by Donna Farhi: Relationships with yoga students can take many forms:
from a clear cut and dried professional boundary between teacher and student that has never extended beyond the perimeters of time spent together in a class, intensive, retreat or teacher training; to the less distinct delineation that happens when a student also happens to be a personal friend; to that of a peer exchange that takes place at a collegial level in which there may be a relaxed formality between the two parties accompanied by a mutual respect and regard for each person’s expertise and contribution.
Some teacher-student relationships are brief exchanges taking place over a singular weekend never to be repeated again and others may extend for decades traversing the life events of each party; marriage and divorce, birth and death, career success and failure, as well as geographic shifts. Some of these relationships may feel distanced and remote for one or both parties, such as the student who attends an intensive and with whom we have no personal exchange. Other students, for unknown reasons, draw us deep into the vast reaches of the heart and we may be privileged to accompany such a person right up to the transition of their passing.
What we can never predict, however, is how we may live in the student’s mind, sometimes assuming an importance and significance that can never be accurately gauged, regardless of how seemingly casual and inconsequential our interactions may be. Because we can never know the vulnerability of anyone who comes to work with us or the way in which our work together may be holding intact the fragile dimensions of a person’s psyche, yoga teachers are invested with a great responsibility.
This article is for those who consider teaching yoga an honor and a privilege.
If, however, you are a teacher who believes that students are there to serve your needs and you see no issue in forming a casual sexual alliance with a student or simultaneously with several students, or you conduct a string of relationships with students, you will find little in this article to validate your behavior. If you conveniently believe that students are able to give “consent” to have “consensual” relationships with their teachers you will find little in the following passages to confirm these beliefs. And if you are willfully and deliberately ignorant about the fundamental dynamics at play in relationships in which there is an inherent power inequity, (and if acknowledging this imbalance is inconvenient for your social and sexual life), this article is also not for you.
Indeed, it is one of the great paradoxes of the yoga industry that the people most in need of education about ethics (and the most likely to abuse others), are the least likely to show interest in the subject.
If you are genuinely uncertain about these dimensions of the teacher-student relationship, are new to teaching, or want to refresh those understandings you can click through to this link to read passages from my book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship and come back to this article later.
And if you are feeling just a tad offended by my prickly tone, consider that after decades of devoting my life energy to writing about ethics, sitting on boards, reviewing ethical guidelines and advocating for victims of abuse in our community, I’ve learned not to waste my time arguing with the wrong people.
Because the subject I want to unpack with you today is for those of you who are already on board with the importance of maintaining healthy boundaries with your students yet will, at some time in your life, inevitably, be tempted to cross a boundary with a student that potentially could cause great harm to the student and great harm to yourself. And for you, my tone is about to change dramatically, because the subject we are about to embark on requires great compassion and kindness towards ourselves, and a willingness to face the painful territory of our own aloneness and vulnerability.
I have been greatly aided in my understanding on this subject by an unlikely source; the extraordinary tome The Heart of Listening: A Visionary Approach to Craniosacral Work by Hugh Milne.
In the foundation chapters of this encyclopedic text on a subtle form of bodywork, Milne lays out the framework of what he calls “the healer’s contract” and the need for great clarity in any therapeutic exchange, especially when touch is engaged. The realm of the bodyworker and client working together through the intimate domain of touch is not unlike the realm of yoga teacher and student exploring the territory of embodiment and the powerful feelings, emotions, and energetic states that can occur whether in a group or one-to-one session. This can occur whether touch, or “adjusting” is involved or not. Even as early as 1995, Milne also recognized “the growing schism dividing healing today: to touch or not to touch”, referring to the taboo for many psychotherapists and most psychiatrists.
The Heart of Listening: A Visionary Approach to Craniosacral Work, by Hugh Milne, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 1995
Similarly, we see this growing schism now hotly debated in yoga circles in a continuum that spans the gamut from excluding touch altogether, consent cards and asking permission to touch, to non-consented or implied-consent touch as a God-given right assumed through the lens of the teacher’s belief that they have ownership of the student’s body and the student’s process. But like Milne, I believe that touch is too powerful a medium for healing and educative exchange to be branded as an outright taboo. When we use touch, however, the potential for boundary-crossing is greatly heightened.
