Once, years ago, I developed a crush on my yoga teacher. I even went so far as to write her a note saying so. At the time, it seemed simple enough: She was beautiful, sweet, and extremely supportive. She was also, as it turned out, a lesbian. Of course, I was disappointed—not to mention surprised—when my fantasy collided with the unwelcome reality. But importantly, my teacher’s response protected the boundaries of our relationship. She was still the teacher, and I was still the student.
Now, having finished my doctorate in psychology and become a yoga teacher myself, I realize that a solid relationship between students and teachers is an essential part of the practice of yoga. Truth is, the teacher-student relationship in yoga is not unlike the analyst-patient relationship in psychoanalysis. As yoga students, we enlist the aid of specialists, rely on their observations to deepen our sense of self, and hope they’ll be sensitive with their comments and wise with their timing—all the things we hope for in a therapist, too. And yet, while all therapists are taught to acknowledge the importance of the relationship and to respect the emotional vulnerabilities of the patient, most yoga teachers have to figure it out on their own.
On a more serious level, teachers might get romantically involved or have sex with their students. This, too, is easy to envision. Because they teach in a culture that objectifies the body and assist students who often practice in revealing clothes, it’s not surprising that instructors may be tempted. Without acknowledging that such feelings might surface, and without developing effective strategies to process them if they do, teachers run the risk of being overwhelmed—at great cost to the student, the class, and themselves. In addition, it’s common for students, especially those in search of love and acceptance, to idealize a teacher. And it can be tempting for a teacher to embrace a student’s adoration. But this can be devastating to students and can short-circuit their chance to learn to tolerate powerful feelings.
Once teachers cross the line, students may stop feeling safe in class. They may wonder if the teacher is adjusting their alignment or checking out their bodies. When teachers fail to control their impulses, they may lose the respect of their students.
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