morning rants

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Artist unknown – sorry! If you know, tell me, I will give credit where credit is due.

Good morning, yoga peeps!  No, I’m not going to say NAMASTE.

Because OH MY GODDESS, GIVE ME STRENGTH TO DEAL WITH THIS MODERN YOGA WORLD.

I just came back from one of my favorite places on Earth and I’m not talking about India.  The only reason I returned home was my cat Maggie, NOT because I have to teach yoga.  So I am feeling extra ranty this morning.

Two articles came up in my Facebook news feed and of  course there’s lots of back and forth and blah blah blah about it.

Y’all might have seen the original article about ethics for yoga teachers, the one that appeared in the New York Times.

This is the one being discussed in my FB feed today:  A Code of Ethics for Yoga Teachers – a draft.  

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

As a Buddhist, I’ve also taken the Five Precepts.  But those AND Patanjali’s Yamas and Niyamas don’t stop anyone from doing anything if they really want to commit something or take advantage of someone.

We’re talking about INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY, PEOPLE.

Fuck rules or suggesting that LICENSING yoga teachers will help.  There are scummy yoga teachers who know the Yamas and Niyamas and still went off the rails. There are Buddhist lamas who slept with their students.  There are yoga teachers who don’t know yoga philosophy from a hole in the ground yet they are ethical and smart teachers.

Maybe I’m a total simpleton but I don’t need a set a rules to enforce me to be kind, to have empathy, to not take advantage of someone, to not cheat someone, etc. etc. etc.  Too much talk, not enough discernment.

The other article is Yoga can be painful and can lead to injury, study says.

Well, no shit, Sherlock.

“Doctor, my shoulders hurt so much from doing 108 chaturungas in my Power Yoga class every day.  What should I do?”

“Don’t do them.  Take a rest.”

DUH.

I’m pretty much over these reductionist articles about yoga including the recent one that Consumer Reports published about how yoga is great for back pain.  YAY, everyone jump on the yoga bandwagon because IT’S ALL GOOD!

Yoga IS good for back pain. But depending on the yoga AND the yoga teacher it can also aggravate back pain.

How is “yoga” defined?  If a doctor tells someone to “do yoga” where are they going to go? To a local studio where a class is taught by someone just out of a 200 hr training the previous week?

To a local gym or park district fitness center where classes are an hour and there are 30 people in a class?

Or are they going to seek out private one on one yoga with someone with a ton of training and experience who has studied in a therapeutic yoga tradition for 10+ years and knows how to modify asanas/meditation/breathwork for their body and condition?

This is why there must be differentiation between asana only classes and yoga as a vehicle for transformation mind/body/spirit (whatever spirit means to you.)  Those categories require different levels of training and have different outcomes.

I’ve always said YOGA is a question of semantics because asana only is not YOGA.  Yeah, I said that, deal with it.  As I’ve said before, I heard Desikachar say in class, “Yoga contains asana, pranayama, and meditation.  Anything else is acrobatics.”

Talk amongst yourselves.

 

 

who says yoga classes should be 90 minutes?

New York yoga teacher J. Brown raised an interesting question today in his blog post regarding the “Incredible Shrinking Yoga Class.”

He writes, “In the last twenty years, yoga in the west has gone from a guru-driven model to a market-driven model. Decisions still often come from atop a pyramid. But now, the directives are based more on aggregated data than on the presumed authority of an ancient wisdom. One small manifestation of this turn can be found in the way that yoga classes have gotten progressively shorter. As yoga teachers are newly questioning old models for what and how they teach, industry mores also deserve examination.”

When I got back into yoga in the mid-1990s the class I attended at my local park district was 60 minutes.  I practiced at the park district for about 7 years (never moving into an “advanced” class whatever that meant back then) before I did my first teacher training and started attending yoga classes in Chicago studios where the classes were 90 minutes.

Those 7 years of 60 minute classes were never “just asana” classes.  Not that we talked much about philosophy or even did formal pranayama, but the teacher was a mindful yoga type before being”mindful” was a thing in Modern Yoga.

J. Brown writes, “Perhaps there needs to be a better way to distinguish between classes that are more directly concerned with the broader aspects of yoga, and those more geared towards an exercise regimen which potentially hints at something found elsewhere.” [emphasis supplied]

I have a simple answer for that: don’t call the asana only/exercise regimen classes “yoga.”  Truth in Advertising, what a concept.

I wrote about that in 2010 (sigh) when I said it was a question of semantics.

Or if it’s an asana-only class, why call it yoga at all? Physical therapists use movements derived from yoga all the time but they don’t call it “yoga.” It’s physical therapy and everybody knows that is what it is. Nothing else.

Getting back to the length of time of a typical modern yoga class, at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram where I trained the morning asana classes are 60 minutes.  The asana classes also include pranayama and meditation (which is how I teach) and the classes do not feel rushed, in fact, they are perfectly sequenced.  Long savasana is not needed (like a 10 minute one at the end of typical American classes) because we do one or two minute savasanas after certain sequences.

So who decreed that a yoga class needs to be 90 minutes?   But I guess that depends on what calls “yoga” (getting back to semantics.)

At the KYM pranayama classes contain some asana and the meditation class — a whole hour of meditative focus, how shocking! – contains some asana and of course, pranayama.  In other words, the yoga is not compartmentalized like it is here, the yoga is a seamless process.

A shorter, powerful practice is absolutely possible, it depends on the skill and training of the teacher.  But who can teach that way coming out of a modern 200 hour teacher training?

If what is referred to as “yoga” nowadays is shrunk to 60 minutes of posing and a 5 minute nap at the end, how then is that Yoga?  A 60 minute class of 20 minutes each of functional asana, pranayama, and meditation, skillfully taught, can be more potent than 90 minutes of something where “the teacher kicked my ass” that I used to hear all the time in studios.  How many 90 minute classes are nothing more than rushing through as many sun salutations as possible with no attention paid to the breath and doing a typical vinyasa flow once on each side and moving on?

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my “freedom style” yoga class in India

Thank the Goddess I no longer teach in yoga studios.  J. Brown writes, “The days of regular attendance in group classes allowing for a comprehensive yoga education have perhaps passed. People are not generally looking for a yoga education when they are coming to a yoga class anymore.”

