Where Should Boundaries Lie Between Yoga Teachers And Students?

A string of abuse scandals has people questioning a lack of regulations in the yoga industry.

This past May, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Edward Moreton issued an arrest warrant for yoga guru Bikram Choudhury, setting bail at $8 million. The move came after a win earlier this year for Choudhury’s former legal advisor, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who had sued Choudhury for unlawfully terminating her when she refused to help him cover up a rape allegation. She was awarded $6.8 million, plus Choudhury’s 700 franchised Bikram Yoga studio agreements, his trademark royalty and licensing payments, and much, much more.

Then Choudhury vanished.

It was just the latest incident in a long string of sexual scandals that has plagued the yoga world for years. In 2012, John Friend — the yogi behind Anusara yoga — was accused of leading a Wiccan Coven and having affairs with married students and Anusara teachers. In 1994, Amrit Desai, the founder of Kripalu, confessed to three affairs, and was forced to resign as spiritual director of his own ashram. Earlier still, Swami Rama was charged with sexually abusing a woman at his ashram; Swami Satchidananda was accused of molestation by a number of his followers; and Swami Muktananda was charged with serial philandering. And the list goes on.

In 2016, as a reaction to the string of abuse scandals (sexual and otherwise) in the yoga community, Laurie Endris, a yoga teacher and studio owner, released a change.org petition calling for standardized abuse training and education as part of future yoga teacher training programs. She addressed her petition to the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit association that maintains a registry intended to encourage teachers and studios to uphold certain standards in their teaching.

But is education enough?

When I first saw the petition from 2016, I thought it was a fantastic idea. I myself had earned my 200-hour yoga teaching certification in 2013 from a studio that had been registered through the Yoga Alliance, and though we spent a lot of time learning how to physically adjust students, I don’t remember learning a lot about appropriate boundaries.

But this latest outcry also made me think about dual relationship regulations within the fields of mental health and social work. Could something similar work in the yoga world? Was it, in fact, necessary in a practice that was so grounded in the body, and that included so much touch?

Dual relationships (also known as “multiple relationships”) refer to a situation in which multiple roles exist between a therapist and a client. For example, when a client is also a friend or family member, it is considered a dual relationship. In fact, if a therapist regularly comes across a client in any setting outside of the therapist’s office — a softball league, a country club, a school setting, trivia night at the bar — it’s considered a dual relationship and, in most cases, is officially frowned upon.

I don’t remember learning a lot about appropriate boundaries.

In the yoga world, the boundary between teacher and student has never been so cut and dry. “We have a history of a guru/disciple relationship,” says Andrew Tanner, Chief Yoga Advancement Officer of Yoga Alliance, “which involves a lot of surrender of the ego, and obedience to the teacher.” And while the majority of yoga teachers now certainly don’t consider themselves gurus, there’s still a definite power dynamic at play.

On top of this, yoga as we now know it is a community-based practice and, as a result, many of the relationships in that world are porous. “Boundaries shift, and appropriately so,” says Hala Khouri, a yoga teacher and one of the creators of Off the Mat, Into the World. She speaks of how students become teacher trainees, and of how teachers shift from teachers to mentors and, later on, to colleagues and friends. “There’s room in yoga for these relationships to evolve,” she says.

“That’s where it begins to get fuzzy,” says Michael Plaut, a licensed psychologist who has devoted much of his career to educating clinicians and other professionals on the subject of professional-client boundaries. “It’s a permission-giving thing. Like the issue of being on a first-name basis with your students versus using your surname. Those kinds of things create more fuzziness, and it means the profession has to work a little harder at deciding when that type of closeness becomes counterproductive.”

Plaut points out that it would likely be seen as less problematic if a dentist and their patient were to play golf together. “But you wouldn’t do that with your psychiatrist. A lot of that has to do with the level of risk that there might be harm to the client.”

Which brings us back to that inherent power dynamic between teacher and student. “For a lot of people, their yoga teacher becomes their therapist,” says Khouri. “Yoga is beyond just a physical exercise. People are working out a lot of vulnerable material in class. And I think students who are vulnerable through their own traumas can end up more vulnerable to a teacher who’s unclear about boundaries.”

Especially considering how difficult it can be to determine boundaries, it’s clear that regulations are needed. But it’s tough to determine what they should be, and how they should be enforced.