“Fear is a key factor in certain psychotherapists’ reluctance to touch, and their censure of those who do. In a 1986 study of one thousand psychologists, 87 percent of the respondents acknowledge having felt a sexual attraction toward a client. The survey’s publication brought forth a rejoinder from a senior psychologist, who said “The issue isn’t the 87 percent, but the other 13 percent who lied or are denying their feelings to themselves. The problem is not in feeling an attraction, but when it interferes with therapy by distracting you or impairing your judgement”
Daniel Goleman, New Guidelines issued on Patient-Therapist Sex, New York Times, 12/20/90
Given the potentially intimate nature of our work with yoga students, it would be wise to assume that at some time in our yoga career we will feel an attraction to a student and similarly that there will be students who will feel attractions towards us. This is not a “bad” thing but rather something that should warrant our attention and begs to be understood for the deeper meaning those feelings may convey about the state of our inner life.
Such feelings may also fall under the umbrella of counter-transference where a teacher experiences a feeling of love, anger, envy or other strong emotions towards a student. If such feelings are not managed carefully they can cloud one’s judgement. Similarly, it is highly likely that many of our students will at some time experience transference: feeling potent emotions of anger, desire, envy and love. This too is not a “bad” thing, but rather something that should warrant a dispassionate attention that requires that we also be extremely diligent not to fan the flames of those projections or to do anything that might be misconstrued as an invitation for the fantasy to progress further.
The key to maintaining healthy boundaries is to recognize some of the early warning signals of an impending weakening of boundaries. Boundaries create the necessary distance that allows each person to see the other as whole and complete. Milne refers to these warning signals as “vulnerabilities” and while a thorough analysis of his list of the nine types of healers is beyond the scope of this article, there are several useful markers that all yoga teachers could benefit in learning to recognize.
How our Vulnerabilities Open Us to Ethical Breaches
If our need for intimacy and companionship is not met in our private lives either through a close intimate relationship such as with a spouse or partner, or through a strong network of friends or engaged community, we can become highly vulnerable to the temptation of crossing a boundary with a student. We may notice an attraction to a student which progresses from a fleeting thought that we witness and observe with impartiality to a thought process that moves into the realm of fantasy, dreams, and daydreams.
There may be other warning signals such as sharing inappropriate details of our personal lives, something I refer to as “leaking” boundaries. We may make an offhand comment about our lack of sexual opportunities, our frustration with our partner, or the fact that we’ll be eating dinner alone. For most teachers, this leaking of boundaries will be unintended and unconscious. For others, such as the celebrity teacher who widely broadcast to his students the “open” nature of his marriage, the personal disclosure is used to deliberately fish for opportunities among his student base.
When you listen to yourself talking to a student and notice that you are mentioning personal problems or expressing a deep sense of loneliness, you are probably already embedded within a counter-transference dynamic. Or, you may unwittingly become embroiled in a student’s private life, offering them advice about all manner of things and in doing so failing to maintain proper boundaries and honor the scope of your practice.
The leaking of boundaries can occur when we use our yoga students to meet our social needs through invitations to join us for meals, a one-to-one walk during a retreat, or through bringing a student into our private dwelling or room during a group event. We may be in a personal crisis, such as an illness, bereavement or divorce and be reaching out to a student (or students) to ameliorate our feelings of fear, loss, exhaustion or rage. And while all of these situations and others like them are perfectly human and normal, it’s critical that as teachers we be on the alert for the ways in which our personal vulnerability can lean into the domain of a student and invite the potential for an ethical transgression. For make no mistake about it, using our students in this way can be very damaging to the student and ultimately damaging to ourselves.
Regardless of how mature and grounded we may be or how strong our moral compass, in a moment of great vulnerability such as facing a serious illness, the breakdown of our marriage, or a struggle with depression, anxiety or loneliness, we may find ourselves wandering into the territory of fudging a counter-transference attraction by reconsidering accepted professional boundaries (such as never entering into a relationship with a teacher trainee or someone we are mentoring).