Maybe so, I haven’t taught in studios for years.  I teach out of my house and I’ve been told my classes ARE like going to Yoga School.  Maybe that’s why some of my students (few that they are nowadays) have been with me since Day One of my teaching in 2002.  They keep telling me every class has been different in all those years.  I still can’t figure that out.

As a wise and pithy friend commented in my semantics post linked above:

“It’s [Yoga] a path of liberation we are talking about here – and not from “bra fat!” Patanjali’s first Yoga Sutra (Hartranft translaton) says it all:

Now, the teachings of yoga.
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.
Otherwise awareness takes itself to be
the patterns of consciousness.”

That can still be done in a 60 minute class.  You just have to know how.

children’s yoga

Overheard a long time ago:

“People can learn to bend over and touch their toes (or rather, re-learn since they could do that as a child), and yet that isn’t necessarily yoga.”

I read a story about a yoga student who thinks he is an “advanced” student because he can put his leg behind his neck and other pretzel poses. You know, an Instagram Yogi with thousands of followers.

Thinking he has accomplished everything, he goes to India to find a “yoga master” to teach him more. He finds a yoga master in a cave (of course) and begs to become his student.

The master tells him to show him his most advanced pose so the “advanced yogi” guy does some crazy leg behind the neck arm balance.

“Hmmmmm….,” says the master. “Children can do that, too.”

The guy is shocked and dismayed and disillusioned.

The master says, “Now you can start learning Yoga.”

“Stripping the Sacred” – Brenda Feuerstein

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Patanjali

“Teach people, not poses.” — Gary Kraftsow (paraphrased)

“Yoga contains asana, pranayama, meditation.
Anything else is acrobatics.”
(TKV Desikachar, from a long ago intensive in India)

Many of you know Brenda Feuerstein.  She was married to eminent Yoga scholar, Georg Feuerstein (1947-2012) and they collaborated on a wealth of books and trainings in traditional Yoga.   Brenda carries on their work in Traditional Yoga Studies where she does distance learning courses and has a Philosophy/History Training Manual for teaching that segment of 200- to 500-hour Yoga teacher training programs.  It can be purchased here.

Recently on her Facebook page she posted this note that generated many comments.  I believe her words should reach a larger audience beyond Facebook so Brenda gave me permission to post it here.

Of course I agree wholeheartedly.  One of my students who has studied with me for 7+ years is moving out of state and she said:  “This is a great post, I love it and it is so true. I am sure this is exactly what I will be facing once I move and attempt to find a studio/teacher that provide real yoga as it was intended.”

Talk amongst yourselves.

Stripping the Sacred
*Warning – you might not want to hear this*

I started learning Yoga when I was very small from a book my Mom had purchased. Richard Hittleman was the author and I suspect there was no other book on Yoga at the pharmacy where my Mom would have been shopping at the time. She was probably intrigued having read something in Reader’s Digest or possibly heard the word on one of the two TV channels that were available to us.

A little later a TV show started featuring German born Yoga teacher Kareen H. Zebroff. My Mom and I would “do” Yoga with her once a week. We had no sticky Yoga mat, no meditation cushion, no clothing that set us apart from anyone else, and no studio to support our practice after the show. We sat on the cold farmhouse floor and didn’t wonder if we should look into stickier mats and travel mats. My Mom and I just practiced and I felt a “specialness” that I wouldn’t fully understand until years later.

In my teens, I ended up in a small town where I saw a hand written poster of a Yoga class being held at the school gym. Nothing was said about getting my cakras cleared, my core muscles being strengthened, and no mention of the Yoga Alliance. It was straightforward just like her class. There was no music, no props, nothing to sit on but the floor, and most people didn’t even have an exercise mat. People wore sweat pants and t-shirts and a sweatshirt if it was a cold evening. She introduced herself as having studied at the Sivananada ashram and most people had no idea what that meant but most recognized the feeling of “specialness” in her heart. It was quiet and no one was showing how they could do a headstand before class. The class was straight forward. When she spoke it wasn’t in hard-to-understand anatomical terms, but she did use Sanskrit throughout the class. I suspect that is the way she was taught. She spoke gently and sweetly about her teacher and I’d often see her in tears which I knew meant something very “special”. Her class was challenging but not necessarily in a physical way. She taught us Yoga philosophy saying we needed to learn it well otherwise we were just doing calisthenics and we should go elsewhere if that’s what we wanted. She was strong and courageous and filled with love for her teacher and the path of Yoga.

Jump forward to 2015. I was invited to live in a city after living in a rural area for several years and I decided that experience would be helpful in better understanding the current state of Yoga (generally speaking). I was taken to studios daily until I suffered a severe injury. The injury was the result of two Yoga teachers believing they could fix my life-long physical condition from a C3,4,5 fracture that had healed well enough for me to lead a strong and very active life. Even though I told both teachers prior to the class that it was best to not adjust me under any circumstance because I’d worked one-on-one with therapists for years and knew my body very well, my adho mukha śvānāsana, utthita trikonasana, and śavāsana didn’t look “right” to them so I got surprise adjustments and was unable to function normally for months and even today I’m still suffering from the well-meaning teachers who thought they could cure me with their 200-500 hour YA training. Now I understand that modern postural Yoga has helped many people with physical injuries, but the fact remains these teachers felt they could “heal” me with Yoga when in fact I ended up being severally injured. I don’t know of a Yoga anatomy module in any teacher training that would address “fixing” or “healing” neck fractures.

What I learned through all of it was that the “specialness” – the sacred – appears to have been stripped away from Yoga. How is it that we went from a class or two a week offering to a gym/studio setting with 20-30 or more classes a week? How can anything feel sacred when there is so much of it and students become numbers on ledger for the accountant? True, for a tantric it could be, but really? I suspect that many people who say they’re tantrics have no idea what they mean and when asked come up with something they’ve memorized from the internet or some book written by someone who heard tantra sells.

My own opinion is that as long as we have large studios pumping out teachers and building their client base we will never fully regain the sacredness in Yoga. It will continue to be a marketplace where one teacher is trying to outdo the next one and where the words disrespect, lack of teacher and lineage recognition, and plagiarism means getting ahead in business.

