She'd been studying yoga with the same teacher in a Vancouver, Canada, studio for about three months when June van der Star's teacher approached her after class. "He took me aside and said he'd like to show me a yoga book. Then he asked me out to tea." In her post-Savasana haze, van der Star accepted the invitation, only to find herself entangled in an awkward conversation with a man she had respected, but whom she didn't feel comfortable dating.
"The studio was like my sacred place," says van der Star. "Afterward, I wondered how long he had been attracted to me and thought about all of those times in class when he was touching me, giving adjustments. I wondered whether he was able to separate his attraction from me being a student. And I wondered how many other students he'd made the same connection with."
It's hard to say how common van der Star's experience is, but we've all heard stories about gurus or big-name yoga teachers who are exposed for sleeping with students. Given the intimacy that can evolve in a yoga class, it is likely there are more than a few yogis wrestling with sexual temptation.
In the theoretical realm, the line between teachers and students seems pretty straightforward, and most yoga traditions are quite clear about prohibiting romantic or sexual relationships with students. But there's a wide range of ways in which yogis live out their ethics. If you haven't sworn yourself to uphold brahmacharya, a vow of celibacy, is it ever okay to connect on a more personal level with a student?
Remember the Yamas
Darren Main, an instructor of 15 years and author of Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic, says there's no situation in which sexual relationships are acceptable. "I don't think we should be having sex with our students. Any time. Ever," he insists.
Main's hard-and-fast rule is backed up by ethical guidelines at many yoga schools. The California Yoga Teacher's Association urges teachers in its Code of Professional Ethics to keep the student-teacher relationship clean, stating "all forms of sexual behavior or harassment with students are unethical, even when a student invites or consents to such behavior." The Yoga Alliance, which registers yoga teachers nationally, charges teachers with keeping a safe space and adhering to the yamas and niyamas, the rules of restraint and observance that comprise two of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga.
For Natalie Ullman, a teacher at New York City's Jivamukti Yoga Center, these and other ethical precepts in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra offer guidance when ethical challenges such as physical attractions come up. She says satya (truthfulness), ahimsa (nonharming), and other elements of yoga's foundational guidelines are powerful teachers.
Ullman points out that the relationship between teacher and student is a lot like that between therapist and client. "So," she says, "we have to be mindful of the dynamic of projection," such as when students superimpose feelings from other relationships in their lives—with a father or other authority figure, for example—onto their teachers, which can lead to imagined intimacy.
To help neutralize any fantasies that emerge, it's helpful to give equal treatment during class, and to dole out hands-on adjustments fairly and evenly. Be wary of any instinct to cater to students you find attractive, or even to focus too intently on friends who have dropped in to your classroom.
Difficult power dynamics can also leak into friendly student-teacher connections, although this is a far fuzzier area. If you decide to befriend a student, Main advises that you tread that path with awareness. "You need to be really mindful that these are two kinds of relationships."
Maintain a Support System
But what happens when a teacher's humanity conflicts with his ethical theories? One New York yoga teacher explains that as a young, straight male, teaching in majority female classrooms, he struggles with keeping boundaries. "Let's face it, [given] any female interest or warmth, most of the time men are going to think they're interested," says the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. "If you really don't have a good grounding, it could ruin somebody—because the attention's going to come, no matter what."
In fact, he admits to having dated two of his students. Once each of those relationships began, he says he suggested the student find a new yoga teacher so her connection with him might be less charged with the power dynamic inherent in student-teacher ties. Even so, he says he doesn't plan on dating a student again. "If you cross the line, it affects everyone. It was very toxic." His advice to other teachers: "Check your motivations. Become a bartender if you want to pick up girls. It pollutes the sangha [community], and it pollutes the studio."
That's why Main, who teaches in San Francisco, says it's so important to be consistent. "The teacher-student relationship is partly one-sided. We're holding space where they [students] can do the work they need to do." But he admits that challenges do come up, and he suggests teachers have a support system in place to help them deal with feelings that could mar the vibe in their classrooms. If Main feels an attraction to a student, he consults close friends in his sangha. So far, he says, they've helped him clarify that his impulses were just fleeting attractions that he shouldn't act on.
"Going into our vulnerability is what yoga is about," Main says. "You take somebody who's vulnerable to begin with, and you go and turn around and break that trust—they may never recover from that."
Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher based in San Francisco.