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“Hungry ghosts represent the parts of us that can never be satisfied,” I heard the meditation instructor say from my back-row seat in the packed contemplative center. I’d just returned to the United States after teaching English for a year in Japan. I had no job and was suffering the fallout from things ending badly with my first love while I was abroad. In my vulnerable state, I felt pulled toward a path that had long interested me: Buddhism.
“Keep coming to class,” the teacher told me as I left that night.
When he emailed three weeks later asking if I’d like to meet for coffee, I was taken aback. I looked him up online. His social media status had recently changed from “in a relationship” to “single.” I was curious. Within a few days, I was meeting him for coffee, which turned into dinner. He was handsome and charismatic. I was attracted to him, yet confused. He was my teacher. When he leaned in to kiss me, I stopped him.
“It’s taken me forever to find a meditation group I like,” I said. “I don’t want to mess it up.” Before I’d left for Japan, I’d looked for a sangha, or community. The one this man led, filled with young creative types, was the first in which I felt at home.
But he persisted, and I said yes, and we quickly fell into a relationship. It was exciting to share love, community, and a spiritual practice. After four months together, he met me on a street corner with a bright flower. “I want you to move in with me,” he said.
He could sense my hesitation.
“I’m so sure it will work out,” he nudged. “And if it doesn’t, I’ll give you the apartment. You’re safe.”
But I wasn’t. Less than a year after moving in with him, he grew distant. I began having panic attacks. I was devastated, but not surprised, when he told me, “We need to move out.” Of course, by “we” he meant me.
Over the following weeks, I discovered I was one of several students he had pursued. I felt eviscerated. Part of the sadness was loss of love; a lot of it was loss of trust. I hadn’t even packed my possessions before he started seeing a woman he’d met in another one of his meditation classes. When I confronted him about the danger of dating students, he told me that if I showed up to the meditation group, he’d “shut it down.” I believed him. He was in the position to ostracize me, so I stayed away.
For a few years, my sense of safety in both relationships and in the spiritual community—at least the Buddhist one—were ruined. I tried attending other classes but was struck each time with immovable anxiety. I roamed around feeling stuck in a personal bardo, the Buddhist term for a space between one life and the next. To make matters worse, I felt ashamed that I couldn’t just “get over it,” and I was frustrated that the very activity I’d normally turn to for healing—meditation—was now associated with pain.
In the past several years, the yoga world has been rocked by ethically questionable behavior among powerful leaders. It’s certainly not unheard of for a teacher and student to fall in love after connecting in class—and some of those stories have happy endings. But whenever yoga or meditation teachers and their students become romantically involved, the power imbalance combined with the vulnerability associated with spiritual practice can make for a complicated and potentially dangerous relationship—especially for the student, says Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, veteran yoga teacher and author of Restore and Rebalance: Yoga for Deep Relaxation.
“A breakup can mean losing not only a helpful asana or meditation class, but also an emotional refuge,” she says. “Practices that were once healing and even life-saving for students can become tainted with pain.”
Still, spiritual communities are human ones, and attraction between teachers and students is inevitable. Given that, is it ever OK to act on such an attraction? And if so, how can people in yoga communities—especially those in leadership roles—address teacher-student relationships in a way that fosters awareness and protects those involved?
The Chemistry of Love and Enlightenment
Codes of conduct around teacher-student and manager-subordinate relationships are explicitly spelled out in most university and industry settings, and often written into employment contracts. By and large, romantic relationships are forbidden, and violating this rule can have serious consequences. In fewer cases, such relationships are strongly discouraged and held to strict standards regarding disclosure. For example, the American Counseling Association prohibits therapists from having intimate relationships with clients, their romantic partners, or their family members for a period of five years following professional contact—and even then the relationship must be reported to the Association.
Yoga and meditation practices have therapeutic and educational characteristics, yet the teacher-student dynamic is even more fraught because of their spiritual nature, says Vatsal Thakkar, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University’s School of Medicine. By definition, spirituality involves contemplating and communing with the human spirit or soul—as opposed to material or physical things, which are much more tangible and verifiable—and thus requires a certain openness, trust, and dropping of defenses. Plus, many students enter these spaces already vulnerable, confronting physical, emotional, or mental wounds. As a student receives solace from the practices shared by her teacher, a false sense of intimacy may crop up and result in what experts call “misattribution of arousal,” according to Thakkar.