We’ve used and abused a tradition with a sacred foundation and the outcome has been devastating on so many levels. People email me asking about book recommendations stating they’re confused with everything that’s out there. People email me and say they have to take a break from their Yoga practice because they’re injured, and I respond with, “what an incredible opportunity you have to go into the foundation of traditional Yoga by studying philosophy!” People email and say, “I feel bullied…do I have to certify with YA?” People email and say, “I don’t want to learn Sanskrit in a Yoga training.” I respond, “Please go talk to your Grade 1 teacher and ask them if learning the English language (that being their first language) was important for your Reading class.” and the list goes on and on…

There are people trying their best to keep the sacred in this beautiful tradition of Yoga, and possibly like me, they feel exhausted and frustrated at times. How many Yoga magazines do we need to buy? How many books on asanas do we really need? How many ways do we need to explain the yamas which were so clearly stated? How many ways do we need to do things before we finally see that the sacredness of Yoga is hanging on by a thread? How many times does this need to happen before we wake up?

do I need to be anointed to be credible?

 

So much goes on in the Modern Yoga World (TM) now that it’s hard to keep up without it sounding like a constant rant.  Maybe I should just write about what actor or rock star does yoga, post a photo of them drinking a latte with a mat under their arm, and comment on what brand yoga pants they wear.  That would really be so much easier and would probably get me more readers.  But I digress.

I’m sure by now many of you have heard about the Yoga Alliance stance on using terms such as “yoga therapy” or “therapeutic yoga” or anything that sounds like a teacher has anything to do with “healing” or “medicine” or even “alleviating.”  You can can go on their site and see the restricted words.  As someone who worked for litigation lawyers for 20 years I know it was a CYA (“cover your ass”) move.

The policy does not only apply to your YA profile but also to your personal website IF you are YA registered.  Don’t register with the YA and you can say whatever you want about what you do or how you teach.

I am now an E-RYT 500 teacher with the YA and also an official “Continuing Education Provider.”  Yes, yes, yes, I know — I ranted for years about the Yoga Alliance, I totally own that.  You can read what I wrote in 2011 here when I was a mere E-RYT 200.

But the fact remains that there are those WHO WILL NOT STUDY OR TRAIN WITH A TEACHER UNLESS THEY ARE ANOINTED BY THE YOGA ALLIANCE.  I resisted reinstating my YA registration for years and finally broke down.  Of the teachers I know who also consider the YA useless and a waste of money, 100% say that the reason they pay up is because of the above reason.  The teacher training I took at the old school Chicago studio where I originally certified in 2002 was never YA registered until people starting asking the owner whether his training was YA registered.

The fact is that I re-joined the YA purely for marketing reasons, not because I think it means anything.  The fact is that after teaching for 15 years, training for 10 years in India, and being featured in a book, I am a yoga nobody where I live so if the YA seals give me “credibility” and “presence”, so be it.

I do not have the luxury of owning a studio that can attract students.  And yes, if you are surviving and making money with a yoga studio that IS a luxury in today’s yoga business market, consider yourself lucky.  I live in a town of 25,000 and there are three studios besides a park district that offers yoga.  Fifteen years ago when I started teaching and basically knew nothing, I had 40 students in another park district’s class.  Now I am lucky if I have five students who show up consistently.  Those students don’t care about the YA but if I can get teachers who want more training by using the YA seal, I am going to use it to my advantage.  It ain’t personal, it’s business, baby.

Cora Wen told me that back in 2001 Judith Lasater told her: “Every profession has an organisation and YA looks like they are winning in the registry.  Get the certificate now.  Or you will one day have to pay someone less qualified than you are to get a certificate.”

There ya go.  Like I said….

YACEP

Now the International Association of Yoga Therapists has rolled out their “certification” for yoga therapists.  I’ve been an IAYT member for years and even wrote an article for their journal on teaching trauma sensitive yoga.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think there should be some type of measure of a yoga teacher’s ability just as there is a measure for massage therapists, for example.  And yes, I know MTs are licensed which I absolutely do not agree with for yoga teachers.  But for these paid for labels to be the be-all and end-all and the only thing that makes a teacher worthy in the public eye makes me very itchy.

I looked into the IAYT certification process but I don’t have the proof that in all the intensives I took at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram that there was any “yoga therapy” involved.  But there was because there always is something about yoga therapeutics beyond asana practice.

What got me thinking about all of this was the article “Are We Entering a Golden Age of Yoga Therapy??” by Eden Goldman.  According to Goldman’s quote…

“Yoga Therapy is the philosophy, art, and science of adapting classical Yoga techniques to contemporary situations to support people with physical, mental, and emotional ailments. According to the definition of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), “Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga.”

Practically speaking, Yoga Therapy is the reinvention of a personalized Yoga experience where the practice is modified to meet the individual’s ever-changing needs. Since ancient times, adaptability in one’s teaching, practice, and approach has rested at the heart of Yoga’s most fundamental influence: the relationship, insights, and trust created through the practice by one teacher working with one student.”

…I’ve been a “yoga therapist” for 10+ years.  Do I still need to be anointed by the IAYT to be credible?

I’ve done 10 years of many intensives at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, multiple yoga therapy trainings including two levels of Phoenix Rising, 300 hours of Svastha Yoga Therapy with Dr. Ganesh Mohan, a Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors training at Duke University, and trauma sensitive yoga.  Besides teaching in India and Africa.

Can I call myself a “master teacher”?  You tell me.

Do I still need the YA and IAYT seals on my website to prove my worth to the rest of the world?

It’s become crystal clear to me that the name of the game in the Modern Yoga World is MARKETING because no one gives a damn about all of the above.  I don’t have the $6,000 that I need to upgrade my website to grab SEO and make it the latest and greatest Yoga Business site.  It’s much cheaper for me to lose myself in South India and hang a shingle that says “YOGA TEACHER TRAINING.”

In my 15 years of teaching I’ve never put myself out there as a “yoga therapist” because I believe all yoga can be therapeutic if applied in a beneficial manner.  Even Bikram Yoga was beneficial to the Vietnam War vet who spoke to us about his PTSD when I did the trauma sensitive yoga training.

