#TimesUp: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Yoga Community - Yoga Journal

#TimesUp: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Yoga Community

Rocked by #metoo stories of sexual misconduct in the yoga community and beyond, students, teachers, and organizations alike are speaking out—and figuring out where we go from here. Whether you’ve been personally affected or simply want to do what you can to help, here’s a place to start.
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#MeToo

Mary Taylor, Ashtanga yoga teacher and former co-owner of the Yoga workshop

In light of the recent discussion around issues of sexual abuse and harassment that has swept the entertainment, political, and now yoga worlds, I find myself heaving a huge sigh of relief. As a woman who has had her own harrowing experiences with male abuse of power, sexual assault, rape, and betrayal of intimacy over the years, I’m relieved that these issues are no longer taboo to discuss.

But I am also filled with sadness. I’m sad that we, as a species, have treated each other with such callousness for thousands of years. I’m sad that I have not always known how to speak up, how to stand up in my own defense, or how to take action in the defense of others.

There is something particularly foul about sexual misconduct in the context of yoga. Yoga is a path of insight into the roots of decency and desire—into both the glorious and shadow sides of human nature. There is a deeply personal and, for many, an intimately spiritual aspect to yoga. Students often come to yoga in a vulnerable position, pursuing balance, calm, and a clarity of mind. When a yoga teacher sexually abuses a student, it is not only hypocritical, but also incredibly damaging to the student and the tradition. This kind of behavior can throw sincere and innocent students off the path for years, if not lifetimes. It is tragic. Yet sexual misconduct within the yoga world is common.

In fact, it is well documented that my own teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, whom I love dearly, had certain “adjustments” that he gave to female students that were invasive. Many of these adjustments were sexually inappropriate, and I wish he had never done them. On some level, I also wish that I had spoken publicly about them before now. Yet these adjustments were confusing, and not in alignment with all the other aspects of Jois that I knew, so I didn’t know how to talk about them without disparaging the entire system.

This has been a confusing part of my relationship with my teacher and the yoga community as a whole. Why did he do this? Why didn’t I speak up about the inappropriateness of his assists? Why didn’t others? Why didn’t I make it my mission to expose his wrongdoings as a demonstration of an irreparable flaw in the Ashtanga system?

First and foremost, I still think Ashtanga is a remarkable system of learning and transformation. It is a system of practice that has worked for me and many other students over the years. I do not see Jois’s behavior as a flaw in the system, but a flaw in the man. I think this is part of the reason why, until now, I have only spoken privately to students who ask about this. I have such deep love for the practice—a practice that has saved my life.

When I take a step back and turn my gaze to the future, I see an opportunity for deeper contemplation and an imperative to stay authentic, honest, and real. There is a burning need to question and to look ever deeper at ourselves, our teachers, and the yogic traditions we love in order to find the seeds of truth that lie within. When we place teachers on a pedestal (or, as teachers, when we allow students to put us on one), honest inquiry becomes impossible, and the deep contemplative insight and compassion that is at the heart of yoga may never arise. If the ground of the inquiring mind becomes eroded, then deeply destructive things—like sexual misconduct—find an environment in which to thrive.

Today things have changed. The accounts of sexual misconduct that at one time might have been dismissed are now being met with open minds, support, kindness, and respect.

See also Rachel Brathen Collects More Than 300 #MeToo Yoga Stories: The Community Responds

Judith Hanson Lasater, Restorative yoga and applied anatomy teacher, and former Yoga Journal editor

I've had many instances of #metoo, all the way up to attempted rape. But in the yoga context, I’ve only had one. And that was with Pattabhi Jois. At some point in the late 1990s, he came to San Francisco to teach. We were doing drop-backs from Tadasana (Mountain Pose) to Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose). He came over to help me and put his pubic bone against my pubic bone, so I could feel him completely. He had me do three or four drop-backs, and when I came up after the last one, I looked around and saw three of my students, who were in the class with me, looking at me, mouths hanging open.

What happened for me is what I think happens for so many women: I was so shocked that the first thing I did was doubt myself. Did that really just happen? I wondered, silently. The part that I regret is that I didn’t leave. I stayed in the class. The next thing Jois asked me to do was something I thought was physically dangerous for my knees. I just said, “Namaste; no Guruji, no.” And he hit me on the head and said, “Bad lady.”

That was the last time I saw him. It was only years later, when pictures and videos of him assisting women became public, that I recognized that what he was doing was sexual assault. I thought That’s what happened to me. For a long time, I had just brushed it under the carpet, where I had brushed all the other instances. At the time, my context of a male teacher was B.K.S. Iyengar, who never did anything like that. So I was trusting. I believed, and still believe, the yoga studio and yoga mat are sacred spaces. That’s why crossing this boundary in class is a double-whammy upset for women.

