A man banned from Equinox last summer after making allegations of sexual assault against a yoga teacher organized a flashmob protest/slow-flow yoga class Tuesday night outside of a San Francisco location of the health club to “send a message that covering-up sexual assault in yoga is NOT OK.” About 12 participants shut down the street, six yoga studios and community groups donated mats, and over 100 flyers were handed out to Equinox members. But Equinox says they’ve investigated the yogi’s claims and found them to be “unfounded.”
“Both the San Francisco Police Department and our internal team investigated these allegations and found them to be unfounded,” an Equinox spokesperson tells Yoga Journal. “These investigations both included access to extensive video footage.”
Colin Heilbut says he was sexually assaulted at Equinox by a yoga teacher last August, when the teacher asked him to stay after class for extra help. “What followed were instructions for ‘yoga poses’ or ‘stretches’ that I subsequently realized were an elaborate ruse to enable him to touch me inappropriately,” Heilbut writes in this Change.org petition. After Heilbut reported the alleged incident to the club, they fired the instructor, but also banned Heilbut from Equinox later that month.
See also The Ethics and Liabilities of Touch
A source with knowledge of the investigation tells Yoga Journal that after Heilbut made the accusations, Equinox immediately launched an internal investigation, working with San Francisco police. The source also says the accused yoga teacher was fired for violating employee policies completely unrelated to the assault allegations. When Heilbut’s allegations were inconsistent with what Equinox and the police found in their investigations, Equinox decided to part ways with him as a member, the source says, adding that “Equinox takes these types of allegations very seriously.”
Heilbut says he knows of seven other people who “have recently been sexually assaulted or harassed” at the same Equinox location, and “the company has willfully ignored our complaints.” He adds that an eighth person approached him during the protest and said Equinox mishandled her sexual harassment complaint as well. “Equinox takes allegations of this nature very seriously,” an Equinox spokesperson tells YJ. “We are committed to thoroughly investigating and understanding all complaints brought to our attention.”
See also The Trouble with Touch
Heilbut, who “draws strength” from the #MeToo movement but was not directly inspired by it, says what allegedly happened to him speaks to a much broader problem in yoga. “Yoga in particular is susceptible to predators,” he tells Yoga Journal, explaining that yogis can be vulnerable because they tend to put a great deal of trust in their teachers, and touch is an acceptable and normal part of yoga. “We are speaking out against corporations that endorse or condone sexual violence by punishing the survivor, [which has] the chilling effect of stopping people from speaking out.”
Heilbut has filed a lawsuit to recover monetary damages from Equinox, including punitive damages as well as civil penalties. He is also seeking to require Equinox to improve staff training on appropriate responses to sexual harassment and/or assault and to cease terminating the memberships of persons who complain about sexual harassment and/or assault. “We intend to defend vigorously against the claims in the lawsuit,” a spokesperson for Equinox tells Yoga Journal.