I’ve always said that no one called Krishnamacharya a yoga therapist, he taught YOGA.

Krishnamacharya’s principle was “Teach what is inside you, not as it applies to you, to yourself, but as it applies to the other.“  He taught that Yoga should always be adapted to the unique needs of each individual.

Does one who jumps through the hoops and pays for the IAYT “certification” automatically know more or is more capable of supporting or empowering someone than I am?  The buying of labels has been problematic for me for years. It’s the same old story: people will study with a Yoga Alliance or IAYT labeled teacher before they will with someone who has the years of experience.

In the end, I don’t need validation.
I know what I offer.

But then in this Modern Yoga day and age there is this passing itself off as “Yoga Medicine.”  Yes, you CAN think yourself thin AND sexy!

It’s Tara Stiles’ Slim Calm Sexy Yoga all over again.  Just use the word “meditate” and it makes it all credible and so deliciously New Age.

THAT POST IS EVERYTHING THAT IS WRONG WITH MODERN YOGA.

Women with eating disorders feel bad enough about themselves already, how much worse will they feel if they can’t “think themselves thin”?  At least she didn’t mention bra fat.

How is this in any way empowering?  I’m all about mindful eating and eating healthy foods, but the buzzwords used by this “master yoga teacher and specialist in sports and Chinese medicine” are what is typically found on a magazine cover at your grocery store check out line, the same bullshit that sounds like “LOSE YOUR BELLY FAT IN 5 EASY YOGA MOVES!”

No wonder us old school teachers throw in the towel

Funny.  I did not see the Yoga Alliance or IAYT seals on her website.  Anywhere.

Without them you can say whatever you want to say about yoga.

diversity in Yoga — again

Back in 2007 when people used to read me, I wrote a post about the Color of Yoga asking why American Yoga is such a white thang.

Seven years later my friend and yoga teacher Oreste Prada said it was time to change the question about the whiteness of Yoga.

Today I read the perfect response to all of it.  One can talk the talk about Diversity in Yoga but ya gotta walk the walk:

“Most sanghas I visit are entirely white, and they ask me, ‘Pannavatti, how do we get more people of color in our sanghas?’ I say, ‘How many black people do you know? How many do you hang out with? How many do you invite over to your house? You can’t just put a shingle outside your center that says Black People Wanted.’” – Pannavati Bhikkhuni

Ven. Pannavati is known for her wit and humor and has received awards for her humanitarian work with “Untouchables” (Dalits) in India and ordaining nuns in Thailand & Cambodia.

I heart Ven. Pannavati.  Her work with dalits in my second home in India, Tamil Nadu, inspires me.

She comes from another mileu that is mostly populated by the white middle class: Western Buddhism.

Talk amongst yourselves.

 

 

 

Sex, Lies, and Yoga

survivor This is perhaps the most important and powerful post I have ever published in this blog.

And I didn’t write it.

I asked a friend and fellow yoga teacher to write not only about the topic of sex abuse in the modern yoga world, but also comment on how he feels the subject has been treated in the yoga blogosphere over the last year.   My friend requested anonymity and also being a trauma survivor, I honored his request.

His post may upset some and with good reason because this is a charged topic.  But the writer believes he has relayed it in a way that will not  cause more hurt to people who have already been hurt by these issues even if they don’t agree with him.

This is a long post so grab some coffee and a comfy chair, read and digest these words.  Then read it again.  And again.

Talk amongst yourselves.

_____________________________________________________________________

“SEX, LIES, AND YOGA”

It isn’t easy to write about the sex scandals that have plagued the yoga community in the last three years.  At least it isn’t if you or your friends have been involved in them.  But in recent discussions with a good friend on these matters, it struck me that much of the online and media discourse on the scandals serves more to create anger than to provide insight into the specific incidents and into the process and repercussions of abuse.  The language we use, the way we discuss these events is important because it is the only means to communicate what took place and how.  If done thoughtfully (and you don’t necessarily have to read this as “delicately”) then it can lead to (more) accurate accounts and meaningful discussion.  If done without regard for the power of language and an assessment of our emotional state, then discussion won’t likely be fruitful and may ultimately do more harm than good.

And so the idea of this piece was born.  Even though I have been a victim of abuse I don’t speak from a point of authority on abuse in general.  And despite being friends with some of the people involved in three of the scandals of the last three years, I can’t speak with authority on these scandals in particular.  Mine remains one point of view based on my experience and my interactions with the victims, perpetrators, and their friends and family.  But I offer a point of view that, at least as far as I’ve seen, has not been shared and is not typically shared when these things occur… a different way of seeing these problems, their players and the role of the community, whether or not it is involved in the discourse.

There is an element of vulnerability in these events that can be so overwhelming so as to make it feel deeply inappropriate to publicize the feelings, let alone the details.  You see, for most of those involved, these atrocities are not primarily about yoga, nor about the community, but rather about personal loss, failure, shame, and/or the betrayal of a friend, teacher, spouse or lover.  Their primary concern is not how to keep these things from happening again but dealing with the repercussions of the abuse and of its publicity.

They are facing spouses, families, children, friends and coworkers with details and implications of events that are tough to understand even as you are in the middle of them, perhaps especially if you are in the middle of them.  They face anxiety attacks, sleepless nights, constant tension in their relationships, stress from daily or weekly reminders of the events via online message boards, the hard work of admitting what went wrong and the even harder work of healing from it, facing consequences or making amends.

The yoga is incidental in most cases, a vehicle of opportunity rather than the cause (at least most of the time).  There are definitely elements within the context of the teacher/student relationship which create opportunities for impropriety… and things occur when opportunity meets tendency.  But this is no different than any other opportunistic vehicle.