“In high-emotion settings that elicit strong physical responses, like a yoga or meditation class, the sensations of relaxation and bliss can be wrongly attributed to a specific person,” Thakkar explains. “Likewise, change of breath or increased serotonin from exercise, like an asana practice, can mimic the responses of romantic arousal. In fact, the neurotransmitters associated with spirituality—dopamine and serotonin—are also associated with feelings of love and lust. As a result, it is biologically challenging to sort out where your feelings are coming from when you fall for someone in one of these settings.”
This explanation resonates with me. When I look back, I realize how easy it was to associate deep meaning and connection with my ex because I met him when he was leading meditation classes and giving powerful dharma talks. It was hard to tease out my attraction to him from the one I felt for the spiritual path. Once we became involved, our relationship seemed extra purposeful and intimate because we had met under the umbrella of spirituality. And when he broke up with me, it felt like Buddhism itself had rejected me.
Unfortunately, the group where I met my ex had no code of ethics or grievance council to provide guidance or help prevent these sorts of schisms. Yet the ancient texts themselves outline foundational codes of ethics, including advice for sex. The yoga path is built on the guidelines of the yamas and niyamas—yoga’s ethical and moral codes—with brahmacharya yama often translated as wise sexual moderation. “Practicing yoga depends on keeping the ethical rules, or yamas, as a foundation, or else it really isn’t yoga at all,” says Sri Dharma Mittra, founder of Dharma Yoga Center in New York City. In Buddhism, the third precept is about avoiding sexual misconduct.
Yet these foundational principles are not always well-known to new students, nor fully explored or contextualized in yoga and meditation as they’re often taught and practiced today. “The number of yoga teachers who have completed a 200-hour training has exploded,” says Hala Khouri, creator of the teacher-student module in the YogaWorks 300-hour training, and co-founder of the nonprofit Off the Mat, Into the World. Indeed, for every existing yoga teacher, there are two more in training—a third of whom have been practicing for two years or less, according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study by Yoga Journal and the Yoga Alliance. With an influx of teachers newer to yogic traditions, there is a higher risk of abusing—intentionally or unintentionally—the authority role, says Khouri.
Some communities are taking steps to protect both students and teachers from damaging relationships by establishing ethical guidelines and a system of checks and balances. These help teachers sort out their feelings, caution students against idolizing their teachers, and provide details on how to report transgressions, especially in the case of outright abuse. For instance, the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States (IYNAUS) has ethical guidelines based on the yamas and niyamas that state teachers must “avoid intimate relationships with their students.” IYNAUS’s guidelines also ask teachers to step up when a student-teacher relationship has been “compromised” and help the student find another Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. Similar directives exist for Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center and Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, Theravada Buddhist communities, which both call for students to cease study with a teacher at least three months before becoming romantically involved.
“In our trainings, we bar teachers from dating students and encourage teachers to report feelings of attraction to senior community members or the teacher’s council,” says Dave Smith, meditation teacher and founder of Against the Stream’s Nashville outpost. This holds teachers accountable and gives them a place to process feelings (beyond the cushion or mat) before acting on them. “You cannot use the classroom as your dating pool,” says Smith.
To be sure, all members of a community can be affected when teachers and students carry out visibly inappropriate relationships, says Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx and founder of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. “Just witnessing a crossing of these boundaries can make you feel unsafe and confused. You might wonder, who’s next?” Levine says. As one meditation student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told me, “I didn’t get involved with my teacher, but I knew she dated her students—and that made me uneasy. The studio was supposed to be a sacred space. But I never said anything.”
It may seem logical to some that a yoga or meditation studio is a prime place for meeting a partner who is of like mind and spirit. Many insist that consciously entering into a relationship can work. “My husband was one of the senior teachers when I was training to become a yoga teacher myself,” says Sara Schwartz, a yoga instructor in Los Angeles. During her training, the studio reviewed a “do not date your students” policy, but the two felt there was an undeniable connection. So, they talked about the possibility of a relationship. “We waited until training was over to get involved, and my husband spoke with the studio manager for advice before asking me out. Yoga brought us together,” says Schwartz.
