When pow­er­ful teach­ings, charis­matic in­struc­tors, and re­cep­tive stu­dents come to­gether in a spir­i­tual com­mu­nity, in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships have the po­ten­tial to bloom. Yet is it ever OK for a stu­dent-teacher re­la­tion­ship to turn ro­man­tic? Yoga Jour­nal inves

Yoga Journal - - Live Well - Story by Sarah Her­ring­ton Il­lus­tra­tions by C.J. Bur­ton


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 life­sav­ing 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 teach­er­stu­dent 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

“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.”

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 well­known 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

With an in­flux of teach­ers newer to yogic tra­di­tions, there is a higher risk of abus­ing the au­thor­ity role.

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 six­month 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.

Set bound­aries. 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

There’s op­por­tu­nity for the yoga com­mu­nity to have more can­did con­ver­sa­tions about the in­ter­sec­tion of prac­tice and love.

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 teach­er­stu­dent 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.

Get philo­soph­i­cal.

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 stu­dent­teacher 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.

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.”

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