Statistics are easier to find for some professions than others but somewhere between 2-10% of sexual misconduct rates seem to be the agreed upon statistic for primary and secondary education teachers, college professors and teaching assistants, clergy, physicians, psychiatrists, massage and physical therapists.  If these low percentages don’t really hit an emotional chord, consider that in the last 10 years, more than a quarter of U.S. school districts have reported cases of sexual abuse by teachers and coaches1.  Let me stress that this is for reported cases and, by most accounts, the majority of incidences of rape and abuse are believed to go unreported.2

No one is immune from abuse, not men, not the elderly, not the rich or the powerful.  But certain populations bear the brunt of the statistics with women in their teens, 20s and 30s showing the highest incidence of rape.  Sexual abuse and misconduct is a trickier realm than rape both in terms of definition and, as a result, legal repercussions; and for both these reasons, as well as the desire by most professions to maintain a good image, statistics on sexual abuse by profession are tough to find.  We expect that no job is safe, though certain professions seem to offer more opportunities for abuse than others.  The general trend seems clear: the likelihood of sexual abuse/misconduct increases proportionally with:

  • the level of intimacy of the relationship,
  • the duration of the sessions,
  • the length of time the relationship is sustained,
  • the amplitude of the power differential,
  • the amount of unsupervised interaction,
  • the emphasis of physical contact, and
  • the level of ease with which a victim can be effectively manipulated.

Psychiatrists and psychologists who maintain longer term, more frequent, more emotionally intimate doctor/patient relationships, and who enjoy longer sessions with their patients, see a much higher rate of sexual misconduct suits than non-psychiatric physicians, who typically see patients less frequently and who rarely devote more than a few minutes per session.  The opportunities to confuse the relationship, to act on sexual impulse, and to manipulate are much higher with psychiatrists/psychologists.  That isn’t to say that they will occur: the inclination has to be there.  But without the opportunity, the inclination will likely not be realized.

Within the yoga community we have a range of interactions and a number of elements that make us a vulnerable:

  • Power differential between teacher and student
  • A context of physical contact
  • Emotionally intimate interactions
  • Frequent (often weekly) sessions
  • Long (hour+) sessions
  • Unsupervised private sessions
  • An emphasis on the body’s ability or potential

Add to this that many classes are sexually charged either via flirtatious banter, skimpy attire, or through what is generally considered healthy discussion on the effects of practice on sex and sexuality, and the boundaries can be blurred easily and the context of the relationship shifted.

But as with other professions, the tendency has to be there.  Opportunity alone is not causal.  Left-handed Tantric practices aside (these are not standard in most yoga classes, though they have played a role in some of the high profile abuse cases of the past 20 years and seemed to feature prominently in at least two of the cases of the last two years), we do not have much that is inherent or unique in modern Westernized yoga that makes us more vulnerable to abuse than any of the professions I listed above.

We also have nothing that makes us immune to it.  Much of the West (and the U.S. in particular) entertains a culture whose values and norms make it difficult to discuss sex dysfunction and sexual abuse openly.  The deep sense of shame associated with both the perpetrator and victim mean that the latter are not likely to come forward and the former finds himself surrounded by an enabling community that is either insensitive to, under-educated about, or willing to second-guess their perception of suspicious behavior.

This culture despises complexity in ethical matters.  It’s much easier when lines drawn crisply between what is right and what is wrong, between who is innocent and who is guilty.  Blur these lines and the sense of discomfort is palpable, the discussion becomes confused and the ability to come to agreement on the motivations, on a resolution, or even on the sequence of events, more difficult.  Oftentimes, when an abuser is accused, there is a camp that comes quickly to his defense, using examples of his good public and private work as proof that he is in fact a good man as if good works and sex abuse were mutually exclusive.  Sex abuse is not something that only bad people do.

Lastly this culture still maintains high levels of inequality especially when it comes to gender, gender roles and sex.  Misogyny is standard in corporations and households.  Gender roles are frequently laid out in advertising and all manner of public media.  Market research and advertising offer some insight into our culture’s high regard youth, vitality and beauty and tends to ignore the experience of those who don’t fall into those two categories.

It is within the context of these values that sex abuse is framed and with it perceptions about who is likely to be a perpetrator (an inclination that often goes against the collected data), who is likely to be a victim, where and when the offenses are likely to occur, and the mechanics of the process.  It is also within this context that we frame the emotional implications and what we decide is the appropriate response to it.  This is not insignificant.  It plays a major role in how we discuss the problem, its players and in how effectively we can come to identify solutions.3

Hindsight on the myriad of sex abuse scandals of the last few years (including the Catholic Church, college sports, and high schools) betrays a Victorian intolerance for discussion of these matters.  More often than not anecdotes reveal how so many bystanders were willing to look the other way either out of shame, fear, confusion or self-interest, and it’s only after the offenses became especially repugnant, numerous, or public that they responded.  Once details become public, the response is generally emotional, and the call for retribution louder than that for understanding.

Problems in the yoga community have been no different.  Each time a yoga sex scandal erupts, it is typically only after the offenses have been going on for months, in most cases years.  There are multiple victims, there were others who knew or suspected what was going on, perhaps some even helped or took part in the offenses.

The community fractures into two or three major camps: those incensed by the wrongdoing and who want some kind of rectification or compensation for the victims, those who question the reliability of the accusations, and those who withdraw.  The latter is the group most often populated with victims, perpetrators and the close friends of each.  This isn’t because of cowardice but because it is to this specific group that the events are most personal and it can be devastating to see personal details of your life, especially of moments that you are ashamed of, deeply affected by, or which you consider especially personal, play out in the public sphere amidst typically scornful, often inaccurate commentary from what feels like anyone who can muster an opinion.  So the high profile rhetoric rarely comes from the people most involved in the issue.  The typical script vilifies the accused perpetrator, victimizes the abused and simplifies the situation down to a structure that makes sense to the average person, that fits into preconceived notions of these incidents and which allows even people with few facts to have an opinion and even a plan of action.

It is uncomfortable in the face of such atrocities to do nothing in these circumstances.  It feels not simply inappropriate but unjust to do nothing.  But most of us who practice Yoga can appreciate that nothing is the space that we aim to linger in during our practice.  And this is with good reason: it is a space created precisely so that whatever intuition, ideas or emotions come, they are not an immediate, habitual response.  Clarity is not achieved by jumping to conclusions and it rarely comes from preconceived notions.  This space can become a double-edged sword for those who have suffered abuse or experienced sexual impropriety in the context of a yoga teacher/student relationship, since practice itself may be directly associated with the perpetrator and the actions.  But this association is specific to the victims and it isn’t out of place to suggest that practice and the thoughtfulness we try to achieve during it is precisely what is necessary when dealing with these kinds of difficult, sometimes ambiguous, often complex situations.

