Monday, January 22, 2018

Yoga & Abuse

Part One

Recently, riding the rising tide spurred by the #metoo movement, women yoga students have been speaking out about the abuse and harassment they have been facing -- some of them for years. We're by now all aware of the horrendous criminal behavior of Bikram Choudary, but many of us are just learning of the long-term harassment perpetuated by Astanga Yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois through the revelations of Karen Rain. (Please be sure to follow the links in order to read Mary Taylor's anemic response to Karen Rain as well as to view the linked video)

If we've been practicing for any length of time, we're probably familiar with the all-too-many scandals including those around John Friend and Rodney Yee.  Sadly, these are just two of the western yoga celebrities who have failed to live up to yoga's own ethical guidelines embodied in the Yamas (or the Buddhist yoga equivalent, the Precepts). But it's not been just western teachers, and it's not simply a very recent problem as this comprehensive list shows. And it includes those held up as "saints."

I've previously written about abuse in the buddhist community and pointed out that such abuse is -- at heart -- not about sex or money, but ultimately it's an abuse of power

One take-away from all this is that yoga is not something apart from human foibles. There is a long and deep tendency to romanticize yoga, yoga teachers, and yoga practitioners and perhaps this very romanticization is one of the factors behind such atrocious behavior (along with the patriarchal nature of traditional yoga and the contradictory and confused relationship to sexuality in our culture).

And now, Yoga Alliance is wishing to center itself as an arbiter of ethics. To be frank, I am no fan of the Yoga Alliance. Over the course of 20 years it has positioned itself as being something it is not. The Yoga Alliance is NOT a certifying or licensing body; it is simply a registry of yoga teachers who can prove they've taken a yoga teacher training that meets Yoga Alliance's woefully dismal standards (200 hours emphasizing postural practice, with barely any depth in terms of the history and philosophy of the vast Yoga Tradition). 

But by clever positioning, they've created a situation where many employers who know no better will only hire a yoga teacher who has registered with Yoga Alliance (perhaps days after completing their 200-hour training) over someone with decades of experience who has not fallen for the money-making scam of the Yoga Alliance. And students looking for a Yoga Teacher Training will often pass by longer, more in-depth trainings offered by seasoned veterans for a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training mill because it is registered with the Yoga Alliance.

So, with that said, I will say that it is good news to see Yoga Alliance seemingly taking the abuse and harassment in the yoga community seriously. Especially given their historical woeful "responses" to those who have gone to them for support such as Cori Wright. Of course, as a registry, they really have no power other than -- as Sharon Roche says -- taking away their "credential." Note that on their website regarding their grievance process it says:

Yoga Alliance will respond to each grievance received. We will also take appropriate action(s) to ensure compliance with our Standards, Requirements, Code of Conduct, and Policies. 

Yoga Alliance will address all breaches in our Standards, Requirements, Code of Conduct, or other Policies with the person and/or school. Any information you share will be recorded in the account holder’s file. This information is only accessible to Yoga Alliance and may be used to inform the development of our grievance process in the future.

In the interest of protecting students and trainees, we address all breaches in our Standards, Requirements, Code of Conduct, or other Policies with the person and/or school against whom the allegations were submitted. 
Yoga Alliance affords all registrants due process. Therefore, we may not be able to provide updates regarding any action(s), conversations, and/or outcomes taken with the person or school. 
This all sounds to me like a lot of blustering. As you can see there is very little other than platitudes and empty phrases being offered here about "appropriate actions" and addressing "all breaches" of their standards, but they don't actually say what such actions are or will be, nor via what channels they will address "all breaches." And then in response to the question: 

Will Yoga Alliance revoke or suspend the school or the teacher's account?

Yoga Alliance affords all registrants due process. Yoga Alliance may or may not satisfy your intended outcomes and desires if you file a grievance.
In other words, caveat emptor.

Part Two
So, unable -- or unwilling -- to look to Yoga Alliance for any guidance, the discussion and actions that must be taken look as they are up to us to take the lead. And, as to be expected, perhaps, when the topic of ethics is raised, there is bound to be much drama, heat, and argumentation. 
"Aren't the Yamas (or Precepts) enough of a guideline?" ask many practitioners. But the history of abuse should be answer enough that they are not. And while we would all agree that rape is absolutely wrong, rationalizations around some of the adjustments Jois gave, for instance, are still being made by some among the Astanga Yoga lineage. And then the issue of the relationship between teacher and student grows even murkier, with quite a surprising number of teachers saying there is nothing at all wrong with teachers and students becoming sexually or romantically involved and others finding it absolutely a non-negotiable no-no.
The most common argument against yoga teachers becoming sexually involved with their students is the argument based upon the alleged "power imbalance" between teacher and student. But here's an article written by a women who argues against the idea of any power imbalance. 
I've been asked if I would think it wrong for a personal trainer and their client to become sexually involved; that in most cases the relationship between a yoga teacher leading a class in postural practice is more similar to that of a personal trainer and their client than between a therapist and their client or that between a dharma teacher and their student. 
I'm writing this to invite any who may read it to offer your viewpoints, as I am not putting myself out as some final arbiter of ethics. Attempts by any organization to create a universal code of ethics will continue to meet resistance from those who wish yoga to remain de-centralized.  Given that, I believe individual studios and local communities must become involved in responding to the abuse that has remained in the shadows for too long, and work to dissolve the current murky situation with clear guidelines made known to all students.

