Advice from the experts on how to navigate turbulent waters.
“We’re still figuring out the best way to respond, but the more we share, the more helpful it will be in how we proceed.” ELIZABETH JEGLIC, PHD, PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY AT NEW YORK CITY’S JOHN JAY COLLEGE
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.”
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 kle
sha 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 studio 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.