{The following piece by Hala Khouri is an excerpt from the AHEM teacher training manual.}

Boundaries. What does this word mean to you? Take a moment and think about what associations you have with it. What images come up for you (a brick wall, a fence, an energy field, a permeable membrane)? What have you been taught about setting boundaries? For some of us, we wait until a situation has gone beyond our comfort zone to set a boundary because we are trying to please and be nice. For others, boundaries are rigid and serve as an attempt to feel safe and in control. We are constantly negotiating our boundaries with other people, opening them up to create more connection and firming them up when that is more appropriate.

Our understanding of our boundaries factors into many of our decision-making processes.   In this article I want to address questions around the teacher- student relationship and when it is appropriate or necessary to firm a boundary or loosen a boundary. Specifically, when is it appropriate to become friends with your students outside the classroom, or become romantically involved?

Context is Key
Our boundaries can be physical, psychological, emotional, financial or energetic. They change depending on context. For instance, it may feel good when your lover holds your hand and gazes into your eyes, but if the cashier at the grocery store does that while handing you back your change, that’s a different story.     If you go to the dentist, and he asks you to remove your shirt so he can massage your shoulders, you’d probably walk out in a huff. But if you are getting a massage or acupuncture treatment, that request is perfectly normal coming from someone you’ve just met.

In general we don’t allow strangers to make prolonged physical contact with us in public. I had a male chemistry teacher in high school who would come over and touch the girls’ shoulders during exams; we all thought he was creepy, and eventually he got reprimanded and almost fired.   In a yoga class, however, it is considered perfectly OK to be touched by a total stranger, as long as that person is the yoga teacher and not the guy next to you in the back row. Think about it: in what other setting can someone grab your hips to lengthen your spine or spiral your inner thighs in the right direction? None. Yoga teachers are in an incredibly unique position within a unique context. We can waltz into someone’s very personal and intimate space and engage with them verbally and physically without getting their explicit consent.

During a yoga class, people are connecting to their bodies and feeling good in a safe space. A fellow yoga teacher once pointed out to me that most people may not even feel this way during sex with their partner! The experience our students are having in our class is a powerful one. Our role in this is not to be taken lightly.

Boundaries and Power
During a yoga class, the teacher holds the more powerful position in relationship to the students. Period. We can walk over to them and touch their bodies, we get to speak for 90 minutes and not have anyone interrupt us to disagree or question us, we say, “lift your leg,” and they do it; we are even telling people when to inhale and exhale! So when Mary asks you to have lunch after class, it is very different than Lisa, whom you met at the grocery store, asks you to do the same thing. I am not suggesting that you as the teacher should say “no” to Mary and “yes” to Lisa; I am simply asking you to be cognizant of the context and the power dynamic when making your decision and recognize that the situations differ substantially.

Consider these scenarios:

1- A student of the opposite sex has been taking your class on and off for several years. This person feels that you have impacted his/her life deeply and has expressed gratitude to you in the past for being such a great influence. One day, s/he asks you to go to dinner. You sense their motivation is a romantic one; you have always felt a bit attracted to him/her.

2- A student of the opposite sex shows up to your class for the first time. Instantly you feel a mutual attraction. After class you speak for a few moments and find that both of you have a passion for modern art and have been eagerly waiting to see an exhibit that debuts the following week. The student asks you to join him/her on opening night.

Did the first scenario have more “red flags” than the second? Probably. In the first scene a clear power dynamic has been established, so more care has to be exercised than in the second scenario. Yet things are not always black and white. What if the person in the first scenario was your roommate’s best friend who you also had seen socially often outside of the classroom? What if that person stopped taking your class for a year and asked you out when you bumped into each other at the coffee shop? What if the intention was not romantic?

Ethical Considerations
In the field of psychotherapy, there are very strict rules about befriending clients or getting romantically involved with them. A therapist can befriend a client one full year after termination of therapy with them; a therapist can become romantically involved with a former client two full years after terminating the therapeutic relationship.