As Milne advises:
“ . . . if you are doing this, you are not clear. This is not “right thinking.” Try this as an exercise in consciousness: say to yourself: “I will never enter into a relationship with this client. I have a healthy, normal need for intimate contact, and I understand and respect this need. There is nothing wrong with it. But this counter-transference is beginning to cloud my judgment and affect my actions and I need to find an appropriate way to have my need met.” Say it a few times and notice its clarifying effect on your perception of yourself and the client. Your breath opens up, and suddenly you can see from that place of maximum clarity.”
There are many ways that we can meet our vulnerability, come to understand its source and meaning, and if necessary quarantine ourselves from further interactions until we feel able to contain those feelings.
When I have noticed that a student appears to have an attraction towards me I choose my words and intonation very carefully and in most instances, I do not touch this person. When such a student requests a private lesson I invariably decline. This gives the student an opportunity to witness his or her feelings without acting on them. Projections and fantasies, when witnessed for a period of time by either student or teacher almost always peter out of their own accord.
When we perceive a vulnerability that we are challenged to manage it may be helpful to enter into regular therapy to better understand our feelings and contain them. For others, it may be necessary to stop teaching for a brief (or long) period of time to address issues of addiction. If we have a senior teacher, supervisor, mentor or close friend whose judgement we respect, we can reach out for advice as a way of monitoring, stopping and regrouping. This may create a buffer zone while we get clear about our needs and about the dynamics of what is going on. While supervision is a common requirement for psychotherapists, it is rare within the yoga profession. It’s possible, however, to set up regular collegial gatherings with other professionals and make time for confidential sharing of challenges we are facing.
One of the best ways we can annex the need for students to fulfil our needs is to find ways of fulfilling those needs ourselves.
We may spend our days touching and caring for our students but not receive touch and caring ourselves. If we live on our own, a monthly massage may become a requirement rather than a luxury to provide an opportunity to get our need for touch met. Finding ways to fulfil our need for social connection may involve reaching outwards to create a stronger sense of community around us. As someone living in a remote and conservative rural community, meeting with a small group of trusted colleagues for a shared yoga practice in which we also have an opportunity to talk about our individual challenges in a confidential environment has become an integral investment in my own mental and emotional health. These strategies, however, may not fulfil the need we may have for a deeper bond expressed in sexual intimacy. Full recognition of this need may involve actively seeking a partner with whom we have shared interests and mutual values. The safest way we can do this is to seek such a relationship completely outside our network of students. It may even be preferable to seek outside the realm of those who practice yoga as a way of broadening our horizons and in doing so connecting with someone who can offer us a different perspective. Most importantly, such a person is unlikely to bring the dynamics of idolization to the table and will be uninterested in ingratiating themselves to us.
All of this said, it’s well known that many in the yoga community have formed long term relationships and marriages with people who were once students. Some of these marriages are healthy and enduring but have almost always been conducted with great care to annex the teacher-student relationship as a prelude to any romantic or sexual engagement. With the wisdom of hindsight, however, I would now say there is a strong likelihood that within such seemingly healthy relationships there may remain a residue of the power imbalance that existed between teacher and student and this residue may express itself in subtle and not so subtle ways. This is why many professions require a buffer period long after therapy has ended before any personal relationship may begin.
Degrading to Students, Degrading to Teacher
Many celebrity teachers (almost invariably men) with reputations for forming sexual alliances with their students, do so because they are well aware of the power of their charisma and the allure that students have in being “the chosen one”. Their revolving pool of available, naïve and often very young prospects are easy pickings. I’ve often wondered whether these same men would have a chance in finding a “real” partner outside the context of this vapid ersatz exchange that is invariably degrading for the student but in many ways equally degrading for the man.
Such premeditated and heavily patterned behavior points to a deep flaw of character and a psyche so insecure that it needs constant reinforcement through yet another conquest. Such conquests are as pathetic as that of the hunter who sits in a vehicle to shoot a big game animal tied to a fence then boasts about his courage. These are teachers who should not be teaching.
Until such time as we have the means and the will to enforce profession standards, including the ability to censor a teacher, education remains one of our best tools for preventing abuse of trust between teacher and student. There are thousands of exceptionally gifted teachers who genuinely wish to do the right thing.
Through having compassion for ourselves during times when our vulnerability comes to the fore, we can tend and nourish ourselves and in doing so maintain our capacity to nourish and care for others.