Now I make my students repeat this mantra: “Trust yourself first.” I ask them to repeat it frequently. And we talk about what it means: that we all need to listen to our gut, to pay attention to the deep visceral feelings that are arising from our inner wisdom and never to disregard them. In our culture, women are trained to ignore their intuition for a host of twisted reasons: We fear it’ll make us seem impolite or ridiculous. We tell ourselves, “It couldn’t be true, because I know this person well.” If this is you, start flexing your intuition muscle in less risky circumstances, like shopping for new tires. When you walk into the store, slow down and see what your belly says, then immediately act on it. This will help you say “no” when something doesn’t feel right in yoga.

See also 10 Prominent Yoga Teachers Share Their #MeToo Stories

Alanna Zabel, Founder of AZIAM yoga and creator of yoga barre

Years ago I developed a passionate relationship with a fellow yoga instructor. I’ll call him Rick. At first, I was shy and avoided Rick’s advances—but I was also enamored by the energy and attention that he was lavishing on me. He was a revered teacher, and he was interested in me. I was hooked.

In class, Rick would often hover around my mat, caressing my body sensually when he was making “adjustments.” At first, I found it flattering, but I didn’t have the confidence and maturity to separate my youthful desire for attention from my logical understanding of power abuse. The connection turned me on, despite the fact that I always left his yoga classes feeling empty and confused.

Rick became increasingly sexual with me in class, almost as if he didn’t care that other students were there. When I was in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), his hands would slip to my crotch; in Revolved Triangle, one hand caressed my butt and the other was on my chest. My attraction and excitement around him eventually morphed into confusion and fear. Gradually when he made these advances toward me, I froze and became very awkward. Rick rolled his eyes and brushed me off, doing his best to make me feel bad for my reaction—shaming me for not responding in the way he wanted me to. It became clear to me that conscious intimacy, mutual understanding, and my consent to his groping were all missing.

One day, I decided I was done. Done with this silent game of power and control. Done feeling awkward around him when he’d shame me for not accepting his advances. Done watching him take no accountability for his actions. Before class that day, I made it clear that I didn’t want him to touch me—that I wasn’t interested anymore. Halfway through that practice, while I was in Headstand at the front of my mat, he pushed me over. Then he threw my mat out the window and told me to leave.

With time and deep self-reflection, I have found compassion in deeply meaningful ways. I’m so grateful that we’re collectively having these conversations now. Talking about past—and present—inappropriate behavior is part of our practice today. The more all of us—teachers, students, women, and men—can see that, the more we’ll be able to co-create a clear path forward.

Excerpted from Meaningful Coincidence: Synchronistic Stories of the Soul by Alanna Zabel (AZIAM Books, 2017)

What’s Next

Advice from the experts on how to navigate turbulent waters.

As news of sexual misconduct rolls out on a seemingly continuous basis—including reports of wrongdoing in the yoga world—yogis everywhere have been disheartened, if not surprised. We’ve known, after all, that the yoga world is not immune to horrible abuses of power—from inappropriate assists from Ashtanga Yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois to rape accusations against Bikram Choudhury. “A simple web search will reveal that almost every major tradition in modern yoga has at least some experience with alleged sexual misconduct,” says David Lipsius, the recently appointed president and CEO of Yoga Alliance.

But the volume of stories and allegations exploded late last year when yoga teacher and entrepreneur Rachel Brathen (aka @yoga_girl) shared her own non-yoga–related #metoo story—and then started hearing from yogis around the world about sexual abuse, harassment, and assault they had experienced during classes, at their neighborhood studios, and at yoga festivals and other events. Within a week of speaking out, Brathen had collected stories from more than 300 yogis, many angry and confused about what had happened to them. “I was fielding questions like, ‘Are you supposed to have your breasts adjusted in Savasana (Corpse Pose)?’” says Brathen.

Overwhelmed by the outpouring—and committed to doing something about it—Brathen selected 31 excerpts (with consent) to share on her blog, stripping out the names of the victims and the accused. The accounts of misconduct varied—from out-of-line adjustments and being propositioned for sex to being aggressively or violently assaulted. Yet almost all these stories shared a common thread: The victims were shocked to be violated by members of the yoga community, in what they thought was a sacred, protected place. “There’s an extra level of betrayal in having someone treat you in a disrespectful and unsafe way in what should be a safe space,” says Peg Shippert, MA, LPC, a licensed professional counselor in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in working with victims of sexual misconduct.

Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, who has taught yoga since 1971, agrees: “In the context of a yoga class, I was dumbstruck that [sexual misconduct] would happen, and it totally immobilized me. I thought of a yoga class almost like going to church, and the thought of that happening was not something I had ever even conceived of.”

Dacher Keltner, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, yogi, and author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, adds that unfortunately, there has been a long history of abuse of power in spiritual communities in general. “Think of the women who killed for Charles Manson, the abuse of priests in the Catholic church, or the tradition of polygamy in strict religious communities,” he says. “Spiritual settings create a structure that is ripe for the opportunity for seduction.”

See also After the Fall: The Ripple Effect from Accusations Against Bikram and Friend

Yoga is no exception. “The paradox of teaching yoga is that it is all about relationships: The student needs to yield to the teacher, to be receptive,” says Lasater. “That said, students also need to be very aware that they still have power in every situation.” On the opposite side of the same coin, teachers must be aware of what students are projecting on them. “We all get triggered,” says Annie Carpenter, a longtime yoga teacher who has a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling. “This is where you have to do klesha work and ask yourself, ‘What does my ego want?’ If you’re a teacher, will your students project onto you that you’re a healer or a sexy yoga teacher? Or will you imagine, or even hope, they do? You have to know how to respond to those types of projections that will inevitably happen.”

The bottom line: We need to look at these issues and talk about them—even though the topic can be difficult, says Elizabeth Jeglic, PhD, a professor of psychology at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose research focuses on sexual violence prevention. “We’re still navigating the best way to respond to these things,” says Jeglic. “But overall, the more we can share—with each other and with authorities—the more helpful it will be in how we all proceed.”

When Brathen posted #metoo stories last year she wrote: “I hope that shedding light on this issue will [contribute] to some sort of change.” And it already has. In cases where multiple women have spoken up about the same yoga teacher, Brathen connected the women (with consent) to the media and with each other to see if, as individuals or a group, they wanted to publicly reveal the teacher’s name or take legal action.

Before Brathen’s post, Yoga Alliance—a nonprofit teacher and school registry—had already put into motion an ethics and conduct committee as part of its standards review project. It had also just begun talks with the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) for recommendations on new policies on sexual misconduct. Lipsius, also the former CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, says the new administration at Yoga Alliance is determined to take on the issue of sexual harassment and abuse in the yoga community. “I personally have witnessed the devastating effects of abuse in a yoga community and know that the after-effects may linger even decades after the alleged abuser is removed,” he says. “The simple fact is those who commit crimes must be held accountable. There’s no excuse for sexual misconduct or abuse of power in a yoga studio, ashram, festival, or any other venue.”

Here you’ll find advice for teachers, students, and yoga organizations. Consider it a start—to help us all process the misconduct that’s occurred and take the steps we can to prevent it from happening again.

See also Kino MacGregor’s Sequence for Inner Strength

If you’ve been victimized, triggered, or want to help...

Go with your gut about what feels wrong—and speak up. 

If you can, tell studio or organization leaders and law enforcement immediately. If you don't feel comfortable doing so, or have questions about what may have just happened to you, there are anonymous, free resources that can help, such as the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN). “RAINN’s hotline (800-656-HOPE) and online chat service (rainn.org) are not just for people who are sure they have been victimized,” says Kati Lake, vice president of consulting services at RAINN. “They’re also for people who are unsure if they’ve experienced unwanted sexual contact, and for friends and families of those affected.” RAINN can also help you understand the laws that govern sexual abuse (they are different for each state). The organization maintains a comprehensive legal database at apps.rainn.org/policy. And, if it feels safe, speak up the moment something happens. “It may be scary, but it may also be an effective tactic to stop the offenders out there,” says David Lipsius. “If just one person stood up in class and said, ‘Please don’t touch me without asking permission,’ the system would change.”

Give yourself permission to be triggered right now. 

Hearing the news of others who’ve been through something similar to what you have can take you right back to your own trauma from previous abuse—and prompt you to relive it, says Elizabeth Jeglic, PhD. “I think a lot of victims have felt helpless in these situations in the past,” she says. “Now, many are reporting feeling guilt and shame that they didn’t come forward before, or they feel like they′re still not in a place where they can come forward with details of what happened to them.” No matter what you’re feeling, Jeglic says, it’s important to be gentle with yourself. And if you feel rocked by recent events to the point of feeling like it’s affecting your well-being, it may be a sign that you need professional help, such as talking to a therapist, says Annie Carpenter, MS. “If there’s a part of you that feels shut down or uncomfortable, you may have some repressed emotions,” she says. “If you don’t talk about those, they have a chance of causing more harm.” 