I do think that the Yamas or Precepts may serve as a foundation for ethical guidelines, but then I believe studios and individuals may need to formulate their own "Codes of Ethics" that get more specific and go beyond the general categories covered by the Yamas and Precepts as Spirit Rock has done with their "Teacher Code of Ethics," most notably in their added points on sexual relations.

I wish to end this with a short survey of the Five Precepts from the Zen traditions as a way of sparking discussion:  

1. I vow to avoid causing harm; I vow to cultivate reverence for life.
This is the first precept I took with Thich That Hanh in 1995. And how do we avoid causing harm? The buddha recommended that we think ahead about the possible consequences of our actions. And even if we proceed to act because we have not foreseen any possible harmful consequences, we must keep vigilant to see if there are any unforeseen harmful consequences and change course and make amends. We are human; we will mess up, but we must be committed to learn from our unskillful actions. How do we cultivate reverence for life? Thay suggests we do so by being as mindful as we can, practicing gratitude to the life we all subsist upon (whether vegan, vegetarian or not), and by eating moderately. 

2. I vow not to take what is not freely offered; I vow to practice generosity.
This second precept reminds us to not steal, which includes not taking credit for anything others have said or done. We also should not steal from ourselves. And generosity, the buddha said, goes to the very heart of yoga: self-transcendence. We all can give of our time, energy or material resources, whether a kind word or smile or volunteering at a non-profit, or donating money to a cause we support. 

3. I vow not to indulge in exploitative, oppressive sexual relations; I vow to practice consensual sexual responsibility.
Whether we are monogamous, polyamorous, or involved in any kink such as BDSM, it isn't the act itself but the heart/mind motivating the act. By definition, consensual sexuality cannot be exploitative or oppressive.

4. I vow not to lie, or spread rumors of which I am not certain; I vow to speak the truth at the appropriate time, to the appropriate person, in the appropriate space for the appropriate reason.
Right Speech is a powerful yoga practice and perhaps the most difficult. Truth can be wielded as a weapon to harm others, so note the point about checking our motivation for speaking. There may be times when noble silence is the best way to practice right speech. Right speech most notably includes not speaking of things of which we are not sure, which would end the divisive, cancer of gossip.

5. I vow not to intoxicate my mind; I vow to maintain clarity of mind.
Buddha means "awakened person" so Buddhism could literally be translated as "Awake-ism." Thus, the value of a clear mind cannot be overstated. We often fixate on drugs and alcohol as intoxicants, but we can intoxicate ourselves with gossip, Facebook, television... and even yoga practice if we are using our practice to avoid reality. 


  1. I watched Shannon Roche's video and she said that YA is working now to change their policies and procedures. She says that they are working with RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network) on developing new system of policies to uphold the integrity in yoga and that this new system will be in place starting feb 1.

  2. "there is nothing at all wrong with teachers and students becoming sexually or romantically" - I agree, ONLY if both of them are singles, not committed to a partner/spouse, in particular not married and have children. Teachers or gurus, priests or rinpoches, should know this better. One doesn't need to be a "saint" to know and follow this ethics. Follow the teachings, not the teacher.

    1. Thanks for your comment. What do you think of Spirit Rock's Code of Ethics that stipulates the student/teacher being dissolved before entering into a romantic/sexual relationship? And giving it some time before proceeding?

      I agree there is most likely a difference in the kind of relationship between a dharma teacher and their student than that of between a yoga-asana teacher and their student, but how much of a difference?

  3. This is such a tricky one. I became involved with a famous yoga celebrity about 10 years ago and I was warned by another woman about him and know of at least one other person who was intensely hit on by him at his trainings (given tons of pretty intimate adjustments). I believe he used his platform to have sex with a lot of female students. Was the dynamic consensual? Yes, but that consent is problematic when this is someone who could be your potential employer- who positions himself as I kind of gate-keeper in the yoga world - who literally tells you where you are weak and strong in a group setting. I also think this person abused his power by preying on young women. At the time of our 'relationship', I was 24 and though I was not naive to his shadow side and quickly extricated myself from that relationship and any further contact with his yoga method, the experience left me confused and pretty disillusioned with yoga in general.
    What made it most confusing and troubling was hiding it and being told explicitly not to tell any journalist about it -which means he knew he was in the wrong.
    But what can be done about this? Nothing, it seems. Is it worth it to come forward with something that is not a rape or even sexual harassment? For now, it seems not, but it is totally obnoxious that men like him have abused and probably still abuse their power and feed off the vulnerability of their students - while making pots of money.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. However, I must strongly disagree with your conclusion that it may not be worth coming forward with such experiences. Look at what's been dominating the media these last few weeks with the Larry Nassar trial:

      I also think full consent is questionable in such situations. I do not mean in any way to deny your agency, but when a 'celebrity' uses his or her celebrity or "platform" as you put it, to have sex with many students, I see an abuse of power.

      Anyway, again, thank you for sharing and I do hope your experience hasn't put you off yoga completely.

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