Yoga Culture

Yoga: Healthy Boundaries

By Charlotte Bell

The teacher-student relationship—again.

It seems to happen with alarming regularity that a spiritual teacher is exposed (no pun intended) for having misused his position to take advantage of students’ trust. Most recently, the yoga social media and blogging worlds are debating the inappropriate “adjustments” perpetrated by K. Patabhi Jois. Like B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Indra Devi, Jois was a direct student of T. Krishnamacharya, often considered to be the progenitor of modern yoga. The style of yoga he developed, Ashtanga, a fast-moving, athletic form of practice, is the inspiration for much of today’s popular, flow-based yoga.

For years, photos and videos of Jois’s intimate adjustments of women and forceful adjustments of all students have made the rounds in social media. But until a few of his senior students came forward recently with their own stories of years-long impropriety, the images didn’t seem to gain much traction.

I taught at a Southern California center where Jois taught a three-week workshop in the early 1990s. Students were all abuzz about the injuries they’d sustained due to his forceful adjustments. One woman told me everyone in the workshop had been injured, and that this was a good thing. She believed that the injuries were helping the students advance spiritually.

Why inappropriate behavior hurts yoga

The yoga community is divided as to the actual damage caused by inappropriate behavior on the part of a teacher. Should we look the other way and trust that all parties involved were consenting adults?

Fifteen years ago I learned that a well-known married teacher I’d worked with had been sleeping with young female students.  I had enjoyed his workshops and learned some valuable techniques from him, and I liked him as a person. The news made me feel sad.

Then the rationalizations began. I didn’t want to judge. After all, as a college student and party girl in the ’70s I’d not always behaved intelligently in matters of relationship. Who was I to judge?

Despite my rationalizations, the issue kept bothering me.

A question of power

The relationship between a person in a position of authority and the person over whom they have authority is not an even one. The power differential between teacher and student gives teachers greater influence and persuasive power over students, and can cause students to trust a teacher’s motives and actions implicitly whether or not such trust is deserved.

Inherent in practice is the idea that in order to find freedom, one must surrender to the practice and to the teachings—and sometimes, to the teacher. The student may feel—or be made to feel—that setting boundaries will hinder her growth. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the teacher to set healthy boundaries.

When an admired teacher’s impropriety is exposed, his students will often rally around him, and as is often done in the larger culture, they question the veracity of the victims. Women who have committed themselves to a particular teacher are hesitant to come forward for fear of being ostracized from a community they’ve come to rely on.

Fame does not have to distort our understanding of ourselves.  Many world-renowned teachers have remained humble in the face of fame—think Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. But when it does, an inflated sense of importance can make it easier to rationalize unskillful, even harmful, behavior.

Our responsibility to yoga

Teachers have a responsibility to yoga to represent the practice with the integrity it deserves. Famous teachers, who represent yoga to tens of thousands of students, and to many people outside the yoga world as well, have an even greater responsibility to represent the practice honorably.

When Anusara Yoga’s founder’s misbehavior was uncovered years ago, YogaDork—the blog that originally brought the allegations into the open—was roundly vilified by John Friend’s fans for “damaging yoga” through gossip and rumors. But it is not the reporting of teacher misbehavior that damages yoga’s reputation. It is teacher misbehavior itself that damages yoga’s image. If yoga’s quest is for truth, transparency is essential, no matter how unsettling.

Teachers have a responsibility to represent yoga as a whole, not just asana, the physical practice. Engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships with students or giving inappropriate adjustments violates brahmacharya (wise use of sexual energy) at the very least. Injurious adjustments violate ahimsa (non-harming). These principles are the foundation of yoga.

Each time an issue such as this comes to light is an opportunity for self-reflection in the yoga community. (Isn’t self-reflection what it’s all about, after all?) What tends to tempt us to act outside our integrity—money, sex, fame, or something else? How can we shift our perspective to make our students’ wellbeing more important than our desires? And how can we, as students, keep our starry-eyed admiration in check so that we don’t become enablers to misbehaving teachers?

I don’t have the answers. The key is to keep questioning, and to look squarely at the issue when it arises, because it most certainly will.

Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on May 31, 2018.