Tanner says that he and others within the Yoga Alliance have been asking themselves that question ever since they read the change.org petition, and he acknowledges that sexual misconduct has been an ongoing issue. “While that petition didn’t have immediate results,” says Tanner, “it was one of many catalysts for an upcoming review and, potentially, overhaul of our standards. My role is going to be to get a clear scope of practice, a code of ethics, and policies for enforcing them.”

Sexual misconduct has been an ongoing issue.

During this process, Tanner says he intends to bring into the discussion leaders not only from the yoga world, but also from other fields, such as the mindfulness community, the Buddhist community, the medical community, and other therapeutic communities. “It’s a priority for us,” says Tanner, “and it’s a clear priority. The reality is that while our standards have undergone some revisions over the last decade, there has not been a top to bottom review on the scale we are now envisioning since the founding of Yoga Alliance. And a lot has happened since 1999.”

When I speak to Plaut about how those within the field of mental health draw those lines, he speaks first of the hard line that, of necessity, must exist, even when the relationship is not therapist/client but, rather, teacher/student, referencing an article he wrote on faculty-student boundaries. In this paper, he wrote that any professional entering into a trusted relationship with a client to whom they’re providing a service, or over whom they have a responsibility, should not see that client as a potential intimate partner. Full stop.

But even Plaut acknowledges that these things happen. That friendships and romances have blossomed. That marriages and families have grown out of what was previously a strictly professional relationship. This despite the fact that such relationships often violate ethical standards or licensing law and, if reported, could have serious consequences, such as loss of license or suspension.

Because of this, he advises that those in this position ask themselves a series of questions in order to determine whether or not they’re crossing an ethical line. Among them: Am I serving my own needs at the possible expense of the student’s welfare? Am I serving the student’s expectations at my own expense? Am I compromising my ability to evaluate the student in an objective manner? Am I serving as a healthy role model for the student?

“When you have a close relationship, whether touch-based or emotional,” says Plaut, “these risks become greater. And of course, how you touch and where you touch also makes a difference. And if you do touch, how well do you communicate with your student about where that’s going to be and why?”

Even if you can pinpoint where that line should be drawn, you come back to the question of who would enforce such regulations around the teacher/student relationship, and how. Because, while the Yoga Alliance certainly looms large in the yoga world, it doesn’t have that level of authority.

In fact, there is no one overarching regulatory body in the yoga world. It has always been, and continues to be, a self-regulated field, without professional-level licensing. In fact, teachers technically don’t even have to go through a teacher training program in order to put out their shingle.

The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) provides a pretty good model for how things could be. In addition to a clear code of ethics that lays out expectations for teachers, the IAYT is also explicit about what might lead to disciplinary action, and what the procedures are once a complaint has been made against you. This process includes an investigation of the matter by the IAYT and a review by the Association’s Ethics and Disciplinary Review Panel. Possible penalties include suspension or revocation of one’s yoga therapy certification, and probation pending the completion of remedial education, service, monitoring, counseling, or other appropriate measure.

“You’ve got to have something valuable that can be lost,” says John Kepner, IAYT’s executive director. “The IAYT certification is very valuable. You have to be certified in order to run an IAYT-accredited yoga therapist training program.” On top of that, all IAYT-certified yoga therapists must agree to the code of ethics before they’re certified, and must pass an exam before re-certification — a method for preventing abuse before it happens, according to Kepner.

Other associations, too, have tried to fill the void left by a lack of sweeping industry regulation. In 1973, Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., PT, a yoga teacher since 1971 and the author of nine books, had a hand in forming the California Yoga Teachers Association. The organization wrote a code of conduct in response to behaviors in the yoga world that it found shocking and inappropriate — including not only sexual misconduct, but teachers who caused permanent physical damage to students and supplied them with drugs. This code made the boundaries between teacher and student crystal clear.

As for sexual impropriety, Lasater trains teachers to never touch their students without first asking permission. “I talk to my teacher trainees about what to touch and what not to touch,” she says. “And when to touch. I think we are too careless with touch.”

Due to a lack of regulations and shifting conceptions of the teacher-student relationship, we’re ultimately left with the question of what can conceivably be done. For his part, Kepner is optimistic that groups like the Yoga Alliance will rise to the need that exists for more extensive education and stricter regulation. And with the Yoga Alliance’s impending review process, he might be right. “The field of yoga is growing,” says Kepner, “and this growth brings with it responsibilities. The yoga world just has to step up to it.”

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