Support those who have been victims and want to talk. 

While it may seem obvious to listen to someone’s story, Peg Shippert, MA, LPC, says that listening well is one of the most important things you can do—and it may be harder than you think. “A lot of people have a lot to say about this phenomenon going on right now, but a victim doesn’t need to hear your thoughts on the topic—what they need is to be heard and acknowledged,” she says. Try not to ask a lot of questions; instead, simply listen, and convey to them that you believe what they’re saying. “Almost every victim of sexual harassment or assault has had experiences where they tell someone what happened, and that person questions parts of her story,” adds Shippert. “That is so hurtful and potentially damaging.”

Double down on go-to self-care tactics, and use your yoga.

Now is the time to do whatever you usually do to feel good. “For most of us, that often includes connecting with the network of people who’ve been a reliable, safe support system for you in the past. If it feels right, let them know this is a tough time for you,” says Shippert. If yoga has become something that re-opens old wounds, listen to that, too. “This might mean not going to your favorite class, finding another teacher, or trying private classes,” she says. “You might also ask a friend to go with you—someone you feel safe with.” Right now, we all need a practice that helps us feel empowered, says Carpenter. If not asana, maybe work with a deity, such as Durga, that helps you tap into your resilience. Or if letting your voice come out through chanting works, do that, she says. “Use your yoga to feel strong and clear; it’s from that place that you’ll be able to handle it all.”

See also 7 Poses to Release Trauma in the Body

If you're a yoga teacher or organization...

By David Lipsius, president and CEO, Yoga Alliance

Understand power dynamics.

Even when no malicious intent is present, energy can shift easily from healthy classroom relationships to an unhealthy power imbalance. If you’re a teacher, hold yourself accountable to the inherent power dynamic at play in the yoga teacher–student relationship. At minimum, you may be viewed by your students as a more advanced practitioner and an experienced guide. At maximum, you may be viewed as a master, guru, or enlightened being. Either way, do not abuse the power that is enmeshed in the relationship. Teaching yoga comes with great responsibility to individual students and the community you serve; maintain an appropriate boundary, and let the yoga practices themselves become the guru for all students.

Ask permission before all hands-on assists. 

Use consent cards (or “yes/no” discs, stones, symbols) and verbal affirmation every time you assist a student. Every student deserves to be empowered within their own practice. Always ask permission before touching a student. Using clear communication, make each assist an empowering co-creation, inviting students to choose or decline your help, to change their mind, and to alter their answer from moment to moment. All types of hands-on assists require consent, including nurturing presses, manipulative adjustments, and press-point assists. To safely support all students in each class, strengthen your skillfulness with nontouch assists: Use precise verbal cues and invitational mirroring.

Update, clarify, and publish your policies and procedures.

Community leaders in all settings must be explicit about what they will do in the event of a report of assault, rape, unwanted touching, or other misconduct in their yoga space. A well-defined response policy is necessary to lay a clear foundation for public safety. Be clear, be precise, and ensure that all policies and procedures are published and available for everyone to see. Then train your staff to follow those policies and procedures to the letter, every time. Consistent enforcement is essential to develop and maintain a culture of safety.

Set in place an explicit reporting structure. 

It’s unrealistic to think that a yoga institution is equipped to function like a qualified law-enforcement, investigative, or judicial body. For all reports of criminal activity, law enforcement should be notified—without delay. Have phone numbers for law enforcement and victim advocacy groups clearly posted. For noncriminal but questionable activity, clarify the reporting structure within your organization and advise and train all employees, contractors, and students to report violations to the appropriate human-resources professional, an ombudsperson, security person, or manager. Effectively training staff in reporting procedures helps employees at all levels feel empowered to speak up against abuse.

Acknowledge the issue of sexual misconduct, and act as a leader. 

Far too often in yoga’s history, a yoga brand, lineage, tradition, ashram, or organization has failed to properly acknowledge and deal with problems related to sexual misconduct. For a better future, all yoga institutions need to openly discuss their history and take active steps to change the dynamics that led to alleged abuse and the alleged silencing of whistle-blowers. Use external—not internal—experts and support networks to address the issues. Together, we can change cultural systems so that issues are no longer kept within the “family.” Many thriving traditions have become stronger over the years by learning from difficult experiences. Transparency, honesty, and truth can be used to help educate, elevate, and inspire future generations of yogis. 

See also Rachel Brathen on Motherhood, #MeToo, and the Future of Yoga