While working at a GLBT Community Center I was faced with this complexity when a very sexually aggressive 13 year old began to frequent the center propositioning our male volunteers for sex.  The level of aggression was flabbergasting.  He would find his opportunity by waiting for the volunteer to be alone and then use sexually charged conversation, emotional connection, seductive physicality and even threats to manipulate the volunteer.

We were faced with an uncomfortable situation.  Clearly this was a child.  Had he succeeded in seducing any of these men and the two been discovered, it would have been clear to everyone that the adult had committed the wrong-doing.  And yet the adult was not the aggressor.  The adult was not following the typical script we expect: finding opportunities to be alone with the child, offering them something desirable, hooking them with charged conversation or the use of threats.  The scripts were reversed.

We learned in discussions with authorities who were familiar with this kid that he’d been found coercing other boys his age to perform sexual acts in school, behind library stacks, and in fairgrounds.  He was clearly a danger to our male volunteers and visitors… and they to him.

Eventually he moved on from our center.4  But the relief of his absence left us with difficult questions: Was this child a victim, a perpetrator, or both?  Most of us assumed he had to have been abused at some time in his youth; but was that our expectations playing out or reasonable deduction?  Was he playing out a script that had been used on him or was it coming from another source inside him?  In a practical manner, did it make a difference on how we should respond?

Victims tend to be painted as afflicted if they acquiesce, overpowered if they fight and fail, brave if they fight and overwhelm their attacker, and impressionable if they never seem to question the wrong-doing is wrong at all.  There is rarely discussion around what actually makes abuse what it is, its characteristics and requirements.  It’s unnerving to ponder the question of whether or not it is abuse if a victim enjoys the act (you can read here that their bodies respond to the physical stimulus or that their minds respond to the situation with arousal), even part of it… especially so if they partially instigated it or maintained the relationship willingly.

In the same way the typical script around perpetrators paints them as either innately perverse if they have no history of abuse or mental illness, or affected by their own abuse or mental illness and driven by an unseen and uncontrollable urge established there and left untreated for years.  It’s rarely considered that their actions may be increasingly frequent missteps in judgment that create a habit, that they may be people fighting an inclination that they know to be wrong but which brings them immense satisfaction even as it creates increased guilt, or that they are people with genuine feelings for what we come to know as their victims and who let these feelings and their own issues of self-worth guide their actions at the expense of others.  Perpetrators are not always calculated and sometimes don’t realize the morality of what they are doing.  Often they may not perceive a power differential at all.  Sometimes the feelings that fuel these ethically and morally suspect actions are genuine.

The familiar script ignores all this and tries to make the victims pure and the perpetrators either evil or victims in their own right, depending on whether or not there’s an explanation for their actions that arouses pity.  It does this to make it easier to understand, to limit the problem, the people, the repercussions and the solution.  And because it’s easier than the reality, the tendency is for anyone with little information to prefer to listen to this script than to the people involved.  The script is so familiar that when it is used in public media it rings immediately and unquestionably true to the audience, which fuels it further until it’s the only story being told.  This happens in the absence of reliable sources and objective reasoning.

A few months back a popular yoga blogger posted a detailed analysis of an accused abuser, a well known and long respected yoga teacher.  It was detailed to the point of describing the abuser’s inclinations and needs and his relationships to others, including his victims and his family.  It aimed to paint a picture of pervasive dysfunction.  The blogger based his assessment on some available accounts of the events (namely clips from old and new letters of complaint about related wrong-doing by this teacher, articles stating the reported charges, and press releases from the two organizations this teacher belonged to).  I posted a comment to his blog entry asking him if he had met or spoken with either the perpetrator or any of his victims.  The next day he replied “no.”

I knew the people he was talking about and I knew that the blogger’s assessment said more about the blogger than about the incident, the perpetrator or the victims.  I still remember my friend crying on the phone, telling me that something was terribly wrong.  “I’m in such a dark place,” he said, without going into details.  I later learned of his offenses.  They were numerous.  They were heinous.  And they had reportedly been going on for many years.  I could hardly understand how these actions fit in the same physical space as this person I respected and loved.  Moreover my friend had been involved with women I knew, with women he’d met at the same events I’d attended, and that much of this had been going on at those same events, right under my nose, and I’d never seen the clues in anyone’s behavior: not his, not his victims’.  I soon learned that others I knew and respected in the community had suspected or known of this behavior for years and had either ignored it or attempted to intervene in ways that optimized privacy (and minimized publicity).  The latter is not meant to suggest nefarious intent as I can’t say exactly why they made those choices at the time.

For weeks I couldn’t go a day without a phone call or email from someone asking what was going on, if the rumors were true, or to relay their own involvement in the matter.  It was painful and confusing and the time between interactions was filled only with dread about what details the next message might bring.  But I forced myself to listen and to continue as awful as it felt, because I refused to continue to be in a space that allowed me to be oblivious to these incidents.  A space that, I felt, I had revisited too many times.

It is never easy or simple to discuss abuse, especially with an abuser or a victim.  It was still awkward to talk about this but given the circumstances, given how obviously critical it was to have these discussions, I finally was bold enough to ask questions that were uncomfortable, personal and which, under any other scenario, would have been deemed inappropriate or not my place to ask.

I learned that some of my female friends had been propositioned for sex and they’d turned him down and, at least according to their accounts, the discussion had ended there and their friendship continued as if nothing had ever been mentioned.  Some had been coerced into a relationship.  And some remembered the details differently with each conversation, the earliest of which portrayed more guilt and less anger.  The later conversations were harder.  It was not lost on me that there were at least two potential processes at work here: (1) the revelation of memory that comes only after analyzing events again and again and (2) the creation of a story that makes sense of how things could have happened.  It was not clear which was dominant at any given point.  And so listening became an exercise in sitting with ambiguity.

