Sutra 2.35 – “When one protects others from harm, this produces a feeling of connectedness and safety.”
If you pay attention to the news in general or the yoga blogosphere in particular, you may have come across reports of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Bikram Choudhury, the founder of the ubiquitous style of hot yoga that bears his name. Last week it came to light that a sixth woman has filed a lawsuit against Choudhury for allegedly sexually assaulting her during and after a yoga teacher training program she had attended in 2010. If all of this is news to you, you can get up to speed here (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bikram-choudhury-yoga-guru-sued-by-instructor-for-alleged-sexual-assault-1.2970931). Please note that the links referenced in this post contain information that is disturbing.
I’ve followed with interest these unfolding stories, and also the reaction to them within the yoga community. Particularly amongst devotees of the Bikram style of yoga, reactions range from denial and disbelief to anger and denunciation. Some Bikram studio owners have changed their studio’s name and severed all ties, while others attempt to separate the man from his methods. A petition has now been posted on the change.org website demanding Choudhury’s resignation. Still others have remained silent.
Sadly but not surprisingly, Choudhury isn’t the first prominent yoga teacher or guru to be accused of abuse of power and sexual misconduct. From affairs to harems to sexual abuse, unfortunately, it’s all there. For a brief history of scandals in yoga, check out: http://theyogalunchbox.co.nz/a-compehrensive-list-of-yoga-scandals-involving-gurus-sex-and-other-inappropriate-behaviour/.
The latest accusations against Bikram Choudhury have really struck a nerve for me and have led to countless hours of reading, thinking, listening and talking about power dynamics, consent, safe spaces and the nature of the student-teacher relationship. What is is about the relationship between yoga teachers and students that makes it vulnerable to abuse? What is the appropriate reaction for yoga teachers and what is our responsibility to our students and to this practice? And how can we do something constructive?
The Student-Teacher Relationship in Yoga
Traditionally, the teachings of yoga were transmitted in a one-on-one relationship between a “spiritually advanced” guru and a disciple. A literal translation of “guru” is “remover of darkness.” Today’s prominent yoga teachers can be a strange combination of spiritual leader and Hollywood celebrity (hence the term, “celebri-yogi”). They appear in magazines, host lavish retreats, and teach private lessons to movie and music stars.
In a recent article, writer and yoga teacher Carol Horton discusses the implications of the student-teacher relationship in a culture that treats celebrities like gurus and gurus like celebrities (https://www.yahoo.com/health/bikram-choudhury-and-yoga-rape-culture-what-112069263727.html). The higher that a teacher’s star rises, the more likely he or she is to be surrounded by devotees and “yes-people” who are unwilling to question the teacher’s behaviour. Whenever we put someone on a pedestal, there is the potential for abuse of power and when abuses occur, they are often excused, ignored, justified and even enabled.
Even without the added complication of fame and celebrity, there are some complex power dynamics that can arise whenever a yoga teacher leads students in a practice. From early childhood, we are trained to listen to and follow our teachers, all the way from kindergarten to university. We are taught that the person at the front of the room doing all of the talking knows best, and is acting in our best interests. So we follow along, sometimes unquestioningly.
Adding yet another wrinkle, consider that the teachings of yoga play out in the physical, emotional, energetic and spiritual realms. Students often come to yoga class seeking solace and healing for injuries, be they physical or psychic. Teachers enter the student’s physical, energetic and emotional space and lead them into places of vulnerability, whether it’s a difficult physical pose or deep unguarded meditation and relaxation. Yoga teachers literally touch their students with physical assists and adjustments, and bear witness to emotional catharsis unfolding on the mat.
Given all of these dynamics, it’s not surprising that the psychological phenomena of projection, transference and counter-transference can enter into the student-teacher relationship. Unresolved emotions, needs, relationships and patterns can be grafted onto the interactions between student and teacher as we each find ourselves playing out old roles and scenarios. As you can imagine, these dynamics can lead to dysfunction and harm when not acknowledged and navigated skilfully. Teachers must possess a degree of self-awareness and maturity to realize when projection, transference and counter-transference are happening.