Minneapolis studio owner and veteran yoga teacher David Frenk met his partner, Megan, when she was his mentee in an apprenticeship program nearly a decade ago. Yet even though there was an initial spark, they waited six months to go out on their first date. “That six-month gap between our relationship as mentor and mentee and our romantic partnership felt important,” says Frenk. “Now, we have a family and co-own several studios. We teach our trainees that it’s not OK to casually date students. But if you meet someone and feel there’s potential for a real relationship, that’s different. People would prefer to think of the relationship between student and teacher as fixed, or absolute, but it flows on a continuum.”
So you’re in love. Now what?
Even though my intuition had warned me that dating my meditation teacher was a bad idea, I fell for him—and felt compelled to see it through. I didn’t recognize the ways in which I was naive, conflating my attraction to him with the teachings themselves. In hindsight, it’s clear that I didn’t know how to be my own advocate. I didn’t realize that he could have—and should have—addressed the power imbalance in our relationship.
While I no longer regret the journey our relationship sent me on, I do wish I’d had more information and advice on this topic back then. If you find yourself attracted to someone taking or leading your class, it’s important to consider the situation in ways that offer respect and protection for everyone involved—both inside the relationship and the yoga community in general. Here’s how.
If I could talk to my younger self as she was falling for her meditation teacher, I’d tell her to immediately find another meditation group. Lasater says that would’ve been a good move. “When there are feelings between teacher and student, it’s best the student move on to another class and keep clear boundaries,” she says. This enables you to maintain your own sacred space for spiritual work apart from a partner, even if the relationship lasts, she says. If the relationship doesn’t work out, you won’t lose a core group of friends and your place of practice. In fact, you’ll have access to healing support.
If finding another studio or space in which to practice isn’t an option, most agree that ending the teacher-student dynamic is important.
“The responsibility is on the teacher to make this clear, since the teacher is the one in power,” says Smith. This requires a potentially awkward, but essential, conversation.
“I met my husband nine years ago in a yoga class that I was teaching,” says yoga teacher Claudia Fucigna, who is based in Los Angeles. “I spent all my time in the yoga studio; it would have been hard to meet anyone another way. What allowed our relationship to develop in a healthy way was a mutual agreement that he wouldn’t practice in my class if we became a couple. He found another teacher; I found the love of my life.”
Create a code of ethics—and enforcements.
In an effort to deter abuse (and, frankly, lawsuits), studio owners and facilitators of teacher trainings can design and implement their own code of ethics, suggests Mike Patton, cofounder of Yoga Vida in New York. “We not only added a code of conduct to our teacher-training manual, but we require all of our teachers and teachers-in-training to sign a contract that bans teacher-student romantic and sexual relationships.”
Lasater stresses, however, that codes alone aren’t enough. She believes they should be connected to consequences, such as suspension, to prevent transgressions. Students also need a place to report abuses, and teachers need a place to receive support if they repeatedly find themselves attracted to students, she says.
As we continue to modernize yoga, the foundations of this ancient practice (such as the yamas and niyamas) seem increasingly important, says Sri Dharma Mittra. It can also be helpful to consider other philosophical concepts, such as viveka (discernment), when love and spirituality meet.
Talk about it.
As a yoga community, there’s an opportunity to take part in candid conversations about the ethics and power dynamics of student-teacher relationships. Teacher trainings can include discussing what to do when those relationships turn romantic, for instance. Students and teachers alike can also talk about the intersection of practice and love. “The worst happens when there’s secrecy and silence,” says Smith.
See also The Art of Verbal Communication
I believe the act of speaking is essential. In my case, I didn’t fully think about teacher-student romantic relationships until I was already in one, and situations like mine weren’t openly discussed. Once my romantic relationship with my meditation teacher ended, I disappeared from that community—and stayed silent. Yet I was haunted with questions.
In finally speaking with others, I’m stunned by how many have gone through similar (or much worse) experiences and suffered pain in
lineages otherwise meant to end or ease suffering. Many of us have lived alone with questions, without the support of community.
For me, the sheer act of discourse has allowed me to feel less isolated and more comfortable venturing into a Buddhism class again, and to teach yoga and lead trainings with clearer ethics myself. As Khouri puts it, “No matter what your opinion on this conversation, it’s important you have one,” she says. “We can’t address what we don’t name.”