if any women have been accused of sexual misconduct through yoga or is it almost always men?

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Good question. I haven’t heard sexual misconduct from women, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible or hasn’t happened. I’ve heard about other betrayals of trust concerning money or shunning a student who questions a teacher–male or female.

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