Ethical Imperatives and Sexually Responsible Behavior
Is it appropriate for Yoga teachers and students to engage romantically? If so, when? And how?
I am thirty years old, male, single, heterosexual, and have made a living teaching yoga for the last five years. I was invited to teach at an early age, my physical ability and “know-how” in the technicalities of asana forms seemed to make people think I was qualified. I touched students indiscriminately and used my position as the teacher to try and impress those I found attractive. There was no malicious intent, quite the opposite. I was just young, horny, and immature. As a man and a teacher.
I remember when it first dawned on me that I was being reckless and inappropriate. That not everyone is comfortable being touched in the same way that I might be. That practice space is sacred and not an appropriate venue in which to engage others in a sexual manner.
One of my first steady long-term students whom I saw once a week for over a year, had suffered sexual abuse as a child. I saw our practice together as an opportunity for her to receive genuine kindness from a man. I did a lot of what I thought of as “healing touch” during that time (with both male and female students). Then she moved, and our practice was discontinued for about a year. By the time she moved back to the city and called me wanting to start up again, a lot of growth had taken place in both of us.
When we reunited my practice and person had changed considerably. It had become clear that Yoga was more than asana technique or physical prowess. Practice was not about “poses” so much as the people who do them, and teach them. I had begun to recognize the importance of genuine interpersonal interaction between students and myself (crucial in fact). Having authentic intimate friendship became an integral part of me understanding Yoga and therefore being able to teach it.
So our first practice after the long break began with my newest technique of candid but comfortable conversation about how we were doing. It’s amazing how much people respond to open direct communication when they feel comfortable to do so. It was not long before it was revealed that one of the reasons our practice had been discontinued, other than the move, was that some of my “healing touch” had made her uncomfortable.
I was appalled. I had no idea that this was the case and a deep lesson was learned. For a period of time after that I stopped touching students altogether (if anything just light tactile directives, no hands-on). Practice was the only truly ancient and sacred thing I had discovered; it was the thing I cherished most. I could not bear the idea that I would put it into jeopardy.
Soon to follow a dilemma presented itself:
A combination of fear that my sexual desires would somehow sabotage my spiritual development along with a deep emotional investment in my own health, as well as the health of others, allowed me to develop some degree of “a-sexuality” in the practice space, which brought a whole new level of trust between me and the women in my classes. I found that when one is able to cultivate real respect and consideration for oneself and others, it becomes very difficult to view anyone as a sexual object.
It is important to note that cultivating real respect and consideration does not come in an instant, and for me a period of solitude and celibacy was necessary. This was not something I really chose to do, more the natural course determined by a will to maintain proper intention. In fact, at the time I was terribly lonely. However something in me knew that I was not able to maintain proper intention if I allowed my sexual desire to affect the practice I was teaching, so I imposed on myself a strict “no dating students” policy, which I maintained through a combination of fear and consistent whole-hearted practice. But I was teaching six days a week, three to four practices a day.
Where else would I meet someone?
“No dating students” policy + no other social interaction with fellow humans = solitude and celibacy. Simple.
I was not unhappy. My “house” was “in order” . The feeling that comes from this is profoundly comforting and sublimated any sexual pangs that would come from time to time. The more I was continually rooting myself in my best intentions, the less I seemed susceptible to uncontrolled displays of sexual desire.. Attempting to control sexual desire did not seem possible (or wise). However it was possible to develop the ability to choose how and when I express it; paradoxically, along with this development came increased feelings of loneliness and despair that began to affect my health and ability to teach. It became clear that I was in genuine need of relationship to woman as lover, that this was necessary to my well-being.
So the dilemma: How to have relationship to woman as lover without putting my “house” in “disorder?”
I’m sure the Brahmans, (and the classical Tantrics for that matter) could give me some great words on how my desires are all illusion and my sense of “need” is the problem, but I think this is nothing more than Hindu dogma. I subscribe to a much more purist non-dual “householder” yogi path that would embrace the world of passing forms and my desires therein as the opposite side of the one spirit coin.
Over the last two years I have been on more first and second dates than in the ten years prior. I have been on blind dates, online dates, dates arranged by mutual friends, and straight-up “getting the digits from some girl you just met” dates, all in an attempt to not date students. Not because I think it’s inherently unethical to do so, only because it is considerably problematic. However, dating woman who know nothing about or have little interest in yoga when you spend the majority of your time, energy, and passion studying it is even more problematic.
