Yoga people are so bad at boundaries. Is this a generalization? Obviously. But is it true? YES.
Lest I come across as a jerk, I’ll just remind you that I too am a yoga person, albeit an occasionally disenchanted one, and I find setting boundaries so freaking hard. To be fair, boundaries are hard for most people, so my saying that “yoga people” aren’t great with them is a bit of a cheap shot. But I do think the stakes are higher, especially for yoga teachers, because whether we want to or not, we hold a lot of sway in the eyes of our students.
One complicating factor in yoga is that transcending and ultimately dissolving boundaries is a central value in the yoga tradition (Yoga Sutra 2.51). Now, clearly the type of boundary that Patanjali is talking about does not fall under the same category as, say, agreeing not to talk politics at the Thanksgiving table or check work e-mail after 6 PM. He is talking some serious ego meeting id, individual merging with universe, soul expanding, mind bending stuff! And I can assure you that I (like 99 % of every other yoga teacher you will encounter) am totally unqualified to preach….I mean teach…about such things.
But what I can tell you (because I have witnessed it many times) is that the boundary dissolving sentiments of the sutras can VERY easily be distorted to suit the whims of self-serving individuals. This isn’t exactly news to anyone, I’m sure. All you have to do is google “yoga sex scandal,” and you will get plenty of examples.
Now, these are extreme instances and ones that get a lot of press. The more common ones, however, don’t get talked about so much but in some ways are even more destructive because of the sheer numbers of people they affect (this Yoga Journal study showed that roughly 20 million Americans practice yoga). I’m talking about when yoga teachers do things like: give medical advice that they are in no way qualified to provide; teach to a group as though every individual in the class holds the same political, religious, and social beliefs that they do; act like a therapists when they are not.
I’ll be frank; as a teacher, I have done all of these to some extent. I have “suggested” possible causes of pain for students when really what they needed was a medical opinion. I have made assumptions when I shouldn’t have. I have repeated things my own therapist said to me as though I knew what the hell I was talking about. And as a student, I have overtly or unconsciously asked my teachers to do these things for me. I have wanted them to cure me, to validate me, to praise me, to nurse me. And that ain’t right.
I think most of the time, we don’t even realize when we are crossing boundaries in the actual moment we are doing so. At least I don’t. Then once I do realize it, it is very hard to not let the shame spiral kick in. And there is no feeling more likely to ignite my own boundary obliteration quite like shame, and so the cycle continues. So for the foreseeable future, I think I will try starting every class I teach with a quiet prayer for good clear boundaries. May I respect them for my students, my family, my friends, and most importantly, for myself.