Currently there are no clear ethical standards set for yoga teachers. Standards may differ from one individual situation to the next. Male teachers, for example, are generally faced with different challenges than female teachers. This is partly due to the fact that the majority of participants in a public class are female and to the nature of male-female dynamics*.

In the yoga teacher support group that I facilitate, I found that when we discussed intimate and sexual boundaries, the male teachers were focused on being respectful and mindful when they found female students attractive; they were very careful about how they gave adjustments and with what intention they brought. The female teachers, on the other hand, weren’t overly concerned with “inappropriate” or sexual energy towards their students, even their male students. As women, they felt more free to adjust and make contact without sexualizing or intimidating students of either sex.

Regardless of the gender of the teacher, it is important to maintain a boundary of professionalism and respect that honors that individuals come to yoga to heal and receive guidance in a safe and non-invasive way. As much as possible the yoga room should remain a neutral space; not one where the teacher is engaging students beyond his or her role.

Although neutrality is one standard to hold; I know of yoga teachers who successfully befriend their students and socialize with them outside the classroom. Sometime this can be very healing for both the student and the teacher.

Krishnamacharya says that the best kind of teacher is actually a good friend. My suggestion is that the teacher stay clear about what the dynamic is like and is consistently assessing for any unhealthy power dynamics. If there is an even (peer to peer) dynamic, healthy friendships between teachers and students are possible.

Dan (fictional name) went out to dinner after class one night with John, a student of his. He reported that they had a nice time; the following week John asked if they could have dinner again, but Dan had a private client after class and couldn’t. Unbeknownst to Dan, John waited at the studio for 90 minutes until Dan was finished hoping to get together. The following week John waiting for an hour after class for Dan to finish some administrative tasks at the studio even though Dan had clearly asked him not to. Dan began to feel uncomfortable with John’s behavior and eventually had tell him that he didn’t think it was a good idea for them to be friends outside of class.

Before Dan loosened the boundary and had dinner with John, the bounds of the relationship were very clear. Once class was over, their relationship ended until the next class. Once they had dinner, it opened the door for confusion and misunderstanding, and John’s expectations of Dan changed.

Do You See a Pattern?
One way to assess if there are holes in your ability to create appropriate boundaries is to notice any repeating patterns in your interactions. If you constantly have students proclaim their love to you (or you to them), or if you notice that all of your friends are students of yours who idealize you, then there may be some unconscious (or conscious) motivation that you bring to your teaching. Repeating patterns can point to unresolved issues that need to be addressed. Being a yoga teacher means doing serious self-inquiry; if not, we allow our unconscious needs to fuel our process.

The main purpose of a teacher is to be of service to our students. If our behavior is only self-serving, we are not in integrity. In general, we are not teaching yoga in order to find new friends or a romantic partner. If those things happen as a side effect, that is OK- yoga teachers are people too, and we will often find ourselves drawn to other yoga practitioners.

What to Do?
There is no clear cut answer to when it is appropriate to befriend or date a student. The best thing we can do when assessing situations that ask us to change our boundary (whether it be firm it up, open it up or keep it the same) is to be as ruthlessly self-honest as we can. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to make the best assessment possible:

  • What do I think this person’s motivation is?
  • What is my motivation?
  • What is the part of me that wants to change this boundary?
  • What is in the best interest of my student?

Sometimes befriending someone because they are in need and we want to help them ends up being counterproductive. Clear boundaries help people feel safe and contained. I always tell my therapy clients that part of what makes the therapeutic relationship a safe one is that they know the limits of our relationships. They don’t leave a session and wonder if I will call them or ask them out. They don’t have to deal with anything other than our agreed upon meeting time and cost for the session. The simplicity of that agreement gives them the space to do some deep work without the dynamics of a “regular” relationship where expectations are constantly being negotiated.

One of the best things we can do for our students is be clear about out boundaries!

*For simplicity I am speaking from a heterosexual orientation; but similar dynamics will occur with homosexual teachers and students, another level of sensitivity that needs to be cultivated!