So at a certain point, I lifted the strict “no dating students” policy. What I did initially was make a new policy: I would not approach a student with romantic suggestion just before or just after class. I simply was not comfortable making such a quick transition between my role as a teacher and just being some guy who might ask you out on a date. While still limiting my ability to meet people, this seemed a good litmus test for appropriate situations, in that the only people I ended up being able to ask out were students who I would run into outside of my class and had a relationship to as friends more than a classical Teacher/Student dynamic.
I have had three interactions with students in this manner, two of which led to a lover relationship. While neither of these ended up as a life partnership, they were truly healthy experiences for me and my partners and both these women have attended my classes subsequent to our involvement. In my opinion no professional or ethical boundaries were crossed and I venture to say the women would agree. This was achieved only through diligent honesty and communication throughout (which is not easy and needs to be practiced with great care.)
Recently, a student became very upset with me when she learned that I had had occasion to date a student. She compared me to a therapist and felt that it was inherently unethical, citing a number of recent scandals. She felt that standards should be set and teachers who date students should lose their jobs. This idea caused me considerable dismay.
The student in question is someone I’ve been working with consistently for some time. I consider her a friend and have deep respect for her opinions; however, well-being is at stake here. How is it possible for me to find a suitable life partner when a relationship to yoga is necessary but it is unethical for me to date students?
How many classes does someone have to come to before they are “my” student? Does prior training with other teachers effect their ability to be classified as “my” student? If I have a relationship with another Yoga Teacher and she comes to my class is that OK?
Some of the woman I’ve spoken to recently about this maintain that it is appropriate to meet someone, but once you become “involved” the “professional” relationship must then be severed. But is it just money that makes it a “professional” relationship? And why would being “involved” with someone negate the possibility of practicing together, or even one receiving instruction from another? What if I teach someone privately for free? Is it OK for us to sleep together? Or what if the woman I love wants to practice with me at home sometime? Is it unethical for me to help her with her asana alignment?
I ask these questions partly for fancy but also in a genuine attempt to understand the role I have found myself in. Seems to me:
It is most certainly unethical for anyone, be it a teacher or not, to manipulate another or abuse ones position to take advantage of someone, particularly when it comes to expressions of sexuality. At the same time, if a person (be it a teacher or not) is behaving in an ethical manner, with integrity, an honorable intention and clear honest communication, no amount of others “perceptions of impropriety”, petty gossip or slander, can make it otherwise.
Love does not abide by the formalities and boundaries that humans have often created for themselves. To say that it is inherently unethical for a teacher to explore a genuine love interest with a student is to say that it is inherently unethical to be human. Making a clear distinction between a genuine love interest and cheap meaningless sex, two entirely different things (the latter being unacceptable as far as health professionals and their clients go- no dispute there).
Yoga teachers are not the same as therapists. Certainly there may be similar power issues at work in terms of students and patients falling “in transference” with their teacher or therapist and it being necessary for the teacher or therapist to be the responsible party; however, yoga is not an institution (although the Hindus would have us believe otherwise). Psychology and psychiatry are institutions of science and medicine. There is a formal structure of learning, of diagnosis/treatment, and regulation; they fall under the category of “western medicine”. Yoga is nothing more then Nature. It can’t be institutionalized. I realize that I may wax a little too poetic but nevertheless the role of yoga teacher, while having similarities, is different then that of therapist.
It would be appropriate for a therapist to have their spouse as a patient. However there is nothing inappropriate about a yoga teachers’ spouse attending their class.
This does not exclude a code of conduct. Yoga certainly provides us with one. But having yoga teachers signing insurance forms does nothing to enforce its promises. Religions, Science, Medicine, even the classical systems of Yoga all have doctrine and sometimes dogma. In my experience dogma inhibits genuine understanding by imposing behavior rather then leading individuals to arrive at it themselves. When we attempt to live up to anothers idea we almost always “fail” but when it comes from within integrity is never in doubt.
If religion has taught us anything, trying to impose restrictions on Nature is nothing but futile. To think formal regulations with clear consequences for indiscretions are in some way an answer to the problem of sexual misconduct is equally as unavailing. If our goal is to prevent people from behaving unethically, imposing dogma on them is absolutely counterproductive (be it the Catholic church or the Yoga Teacher Alliance).
Some might say that if there is not regulation how can we protect young girls from those who have yet to learn ethical behavior? To this there is no simple answer but educating both the young girl and the sleaze-bags who might bring her harm, endowing people with self-esteem and confidence so that they might not be so susceptible to such human failings is probably a good idea. Certainly the laws against rape and sexual harassment do not prevent these crimes from happening; they are only a means to deal with the situation after the inappropriate behavior has taken place.
