One of the greatest ways to show respect and love for ourselves and for others is to have clear boundaries. For yoga teachers, this is an incredibly important component of our profession. There are no standard ethical recommendations for yoga teachers as there are in other healing professions (though some states and schools do have their own lists). So often times we in the yoga world must come up with a set of rules that we feel keep us ethically and morally on track. While the word boundary sounds antithetical to the love and openness the yoga culture promotes, they are actually the way into the deeper healing we seek to share. And nothing could be more loving than that.
When we are in the student teacher relationship, no matter how friendly we might be with each other, it is still a relationship that is built on a power differential. The teacher always has some level of power and the student always some level of vulnerability. And because of this power differential, we have to recognize this dynamic colors our perceptions. There are a lot of subconscious psycho-emotional dynamics in the teacher student relationship that are easily mistaken for other kinds of connection including romantic or sexual chemistry. The first step is to recognize the truth of the relationship dynamics, and then to see our impulses and tendencies through that lens.
The yoga culture in the west, in many ways, promotes a lack of clear boundaries. We’re expected to hug instead of shake hands with people we don’t know. There’s an implied level of deep trust we’re supposed to have with people just because they do or teach yoga. It’s implied that we all think the same, do the same, and that we are supposed to all get along. And if we do have clear boundaries, it can often be called “being afraid”, “being cold”, “needing to heal”, or “hiding in our shells.” Teachers are also often pressured or expected to share very intimate details of their lives with their classes as a way of showing they are “open” and “vulnerable.” Suddenly the normal human need to take time to form relationships and establish trust is thrown out the window. Even the most powerful basic connections take time to develop, why would we expect any less in a professional teacher/student setting?
Yoga teachers, and I notice this a lot with new teachers, often feel an immense pressure to be liked. They also can have a strong idea in their minds of what a “yoga teacher” is (and I usually tell mentoring clients and trainees that the worst thing a yoga teacher can be is a yoga teacher.) When we try to be what we think a yoga teacher is, we can run smack into a lot of boundary issues. We may do or say things that are inauthentic to get approval. We may try to live up to an image of “yoga teacher” in our minds that takes us against our common sense. Some teachers will bow to projections because they learn unhealthy boundaries from the yoga culture. They see even senior teachers acting in unhealthy ways and take that as an example of how yoga teachers should behave.
Now I’m going to just say it- many yoga teachers (even very senior ones) can be mentally and emotionally unhealthy. Yoga is one but by no means the only component in healing our wounds. Good therapists and very wise teachers are also necessary. Teachers can easily circumvent their shadows by using a psychological evasion tactic called Spiritual Bypassing. “Spiritual Bypassing” was labeled by psychologist John Welwood in the 1980s and is defined as “a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” Teachers can spiritually bypass their pain by insisting anyone who calls them out for poor behavior is “negative”, “isn’t ready for what they teach”, or “afraid.” They can also bypass by claiming their title or status gives them entitlement to love, forgiveness, adoration, or automatic and unquestioned approval for all behavior and decisions. In short, they can spiritually bypass a lot of boundaries. Of course this does not describe all teachers, but it is something we should be aware of as a strong tendency in our community.
Some of my favorite teachers, especially energy work teachers, have almost a cold presentation. They have incredible and necessary boundaries, and at the same time they are incredibly loving and very competent at what they do. They are working to keep themselves as objective as possible so they can do the work that needs to be done. They know they are in the role of healer and teacher, not friend and buddy, and they have to maintain some level of distance. They do not feel pressure to bow to the projections that are placed on them; they do their job. This is a form of deep love and very deep respect.
Boundaries sound like a bummer, I know. They seem to imply a lack of freedom and expression. But they are one of the most powerful ways of showing love and respect for each other and the magnificent healing work of yoga. It’s interesting that many of the ideas we associate with being restrictive are actually those that make us most free. Good and healthy boundaries help us to relax, keep our lives in greater balance, and allow us to feel free to express ourselves well knowing with greater clarity that we are really being of service and contributing to healing.