What Can We Do As A Community?
The yoga community may be facing a reckoning as it determines how to respond to alleged predators in its midst, and how to prevent future cases of abuse. The Yoga Alliance (yogaalliance.org), a voluntary professional association for yoga schools and teachers, has developed ethical guidelines for teachers but currently lacks an enforcement mechanism. In other words (so far as I am aware at least), there is no process by which teachers and schools could lose their registration with the Yoga Alliance due to sexual abuse or other inappropriate behaviour.
Yoga teacher training programs that are certified by the Yoga Alliance must contain instruction on ethics but curriculum content varies from program to program. There is an ongoing debate inside and outside the yoga community with respect to regulation, registration and professional discipline, and I don’t expect this debate to end anytime soon.
Clearly, there is a place here for systemic and institutional change. In the meantime, how can yoga teachers remain aware of the above-noted power dynamics and maintain a safe space for students?
You’re the Bell, Not the Dog Food
Yoga teacher and writer Darren Main addressed the issue of sexual abuse by yoga teachers in a recent podcast (http://darrenmain.com/archives/2294). In his discussion with psychologist and yoga teacher Darcy Lyon, Main draws upon the analogy of Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov, as the story goes, rang a bell every time he fed his dog. Eventually the dog came to associate the sound of the bell with being fed, so much so that the dog would salivate when the bell rang in the absence of food. Main says:
I believe that we as yoga teachers are the bell. People come to my class, they feel better. They start to associate feeling better with being with me instead of with rolling out their yoga mats and doing their downward dogs and chaturangas. . . It’s a totally understandable misperception on their part . . . They see me, they feel better. But it has nothing to do with me, any more than that bell made the dog feel less hungry. . . .[We need to] constantly remind ourselves and each other: You’re the bell, not the dog food! Get over yourself!
In other words, don’t let the positive attention go to your head! You’re just the intermediary for the teachings.
Back to the Yamas
In Patanjali’s system of classical yoga, there are five yamas or moral imperatives for our relationships with others. These yamas and associated translations are:
1. Ahimsa – nonviolence;
2. Satya – truthfulness;
3. Asteya – non-stealing;
4. Bramicharya – celibacy or sexual responsibility; and
5. Aparigraha – non-greed/non-grasping.
Without a doubt, yamas 1, 2 and 4 apply directly to the prevention of abuse in the student-teacher relationship. In his book Threads of Yoga, Matthew Remski translates ahimsa to “protection”. His “remixed” yoga sutra on ahimsa struck me as particularly relevant to this issue so I chose to open this post with it. We all have a responsibility to protect others from harm, especially when holding the seat of the teacher.
I commit to creating a physically and emotionally safe environment for students to practice and explore. I commit to seeking your consent for adjustments. I commit to encouraging critical thinking and questioning. There’s no “one true yoga” or one correct way to practice, and I commit to never telling you otherwise. It’s not my role to push you outside of your comfort zone; rather, it’s my role to hold safe space so that you can, of your own volition, explore your own edges.
Lastly, I commit to using my position as a teacher to support survivors and to affect change. In March and April, Red Owl Yoga will be donating all proceeds of our karma yoga classes to the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton. We challenge other Edmonton and area yoga studios and teachers to do the same.
Parting Thoughts and Optional Homework
I’d like to leave you with a journaling exercise that was assigned in a yoga teacher training I attended. I found it invaluable for exploring how power dynamics play out in my own life. Here are some questions for your own contemplation:
1. How do you know when you’re holding your personal power? Or when you’ve lost your power?
2. How do you regain your personal power once you’ve given it away?
3. Is there one person, place or situation that causes you to give up or diminish your power?
4. Do you feel worthy to receive the teachings of yoga?
One who is worth idealizing does not care whether others idealize them or not. Everyone needs to see that you not only teach human values but you live them.
― Sri Sri Ravi Shankar