Granted these laws serve an important purpose and should be exercised by those who feel compelled to do so, of course if someone has been raped or mistreated they have a right to seek justice and perhaps even have the wrong doer (if so proven) punished. But ultimately the only appropriate response to human dysfunction and hurtfulness is to find understanding for all parties involved, even those who perpetrate (as difficult as that may be)
When we come up against unethical behavior either towards ourselves or others, it would be natural to take hard opinion, maybe even seek to “out” others you think are behaving the same (although this seems to me a real waste). It is my humble suggestion that it is not fruitful for us to have harsh opinions of others, and that whenever possible we might benefit from not engaging ourselves in such content.
What makes one situation ethical and another not is in direct correlation to the intentions and motives of those involved. The reasons for the current dysfunction of male-female mutuality are deep in the fabric of modern life, developing the understanding to heal these divides will take an honesty and commitment that few are capable of undertaking at this time.
The universe only asks that we do our best. That our everyday behavior might manifest our most life-affirming ideals, and that we may have understanding for ourselves and others when we fall short of this. As we are able to discover the honesty and respect required for authentic interaction and communication, we negate the need for the question as to whether or not it would be ethical for two humans to engage romantically (no matter what the external definitions/identifications of social position/profession may be). The more we are ethical people the more our behavior reflects such. When our behavior reflects an ethics of honesty and respect, authentic interaction and communication is possible and inappropriate situations are avoided.
The problem of inappropriate behavior between fellow humans (be it teachers and students or other) is symptomatic of the deeper issues that face our race. The only way to address these deeper issues is for each of us to take full responsibility for our own behavior and let it serve as example.
Myself, I continue to suffer from extreme loneliness (but without despair). I am deeply confused and confounded by my attempts to cultivate life partnership with a woman. No other asana has proven so challenging. I embrace this challenge with gratitude and great joy, as the practice that is required.
Here are the principles I’m working with most:
- Clearly discovering and identifying the process that is leading me in a preferable direction, so that I might enjoy more what I am doing now and be less attached to any desired outcome. (reaching for an end result will always sabotage that which needs to happen in order to bring it about).
- Trusting that everything I think I need (or desire) is coming in due course, in the absence of my worrying or struggling.
- Accepting that humanity is not infallible (myself included). That being as honest, respectful and kind as I know how to be is enough.
It is my hope that these thoughts are of use.
I invite others to take issue with my comments.
May all beings be free from suffering,
May our practice contribute to peace,
May we have the strength and the courage to overcome any obstacles that lay before us.
OM TAT SAT
Epilogue- Spring 2005
It has been two years since this essay was written. I have received countless responses. Both yoga teachers and regular folks across the country have expressed gratitude for my attempt to address these issues in myself and offer it so openly for others to read. At the same time there has certainly been those who read it differently and were accusatory and condemning (much to my surprise and sometimes chagrin.)
Even just last week I received word from a social worker in North Carolina who sympathized with my search for companionship but still felt it was inappropriate for me to date students. A lot has changed in the last two years and I felt an epilogue was in order. Two weeks ago I moved in with my fiancee, ending ten years of solitary bachelor living. We have been formally engaged for almost a year now, together for almost two (still working out our plan for a wedding, buying a home, and starting a family.) I did meet her through my class. She had been attending regularly for six months before the essay was posted and our eventual romantic involvement began only a few weeks after she had read it herself (how ironic it is.)
Upon running into her on the street (albeit I ran up to catch her), I extended her a respectful invitation to call if she had interest in me outside of our practice together. Fortunately she trusted my intentions to be honorable (thanks to the essay) and accepted the invitation . The rest is (as they say) history.
She still attends my class regularly and we have also had occasion to practice together at home.
I am madly in love with her and deeply grateful that the universe has seen fit to grace me with such a suitable and fantastic partner. There is and never was anything unethical about it. Ethical behavior comes from within. If ones intention is suspect, so will the behavior be. However if ones motivation is pure then it is true.
I greatly appreciate those who have taken the time to read and respond. I too think it is inappropriate for male yoga teachers to use there position to manipulate students (I think it is wrong for anyone to do such a thing,) but I don’t think you can regulate ethics and I do think its OK for an honest yoga teacher to find companionship wherever it can be found, including there own class.
Epilogue#2- Fall 2006
Audrey and I were married on June 10, 2006 in Saugerties NY . We could not be happier and we are looking forward to starting a family together. To meet my wife go to www.audreyheimgartner.com
I still invite others to take issue with my comments.