So if I, who had been a bystander watching these events and talking to the perpetrator and his victims, still hadn’t come to a conclusion of how things had occurred or what had motivated them, how could this blogger who had never met either, let alone spoken to them?

The entry added absolutely nothing enlightened, gave no insight into how these things can occur let alone how they did occur, and offered no value in how to prevent them in the future.  All it did was create a script that was convenient, which aimed to look analytical, but which was ultimately inaccurate to the situation and to the topic of abuse in general.  What was most interesting and disturbing to me was that someone with no direct resources would think that the story they can create in their mind is worth publishing as authoritative.

The blogger and the majority of comments mostly offered speculation on how these issues could have gone on for so long, who must have known, who was ultimately responsible, and inherent issues with yoga today that lead to these problems.  For the latter, the discourse was mostly limited to three culprits:

  1. The guru-disciple relationship or guru culture,
  2. The lack of accountability within our community, and
  3. The lack of legal follow-through.

Although there are understandable reasons for the conversation focusing on these elements (namely distrust of authority and frustration at the injustice), I believe that it betrayed a lack of knowledge of the incidents in particular and of abuse in general.

1.   The guru-disciple relationship has been a target for many years now and both recent and distant accounts of abuses in this relationship have rightfully contributed to skepticism of its value by those who have never been a part of it and by those who have been directly and indirectly involved in instances of abuse.  Its self-imposed and pronounced power differential sets off alarms for many, especially those who have grown up with an independently-minded spirituality.  The associated cult mentality has also added to suspicions.  The dominant attitude among detractors is that gurus are nothing more than men with inflated egos looking to take advantage of others sexually and financially, that they always do more harm than good, or that the level of good they can do is never worth the risk of harm.  However, there were two major problems with attaching this discussion to this incident:

a.   Few in this conversation seemed to grasp that the teacher they were discussing was not a guru of any sort, that he in fact refused to use that term, and that his students would never call themselves disciples.  None of the victims’ accounts suggested they enjoyed a traditional guru-disciple relationship in character, let alone name.  There were some accounts of a cult-like atmosphere within the closest circle of students/teachers, which some have confused with guru-disciple relationship or guru worship.  Some of the women who had brought forth charges were not students at all, though, but therapy patients.  Others were fellow teachers.  If anything, based on the published accounts, the culture of this teacher’s organization could be accused of having an established hierarchy and intolerance for dissenting opinions or the questioning of authority.  From a Western point of view, it could be called a cult of personality.  The conversation, however, mixed this instance (and by default its cause and cure) with that of the high-profile abusive gurus of the last 30 years but ignored instances of abuse by doctors and therapists, which would have been equally if not more relevant to the situation.

b.   By virtue of the latter, there were explicit and implicit assumptions that eliminating this guru-disciple relationship would eliminate or greatly reduce the incidence of abuse.  It would not.  Abuse permeates professions, religions, and households where there are no gurus and no disciples.  The power differential (and some of the other vehicles I mentioned earlier) creates the opportunity, not what we call it.5  If the goal is to genuinely address the power differential, then discussion would include the culture of celebrity within yoga, the status of “senior teacher,” and  common practice of teachers hiring their own students to work at studios or assist them.  Each of these establishes the teacher as someone to be admired, respected, and obeyed.  Whereas with gurus, the draw for the student would be spiritual development, in the previously listed cases, the draw may be popularity, attention or financial gain, each of which can be (actually has been) exploited by a teacher.  But conversation never ventured to these topics, suggesting (to me) that blaming the guru-disciple relationship may have more to do with distrust of authority (especially in this very foreign form) and less to do with a real understanding of its contribution to opportunities for abuse.

2.   From the discussion on the lack of accountability within the community it was clear that what people were incensed about was the fact that more people weren’t talking about this, that it was either so typical or unimportant to others that it didn’t warrant discussion.  But this is response is not rare.  For those who are friends or family, even coworkers of perpetrators, the response is not simple or immediate, nor is it predictable.  It depends on the personality, on their own history of abuse, of their own involvement in this particular instance of abuse, and most important, on the strength of the bond they shared with the perpetrator.  For many people, when a friend commits a crime or injustice, it isn’t immediately justified to end the friendship.  This has nothing to do with supporting the crime or in believing that it did not occur.  You can love someone who does bad things.  And that love can be stronger than the angry calls from the crowd.

Friendship and love are often talked about as if they are unconditional.  Indeed they are deemed less than perfect, less than true, if they come with conditions attached.  What if the conditions look like this?  It is unrealistic, I think, to expect total and perfect decency in all aspects of life from someone.  But different people have different tolerance levels for the indecency of others and the disappointment it brings.  Where some consider it a failure of character if you let disappointment taint that love, others consider it a failure of character if you hold onto a relationship with someone who is responsible for so much harm.  How do you offer true friendship and still have compassion for those your friend affected?  How do you simultaneously have compassion for perpetrator and victim when you have strong family or friendship bonds with both?  This isn’t an easy conflict to resolve, and people resolve it in different ways and on their own time.

For those who didn’t share that bond with the yoga teacher, it’s also not clear that the immediate response would be outrage.  People go through stages of denial, indifference and numbness, none of which have any expression of anger.  It is precisely how most Western societies respond to rape and sex abuse.  We live in a country where one in every four college age women is a survivor of rape.7  Statistics for women in general vary but they typically suggest 17-25% of women are rape (and attempted rape) survivors.  This is an astounding number.  And yet there is no general outrage and the statistics remain unreasonably high.8  How is it that most people aren’t outraged?  Statistics suggest it’s out of habit.

