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Last week The New York Times published a story by Katherine Rosman about the epidemic of inappropriate touching taking place in yoga spaces. Rosman’s story was a follow-up to a #MeToo-related effort Rachel Brathen (aka Yoga Girl) launched more than two years ago.
In October 2017, she asked her followers in an Instagram post to email her their stories of experiencing sexual harassment in the yoga world. The stories that poured in (and there were more than 300) ranged from out-of-line adjustments and being propositioned for sex to being aggressively or violently assaulted. Brathen shared (with consent) 31 experiences on her website, yogagirl.com, editing out only the names of the victims and perpetrators.
Common threads began to emerge. Multiple women were attributing their assaults to the same men, uncovering deeply-rooted power dynamics between gurus, teachers, and their students. People shared stories of how the environment created by yoga teachers and gurus discourages scrutiny from students, since those running the classes are expected to be trusted experts. Teacher Jonny Kest is quoted in Rosman’s article as saying, “no one’s objecting, no one’s complaining” to intimate adjustments that he and other teachers make. But people are speaking out and the conversation may finally be leading to change—From Sharath Jois, the grandson of Patthabi Jois and the lineage holder of the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, acknowledging the pain and suffering caused by his grandfather’s “improper adjustments” to Life Time athletic (which developed its yoga teacher training program with Kest) and now requires teachers to use consent cards — cards with icons indicating whether the practitioner is open to receiving adjustments or not and are placed at the top of the mat for the teacher to see.
Of course, there has always been different approaches to adjustments in the community. Some styles of yoga have traditionally been more hands-on, with manual adjustments, while other styles, like Kundalini, discourage any physical interaction with students during class.
The New York Times also created an episode on the subject of yoga and consent for their show on HULU and FX, The Weekly.
Here are what some members of the yoga community are saying about The New York Times story:
(via email) “As a woman, yoga teacher, and survivor of sexual assault, I found the recent article in the NY Times to be triggering yet essential. Ahimsa is the sanskrit word for non-injury. It is a foundational concept of the practice of yoga, whose premise is to shine a light on the unconscious aspects of our being. As teachers of this practice, we have a responsibility to hold ourselves, each other, and our teachers accountable for any harmful or exploitative actions that contradict that premise. These disturbing accounts of unwanted and salacious touch are part of the reckoning that needs to happen in every community and every industry so that the paradigm of power over shifts to the power within. I stand in solidarity with the brave women in the Ashtanga community who have spoken up against their guru. May we all hear their voices and the voice of every woman who has been shunned, rejected or ostracized for demanding the respect and dignity she deserves. Thank you, Rachel Brathen and Katherine Rosman, for bringing this dark, disturbing truth of the yoga community to light. My hope is that it awakens a call within all of us for our actions to be non-violent, and not just our teachings to be.”
(via email) “Yoga class is a place where students come in order to feel safe as they go deeply into self-reflection. When a teacher abuses a student (sexually, physically, verbally or emotionally) there is an irreparable breach of trust. An imbalanced power structure arises and the traumatized student suffers from an additional layer of trauma—that of spiritual abuse.”
“I’m so thrilled you are blowing the lid off the abuse in yoga. It’s a good day for justice and a great day for the evolution of safe yoga for everyone.”
“Even the slightest/kindness of touch can trigger a negative response which can retraumatize a survivor of trauma. In @childrenyoga and prison or #traumaconsciousyoga, we do not touch. #liberationprisonyoga.”
“[E]ssential reading for every yoga teacher in today’s nytimes. Don’t miss it.”
“I’ve read and re-read this amazing and vital piece from @katierosman and I am even more convinced that online #yoga the way we do it on @ompractice is even more of an important option for people than I previously thought.”
“Such an important conversation, thank you Katie Rosman & The New York Times. In Exhale to Inhale classes we do not offer hands on adjustments, we know touch can be healing but given our students’ past experience we stay away from it. It is not necessary. We work with our teachers to help them understand power dynamics in the yoga room and empower them to empower our students to make choices with their bodies. Safety. Simplicity. Choice-making.”