The idea of boundaries conjures an array of images for all of us based on the circumstances of our individual upbringing and life experiences. When it comes to boundaries in our everyday relationships, some of us wait until a situation has escalated beyond our comfort zones before we set one because we are trying to please and be nice. For others, boundaries are always rigid and serve as a way to ensure feelings of safety and control. We are constantly negotiating our boundaries with other people, opening them up to create more connection and firming them up when we believe we need more distance and control over a situation.
Our understanding of personal boundaries factors into many of our decision-making processes. As yoga teachers involved in the instruction of an implicitly physical, often intimate and energetically charged practice, the dynamics of our relationships with students can be fraught with potential complications, making setting boundaries of paramount importance in cultivating a healthy, thriving student base. One of the most common yet complicated questions teachers must address is: When is it appropriate to become friends, or even more importantly, become romantically involved with students outside the studio?
Context is Key
Boundaries can be physical, psychological, emotional, financial or energetic. They change depending on context. For instance, it may feel good when a lover holds your hand and gazes into your eyes, but if the cashier at the grocery store does that while handing you back your change, that’s a different story. If you go to the dentist and he asks you to remove your shirt so he can massage your shoulders, you’d probably walk out in a huff. But if you are getting a massage or acupuncture treatment, that request is perfectly normal coming from someone you’ve just met.
In general we don’t allow strangers to have prolonged physical contact with us in public. I had a male chemistry teacher in high school who would come over and touch the girls’ shoulders during exams; we all thought he was creepy, and eventually he got reprimanded and almost fired. In a yoga class, however, it is considered perfectly OK to be touched by a total stranger, as long as that person is the yoga teacher and not the guy next to you. Think about it. In what other setting would you allow someone to grab your hips to lengthen your spine or spiral your inner thighs in the right direction? None. Yoga teachers are in an incredibly unique position within a unique context. We can waltz into someone’s very personal and intimate space and engage with them verbally and physically without getting their explicit consent.
During a yoga class, people are connecting to their bodies and feeling good in a safe space. A fellow yoga teacher once pointed out to me that most people might not even feel this way during sex with their partner! The experience students are having in our class is a powerful one. Our role in this is not to be taken lightly.
Male teachers, for example, are generally faced with different challenges than female teachers. This is partly due to the fact that the majority of participants in a public class are female and to the nature of male-female dynamics within our current society. Varying sexual orientations among students and teachers can lend further complexity to these dynamics.
Through my experiences facilitating a yoga teacher support group, I have found that when we discussed intimate and sexual boundaries, male teachers expressed concern about being respectful and mindful when they found female students attractive. They were very careful about how they gave adjustments and with what intention they performed them. The female teachers, on the other hand, weren’t overly concerned with “inappropriate” or sexual energy toward their students, even their male students.
As women, they felt more free to adjust and make contact without sexualizing or intimidating students of either sex. Regardless of the gender of the teacher, it is important to maintain a boundary of professionalism and respect that honors the fact that individuals come to yoga to heal and receive guidance in a safe and non-invasive environment. As much as possible, the yoga room should remain a neutral space, not one where the teacher is engaging students beyond his/her role or beyond what the students are showing up for.
Although neutrality is one standard to hold, there are many yoga teachers who successfully befriend their students and socialize with them outside the studio. Sometimes this can be very healing for both the student and the teacher. Krishnamacharya says the best kind of teacher is actually a good friend. However, it’s important that teachers remain clear about the nature of the relationship dynamic that exists with students and are consistently watching out for unhealthy power dynamics. If there is an even (peer-to-peer) dynamic, healthy friendships between teachers and students are possible.
Consider this scenario:
A teacher went out to dinner after class one night with a student. The teacher and student agreed that they had a nice time. The following week, the student asked if they could have dinner again, but the teacher had a private client after class and couldn’t. Unbeknownst to the teacher, the student waited at the studio for 90 minutes until the teacher was finished with the private student, hoping to get together. The following week, the student waited for an hour after class for the teacher to finish some administrative tasks at the studio, even though the teacher had clearly asked the student not to. The teacher began to feel uncomfortable with the student’s behavior and eventually had tell the student that it wasn’t a good idea for them to be friends outside of class.
Before the teacher loosened the boundary and had dinner with the student, the boundaries of the relationship were very clear. Once class was over, their relationship ended until the next class. Once they had dinner, it opened the door for confusion and misunderstanding, and the student’s expectations of the teacher changed.
Do You See a Pattern?
One way for teachers to assess whether there are holes in their ability to create appropriate boundaries is to notice any repeating patterns in their interactions. If you constantly have students proclaim their love to you (or you to them), or if you notice that all of your friends are students who idealize and idolize you, then there might be some unconscious (or conscious) dysfunctional motivation that you bring to your teaching. Repeating patterns can point to unresolved issues that need to be addressed.
Being a yoga teacher means engaging in serious self-inquiry. If not, we allow our unconscious needs to fuel our process. The main purpose of a teacher is to be of service to the students. If a teacher’s behavior is only self-serving, the teacher is not acting with integrity. In general, we are not teaching yoga to find new friends or a romantic partner. If those things happen to occur, it isn’t necessarily bad. Yoga teachers are people too, and we will often find ourselves drawn to other yoga practitioners. Again, it all boils down to acting appropriately, sensitively and ethically within the context of the given circumstances.What to Do?
Hala Khouri has a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in clinical psychology. She has been teaching movement and yoga for over 20 years. She teaches nationally and locally in Los Angeles, and has a private practice in Venice, Ca. - halakhouri.com