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How to Lead in Challenging Times

David Lipsius, the former president and CEO of Yoga Alliance, shares his thoughts on what it takes to be a leader in the yoga community.

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David Lipsius is the former CEO of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and the former president and CEO of Yoga Alliance—the default governing body of the yoga community. Lipsius accomplished much in his 18-month-long tenure at Yoga Alliance, including creating the Yoga Alliance Foundation, which brings yoga to underserved populations. Before leaving his post in order to be closer to his family, he also helped evolve the standards of yoga teacher training and created a policy on sexual misconduct. Here, Lipsius provides insight into his own leadership approach and his views on the continued need for self-reflection, personal responsibility, and cultural evolution within the yoga community. 

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Yoga Journal: One of the first things you did at Yoga Alliance was create a committee to review the standards for teacher-training programs, which includes people in the yoga community outside Yoga Alliance. Why?

David Lipsius: One thing that was very important to me as a leader was to make sure that we reoriented our model from a hierarchical structure to a wisdom-seeking structure. For the standards-review project, I wanted to ensure that decision-making didn’t only come from the Yoga Alliance board or from the leadership team.

There are a lot of really smart people in the world and really caring yogis who can help evolve the standards. So, we divided the key questions on how to evolve the standards into eight areas of inquiry. Then we invited people into committee work to examine each of those. We also engaged the public through a massive survey, and we went on listening tours to talk to yogis around the world about how they thought the yoga standard should evolve. Now we’re 10 months into that effort and have a treasure trove of information, guidance, and leadership. We’ll use it to develop new standards and bring it back to our member teachers and schools in 2019.

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YJ: How do you think your background in law and media influenced your leadership in the yoga space?

DL: As a nonpracticing attorney, I’ve worked in really diverse environments with high-quality human resources. And as I began to enter yoga spaces, what became clear was that some of the basic things that we take for granted, in, let’s call it “the outside world,” such as not inappropriately touching people in a workplace, were absolutely common practice in many yoga spaces. So, I think we need to look at the cultural norms of these spaces with fresh eyes.

All cultures should examine their past and learn from it. Yogis can, at times, hold themselves only to the insular cultures from which they came—the lineages, traditions, and organizations, modern or old. I’m suggesting that real leaders in yoga—which means all yoga teachers, because yoga teachers are community leaders—should learn from other communities outside of yoga.

YJ: It couldn’t have been easy stepping into the role of CEO of Yoga Alliance after so many instances of sexual harassment and assault by yoga teachers had surfaced. What did you bring to your role there as a leader on an emotional level?

DL: I try to come from a place of service first. I look at my way of leadership as an opportunity to think about how I can help drive positive change. If we always approach our work in yoga as an effort to unify and to see connection to each other, then the outcomes—at least, in my experience—are always positive. Alternatively, if we are competing or creating divisions or accusing others, the result is often failure.

YJ: What did you learn at Kripalu that you’ve brought with you to Yoga Alliance, particularly in terms of the impact of sexual trauma and power dynamics?

David Lipsius
Charlie Pappas

DL: There is one universal truth in life, which is suffering. Everyone, to some degree—no matter how together they seem, how much yoga they’ve practiced, or how wise they are—is in some way suffering. And yoga is the pathway out of that suffering. One of the key sufferings that I’ve seen across all yoga lineages, traditions, and organizations is that caused by the misconduct of leading teachers. What I saw at Kripalu has influenced my thinking and actions at Yoga Alliance. When I walked in the doors of Kripalu, the suffering caused by the betrayal of Amrit Desai was still present and hurtful even 17 years later. So, what do we do with that information? It starts with truth. Then, we need to create new systems instead of repeating broken systems. Finally, it goes to healing after those new systems are in place.

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YJ: So, it’s a process …

DL: It’s a three-step process: We all need to begin telling the truth about our lineages, our traditions, and our gurus; we need to develop better systems that address the power dynamics and contributors to potential abuse; and we need to create systems that allow for reporting, accountability, and support for survivors instead of what we’ve seen in many organizations and lineages over the years. We also need to allow the space and time for healing for all parties, particularly survivors. Survivors need to be supported and believed.

I think we also have to recognize that the healing of communities is a difficult and long-term process in which everyone needs to collaborate, take part, and honor. The hurt doesn’t necessarily end the moment a person who violated the law is removed or the moment a survivor gets justice.

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YJ: What role can yoga teachers play in this process?

DL: In yoga, we serve as teachers to help heal suffering. In order to help heal that suffering, yoga teachers must have extremely strong ethics, the discipline to create system changes, as well as a desire for self-inquiry—to be able to look at and tolerate the difficult places and corners of our lives. There’s often a desire to discard and dispose of the things we’d rather keep in the shadows, but it’s important to remember that shadow and light are not diametrically opposed; they’re intricately wound together.

YJ: Do you think the yoga community needs a clear standard code of ethics, such as the one that exists in the Buddhist community? And would Yoga Alliance be the body to conduct investigations?

DL: Unequivocally yes. At Yoga Alliance, we started putting a code of ethics in place, based on the wisdom that has been gathered by many experts, as well as an analysis of all the mistakes and shortcomings of past attempts at this. Yoga Alliance will roll out this code of ethics in 2019.

YJ: What is a yoga studio’s role when it comes to both educating teachers about misconduct and then holding teachers accountable?

DL: Yoga studios and schools are educational institutions, and so both Yoga Alliance and individual yoga institutions have a responsibility to evolve their curriculum and policies. Most yogis I’ve spoken to are less interested in blaming a studio or a lineage or even Yoga Alliance, and they’re more interested in bringing higher consciousness to studios and schools and organizations. 

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