About Time: We Came Clean About The Yoga Teacher-Student RelationshipBy Genny Wilkinson
Is it ever acceptable for a yoga teacher to sleep with their student?
You might cry out “Never!” but the truth is, this rather complicated situation happens more often than you think.
I’m not talking about the rape allegations against Bikram Chodhury, or John Friend‘s alleged coven of female students who say they were pressured into performing sexual acts, or the allegations of sexual and emotional abuse against Kausthub Desikachar.
Their alleged transgressions, serious and disturbing as they may be, are gross exaggerations of what occasionally happens in the yoga community – despite the unwritten code of conduct against it. Yes: yoga teachers have sexual, consensual relationships with their students.
Yoga Teacher-Student Relationship: The Context
There is certainly confusion around the topic: “I can understand students and teachers getting muddled up around sex and relationships. I haven’t met a person yet who is completely clear around this topic,” said one prominent London yoga teacher.
The confusion is the result of an absence of clear, standardised ethical guidelines when it comes to the relationship. The British Wheel of Yoga (the closest thing this country has to a governing body) writes teachers should have an ‘appropriate working relationship’ with their student – but does not outrightly bar physical involvement. In fact, most yoga studios I know don’t mention it at all in their code of conduct.
Yoga Teacher-Student Relationship: Why it Happens
It’s easy to understand why it happens in the first place. People with a shared interests are drawn to one another – yoga can be all-consuming and dedicated practitioners apply the philosophies of yoga to all aspects of their life. From what they eat and how they sleep, to how they speak and where they socialize, it’s a way of life.
The Yoga Teacher-Student Relationship: The Physical Pull
And while the metaphysical pull is strong, the earthy, physical aspect of yoga also bonds.
“Scantily clad bodies bending and sweating and touching. It’s very sensual. Of course people are going to fall in love,” said one New York City-based, long-time yoga practitioner. “It’s hard to judge that, and then decide what’s right and what’s wrong.”
A yoga class is unique in that the teacher, in a position of authority as they tell the students how to breath and how to move, touches students’ bodies and gets into their personal space without seeking explicit permission to do so. The student, in turn, submits to the teacher as they connect to their body and feel good in a safe space. It can be a situation ripe for attraction to ignite.
Yoga Teacher-Student Relationship: The Pro Argument
“If people feel genuinely attracted to each other and enter a relationship based on mutual respect, I see nothing wrong with it,’ said one student who married her teacher 13 years ago. She remembers the two of them acknowledging the attraction and the mutual desire to take the relationship further. Ground rules were set and they were honest about the relationship with other students in the class.
Photo Above by Bill Tipper – Photo Credit
“I made her work harder than anyone else,” the husband teacher said. “Sometimes she resented this but at least everyone else knew she wasn’t getting an easy ride because she was my missus.”
Yoga Teacher-Student Relationship: Boundaries
A director of a London yoga studio agreed with this approach, saying teachers must conduct themselves with utmost integrity if they choose to date a student.
“Obviously you as a teacher cannot use your classes as a place to meet people, like picking someone up at a bar,” he said. “The power you hold as a teacher should not be the source of a relationship. It’s merely the connection.”
Of course yoga teachers are human and don’t always live up to the expectations that are projected upon them by students. Otherwise, why are students always so disappointed to find out their favourite yoga teacher eats meat and drinks red wine? Their intentions are not always honourable – a few have been known to act on their carnal desires without regard to the morality of the situation.
One London student remembers her Vinyasa Flow teacher at a big London studio asking her out just a couple months after she had split from her husband. “I had a young baby, and was in a really screwed up place. My teacher asked me out, and I was flattered. He was the divine and the forbidden fruit all rolled into one. I knew he wasn’t supposed to hit on me, but I went on the date anyway.”
Yoga Teacher-Student Relationship: The Flipside
Older and wiser today, she feels sorry for her younger self and a little bit angry that the teacher used his position of authority and safeguard of trust to exploit her, taking advantage of the obvious vulnerabilities of a postnatal broken heart.
Teachers who sleep with their students get a bad reputation, and reputation is of very high value as a yoga teacher. “If you abuse the trust of someone sexually while they are vulnerable, you don’t deserve to call yourself a yoga teacher. It happens a lot. Mostly when male yoga teachers are young and the power they have goes to their head,” said a London-based senior teacher.
“The bottom line is that the student places themselves in a teacher’s hands to be in a safe place with all their securities and vulnerabilities exposed. Manipulating anyone in a position of vulnerability is by definition, abuse,” said one student who said if he were a teacher and found himself attracted to a student, he would break the teacher-student bond immediately. “It would be a true test of whether I really loved that person, or just wanted to get into their knickers.”
Yoga Teacher-Student Relationship: All About Space
Those who teach in a tradition where physical adjustments are the norm (Ashtanga, Vinyasa Flow) are particularly vulnerable when it comes to the thorny issue of physical attraction. Can they trust that their touch won’t betray their desire?
“I give them more space,” said one senior male UK teacher who takes a pragmatic approach when he finds himself attracted to a student.
The London-based teacher said he is very careful to give all his students equal attention, regardless of their beauty or the tiny shorts they are wearing. “I see attraction but I’m not attracted. Having fantasies about your students or your teacher really changes the way you relate to them. It hampers the learning in both directions.”
Yoga Teacher-Student Relationship: The Verdict
It’s hard for a teacher to control whatever fantasies a student with a yoga crush might develop, especially when it comes to adjustments however wholesome the intention might be.
“It’s a dilemma,” said the studio director. “You have to be conscious as a teacher at all times, but then you might find yourself being led by fear and what people think. But then you’re not staying true, are you?”
Photo Above by Bill Tipper – Photo Credit
What about the other students in class? Do they have any say in the matter? It can change the dynamic of a class, course or retreat when it becomes clear that a teacher is conducting an affair with a student. Tensions flair, and the situation can become awkward and embarrassing for everyone involved.
There is a notion that yoga teachers must embody the spirit of the practice, and hold themselves to a higher standard, abiding by the “commandments” of yoga philosophy, otherwise known as the yamas and the niyamas. One of these is Bramachayra, which when interpreted traditionally demands celibacy when a person is in the student phase of their life, and constancy when they are in the family phase.
In a more modern sense, it means the ability to manage life force. Do you, as a teacher, have absolute integrity? Are you driven by your senses, or are you aware of them without being ruled by them?
Is your primary concern the awakening and well being of your students? If so, then trust your intuition to tell you what is and what is not appropriate. “If not, it will probably get messy,” said one teacher.
Header image and thumbnail also by Bill Tipper. For more photos by Bill Tipper, see here.