Last week, yoga teacher and entrepreneur Rachel Brathen (aka @Yoga_Girl) shattered the yoga world when she collected more than 300 #MeToo stories in which yogis share their experiences of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault within what they thought was a safe yoga space. “I hope that shedding light on this issue will [contribute] to some sort of change," she wrote in the explosive blog post. "This post is not about my own #MeToo stories (I recorded a podcast episode available here if you want to listen), but about the many women (and some men) that have been courageous enough to speak up.”
In an interview with Yoga Journal, Brathen added that the revelation of these stories has been a long time coming. "Women have been conditioned to not speak about it, or think that it’s just normal or mundane to be harassed or abused. But people have known about these abuses in the yoga community for decades. So, for now, the work is empowering women, to encourage them to keep the stories coming.”
Brathen's Call for #MeToo Yoga Stories
Brathen reached out to yogis on Instagram, asking them to share their #MeToo stories, and received more than 300 submissions, many of which name the same yoga teachers again and again. To protect herself legally, Brathen censored the names of the accusers and the accused out of her post, along with details that could lead to the discovery of the alleged predators. However, in cases where multiple women have spoken up about the same man, she is connecting them (with consent) to see if as a group, they want to publicly speak the teacher’s name or take legal action.
“Then we need a system, at the very least, for abusive teachers to be miscredited," Brathen said. "If you abuse people or if you take advantage of your place of power during a teacher training or class, you shouldn’t be able to continue leading those."
The stories Brathen collected vary in many ways—from being adjusted in class inappropriately and being propositioned for sex to being aggressively or violently assaulted—but they often share one thing in common: the victims were shocked to be violated in what they thought was a sacred, protected space, and by members of the yoga community that they respected.
The History of Sexual Misconduct in Yoga
Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., who has taught yoga since 1971, shared Brathen’s blog post on her Facebook page, noting that she has been “aware of this problem in our community for a very long time.” In fact, while some allegations of sexual impropriety, harassment, and abuse in the yoga world are relatively recent, like the ones against Bikram Choudhury, others go back decades.
Lasater also says she personally has #MeToo stories dating back to when she was 12 years old, and was touched in a sexually inappropriate manner by a famous yogi decades ago. Expressing sentiments similar to those of many of the victims who emailed their stories to Brathen, Lasater told Yoga Journal, "In the context of a yoga class, I was dumbstruck that this would happen and it totally immobilized me. I thought of a yoga class as a sacred place, almost like going to church, and the thought of that happening was not something I had ever even conceived of.”
Lasater reached out to Brathen to offer her support in bringing "compassionate justice" to the perpetrators. "I think that that teaching yoga is a privilege and an honor, not a right. It's a responsibility. We need to hold the perpetrators in integrity for what they have done with that responsibility. Their actions have harmed not only the people who love them and their students, it's damaged the wider yoga community—it's damaged the reputation of yoga in the world. They have chosen actions of harming. When you are acting in the way that some of these men have acted, that ambiance is in your classes and it infuses the class. And it's not just the women who were literally abused, it's the woman on mat next to her who sees this behavior."
How the Yoga Community Can Respond & Support Victims
David Lipsius, the new President and CEO of Yoga Alliance, told Yoga Journal that the new administration at the influential yoga nonprofit is determined to take on the devastating issue of sexual harassment and abuse in the yoga community. "I am heartbroken by the #MeToo stories in yoga, and the new administration at Yoga Alliance is absolutely committed to tackling this issue head on, and with great vigor," he shared in a statement. "Our Code of Ethics committee has begun initial work and is mobilizing for a critical push in January. 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. The simple fact is, those who commit crimes must be held accountable. There is no excuse for sexual misconduct or abuse of power in a yoga studio, ashram, retreat center, conference, festival, or any other venue."
Lipsius requests that as a first step, all victims reach out to an appropriate support system such as the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and its National Sexual Assault Hotline, and consider contacting law enforcement and/or a lawyer if it feels right. "Once that care has begun, Yoga Alliance may be able to offer additional support," he adds. "While we are not a law enforcement or judicial body, we do have a grievance policy that gives us the ability to evaluate incidents and to take action. We take all allegations seriously and now have an accountability department with teeth."
Lipsius also encourages all yoga institutions, including studios, organizations, centers, festivals, and more, to put robust reporting and safety mechanisms in place for sexual abuse and harassment, if they haven't already.
"To all [victims], let me say I believe you. Further, we are committed to finding healthy ways to change systems, so that no one else is victimized by corrupt individuals or groups and yoga can return to a non-harming and safe-for-all state."
Brathen adds that she is hopeful. "There are so many great male teachers out there who wouldn’t cross that boundary ever. We don’t want this to spark fear, or the sentiment that ‘I can never take a class with a man again.’ We just need to get rid of these bad apples and show everyone that this is not OK—that if something happens there is action that follows; that you don’t have a place in this community if you are a predator."
Yoga Journal is reporting on these issues on an ongoing basis. Check back for more coverage on yogajournal.com and in the upcoming March issue of the magazine.