3.   Lastly, and most telling of our culture, is the anger at the lack of legal follow-through.  The most uncomfortable and problematic part of this is the difficulty in differentiating illegal behavior from immoral behavior.9  The sexual abuse that has taken place over the last few years in the yoga community is not easy to wrap your head around.  The group of people that we have come to see as victims did not all experience the same things to the same degree, and the level of intimate involvement prior to the abuse varied.  Some women were sexually involved with their abuser for months or years and enjoyed attention and gifts.  Some of these women were married.  Many continued their relationship with the abuser even after the first incident they considered objectionable.  Some of the victims were therapy patients who were manipulated into believing that the treatments, which came in the form of sexual practices, would cure them of serious ailments.  Some women were seduced with money, gifts, or power within the community.  Of these, some were threatened with being cut off from their spiritual community when they tried to leave the relationship.  Some women were taught powerful, esoteric practices, which enjoy little expertise in the U.S. but lots of notoriety; they feared losing their access to these if they left.  Some enjoyed what it felt like to do something taboo.  Some felt guilt long before the scandal broke.  Some felt guilt only after.  Some women were propositioned for sex and turned the perpetrator down in what was described as an uncomfortable but amicable scene; and their friendship continued unaffected.  But some women were raped forcibly.  Some seduced.  Some deceived.  Some women escaped the abuse at great cost, including the loss of their jobs and their social circle.  Of these, most tried to forget the situation and never attempted to publicize their experience until the scandal broke.  For many of those, it was the only way to protect themselves emotionally.  Still some attempted to address the problem head on and found little or no support from their employer and colleagues.  Some considered going to the press.  Some did.  Most did not because to publicize the incident would bring to light details that would destroy their families.  Others managed to establish boundaries with the abuser and maintained their job and friends.  Of these some continued to introduce their young, unknowing female friends and students to the abuser despite their own experience; they never offered them advice or warning.  Some were in love with the abuser and felt used after learning his relationship to them was not unique.

There is no protocol in our legal system to deal with these complexities.  The tendency is to take some of the situations above and relegate them to “true victim” and others to “regretful accomplices.”  Some of this comes from misogyny.  Some of it comes from its uncomfortable complexity.  Some comes from simple ignorance.  We are not all the same.  Our samskaras affect us in different ways according to our qualities.  And so the manifestation of these situations will naturally look different.  It is not inappropriate to call each of these women victims, I think, but it is inappropriate to assume that the term “victim” always means the same thing.

I have chosen not to use names in this entry.  Not the victims, not the perpetrators, and not my own.  I put a lot of thought to this and realized that what I needed to say has to do with a process that has been going on for so many years it is beyond names.  Parts of it should be public and parts of it, I think, we would do well to keep private or at least leave in the hands of victims to address and reveal in their own time.  Moreover, some of the people I have referred to in this piece are good friends, people I love and respect and I am certain that those that I do not know directly, whose stories have come to me via friends and fellow teachers, are loved and respected by someone.  This does not mean that I support what has happened. It also does not mean that I hope this goes away.   Having been a victim of abuse before and having my own friends victimized in these events, this is a topic that is more personal than I can put into words.

What I do believe is that before adding to the chatter and the vitriol, it is well worth it to delve deeper into these situations both via the body of knowledge that has been collected over the years of victim testimonials and well-researched documentaries on the topic, and through discussions with people who are involved.  It isn’t wrong that the mind’s response at these events is often to well up with rage at the unfairness and the suffering of others.  But it is critical that these feelings be contained if they are mostly based on a story those same minds have created to deal with the information, rather than on knowledge and analysis of the actual events.  If we don’t, whatever our actions, whatever our words, the response is ultimately more about how we feel than about the well-being of others.  Rage is never advocacy; and ignorance, however understandable, never leads to a solution.

Footnotes

1  According to the American Association of University Women.

2 These statistics would be suspect if they weren’t so consistent.  They tend to be largely based on surveys conducted in representative local populations and the numbers are assumed to be adequate estimates for national populations (which may not be the case).  Based on these surveys, the minimum rates for unreported cases of rape and abuse tend to be around 52% with estimates increasing to 75% in some populations.

3Pedophilia offers us a good analogy.  The majority of pedophiles are men.  This likely comes as little surprise to most.  It is generally understood that pedophiles who molest little girls are straight and pedophiles who molest little boys are gay.  It was this faulty reasoning that led to the Roman Catholic Church equating their pedophile priest issue with a gay priest issue.  The problem is that pedophilia doesn’t function within the same parameters by which we understand sexual orientation.  Pedophiles who are straight identified (meaning they have no expressed or repressed attraction to men) may still prey on young boys.  As a result of this misperception, it’s likely that the Catholic Church’s attempted purge of gay priests won’t affect the existing rates of abuse since there is no higher predisposition there.  They enacted a solution that does not fit the problem but rather their idea of the problem.

4 We changed our volunteer hours twice, swapping male and female volunteers to throw him off and it was clear from the terribly disappointed look on his face as relayed by our lesbian volunteers that he was not happy with this.

5 The extreme case of guru worship can be likened to military culture, where the strict hierarchy forbids subordinates from questioning superiors and where there is a unique and fully segregated culture from the mainstream that makes communication to an external population (and the latter’s subsequent understanding) difficult, if not impossible.  The military, of course, has what we now understand to be a long history of abuse and cover-up of abuse.  The latter is, in my opinion, the piece that makes guru cults susceptible to long term abuse.  It isn’t that the abuse is more likely to happen (read here in terms of number of likely perpetrators) but rather that there is a vehicle for the abuse to be covered up and to continue to occur by the same perpetrator.

6 In my teens, a close friend of my family’s was discovered to be a serial killer who had been murdering prostitutes for the better part of a year.  In that year he’d visited our home and offered the same warmth and humor he had always offered.  When he learned that I had gone to art school he gave my father an expensive drafting table so that I could use it.  He was kind, concerned, and his kindness and concern as it related to us never came with conditions.  My mother was asked once if she was regretful about having had him as a guest in the house, especially near her kids.  Her response relayed perfectly the point of view that people are complex and multi-dimensional, and that relationships, in turn, must be as well.  She said “Not at all.  He was our friend.”

7 From “Assessing Sexual Aggression: Addressing the Gap Between Rape Victimization and Perpetration Prevalance Rates” by Elizabeth Kolivas and Alan Gross

8 Most surveys show a drop in the incidence of rape in the last 10 years within the U.S.  Statistics on the magnitude of this drop vary.

9 I specifically avoid the use of the term “unethical” here because it can suggest different things depending on the profession.  I use “immoral” to try to relay the idea that the infraction would be considered by most people, regardless of profession, to be irresponsible, inconsiderate, or generally lacking in morality.