I am like a lot of yoga teachers, I suspect. Especially those who’s *job* is yoga. I am constantly trying to assess if what I offer my students is worthy of their respect, of their intellectual and physical time, even their money. So I seek out the stories in the larger yoga universe that make me question what I am doing, how I am teaching, if I belong, and if it is responsible to do this job. I do this daily, weekly, monthly.
Turns out, there is much to question in this Yogaland. For starters there are men who have been documented predators, who have assaulted and raped their students. ESPN’s podcast 30 for 30 just covered the story of Bikram Choudhury if you have the stomach to check it out.
Then I hear the phrases like ‘the roots of those men’s lineages are rotten’ and ‘how can anyone teach those styles, they obviously don’t work’. I find myself almost always nodding my head, agreeing with those sentiments. It is easy for me to do so because MY lineage (I don’t subscribe to one) isn’t “rotten” so I don’t have to completely rethink who and how I have been teaching for the last 13 years or how and who I have been practicing with for the last 20. So it is pretty easy for me, with my privilege of “right” choices to sit and dismiss those who do not have that luxury. But, to be honest, I don’t think I am any better, and neither are you. Here is why.
Consider not that the yoga that we practice is a plant that nourishes us, and the men who “planted those seeds” (to use an overused in the yoga world turn of phrase) are rotten, but that WE are the plants that are indeed often in desperate need of nourishment. The nourishment we give ourselves comes in the forms of the things we feed ourselves through our participation…and that sometimes we drink from a tainted water well. Now, if yoga is the water we use to nourish ourselves (which I think is a HUGE overstatement of yoga’s importance, but stick with me for analogy purposes) sometimes we drink from a well that isn’t good. It has the potential to make us sick, and we don’t even know it. Imagine further now hearing that this water well, this water source that nourished us for a time and made us feel good actually could be poisoned? That is a tough pill for *anyone* to swallow.
Well, what to do next when we find out that the water well is bad? There are a lot of options in this scenario. We can choose a different water source (lineage or teacher), which is likely MILES away from where we are, so getting there requires a lot of effort, especially if we are thirsty. We can continue to drink the water and hope that our body filters out what we don’t need and takes in what we do. Perhaps we can dilute the tainted water with other water sources. So we still may be nourished by the tainted water, but we are also simultaneously nourished by the other water we consume.
Remember, to use the water well analogy further, a contaminated water well may be unusable for forever…BUT it also could be unusable for just a couple weeks. Further consider, that the tainted nature of this well didn’t come from a contaminated aquifer (the originating water source underneath the water well, for those who don’t know—consider that here the system and spiritual discipline of yoga that has existed for ages in India) but instead the poison comes from above. The poison comes from a man (or woman) pouring poison into the communal well and then using all their charisma and marketing skills to encourage people to drink from this “special well”. When people drank the water and felt better (often just because of their desperate need for nourishment, perhaps any water they drank would have made them feel as good) they built houses, and towns, near the well so that they could better access the healing benefits of that particular water. All the while the person was systemically poisoning the water well from above every night.
Does this mean the water is unusable? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t yet have the answers to that question, but I suspect that there will always be some bit of usable water in that well.
What is your place is this “tainted water well” story, Rebecca? My place is this. Imagine me, as a plant in a neighboring town being nourished by similar water from a similar well. I knew the water in the other well was contaminated; someone from my town saw the man pour the poison in the well and told us all about it. Maybe I even told a friend or two about how they shouldn’t drink from that well, it could be dangerous. “They look fine” my friend said. I said “I guess so…who am I to judge someone else’s water?” So I did nothing. I was complacent, and complicit and their systematic poisoning. I am in yoga like so many of us, complicit.
Now maybe you are saying to yourself: “I yell from the top of my lungs about this all the time! I am not complacent!!” Here is my thought on that. If you are yelling at the top of your lungs about how dangerous a system is, how dangerous a person or style of yoga is, and you have not yet had the gumption to organize a formal protest of this ‘water’, you are complicit and complacent. In fact, this would be the equivalent of running around in the neighboring town–you know the one with the bad water well; with a sign on your back and a megaphone in your hand screaming shrilly about how bad the water is.
Firstly when you do that, you run the very real risk of looking crazy. Secondly not only have you NOT made any reasonable attempt to contact the water commission who is in charge of the well, but perhaps you even have done all this yelling so that when those people in the next town over realize they are being poisoned they call you to get them better quality water. I will own that without realizing it, I have done that. I have not followed any sort of protocol for my responses to the rampant sexual misconduct in yoga, and I talk about it all the time. It is worth me examining my own motivations here, as much as I feel it is important to examine others.
Well, now what do we do next? How do we decide where we go, how we teach, what happens to “us” the yoga teaching and learning community in the future. HERE is where we examine our own roots…are they rotten with complacency? Are we unintentionally complicit in the abuse these women have suffered?
Step 1: If we have a bad town well, we first deal with the group in charge of the damn water well. Even if they are a self-appointed group.
I know, you hate it. You hate that I am saying it. BUT HAVE YOU CONTACTED THE YOGA ALLIANCE ABOUT YOUR CONCERNS? Let me tell you this: As of today 372 people like Bikram Choudhury as a linage, teacher, or style in their bios. 90+ people list John Friend. 170+ people list Pattabhi Jois. 80+ list Yogi Bhajan. So let this sink in. REALLY sink in. The organization that in the last six months that has made an entirely new tab on their website about sexual misconduct listing all the resources they offer… all the while…wait for it…also allows people to list those men who have perpetrated sex crimes in the scope and conduct of yoga teaching in their member bios as influential teachers. On their website. I find this so unacceptable that even as I type this my breath has gotten quicker. My heart is racing. My cheeks are flushing. Don’t believe me? Open another tab and go to yogaalliance.org and then to “find a teacher”. Type in Bikram. Give the gentleman who’s first name actually is Bikram a pass and look at the rest.
Now I honestly don’t care right now if you do or do not support the Yoga Alliance. I have opinions, as I am sure do 1000s of other teachers, but that isn’t the point. The point in that they are the water commission in this story and so therefore if we are going to organize a response to the poisoned well water they are the appropriate place to start. So do this:
- Open a new tab in your browser and go to your email.
- In the address box type in email@example.com
- In the subject line type: You are complicit
- Write your own text or copy and paste the following:
Dear Yoga Alliance,
I find it wholly unacceptable that you allow people who are on your registry to use the names of sexual predators in their bios. This is you allowing the endorsement of men who raped, abused, and sexually assaulted their students. This is you being complicit in their crimes. You allow them to continue to gain reputation and influence with those who do not know their stories. You allow good teachers to remain in the shadows and promote those who deserve to stay in darkness. I find this not in agreement with my morals, my ethics, or in line with the basic guidelines required of a professional organizing body. I demand you remove them from your website. There are many things that are complicated, but the promotion of sexual predators is not one of them.
(Fill name in here)
(Fill in registration number if you are a member and also if you are an affiliated yoga school here, if applicable.)
There are those who have suggested that we wait to contact the Yoga Alliance until they are finished their current evaluation of themselves, their Standards Review Project. Well this abuse has been going on for ages and nothing was done. New management, yes, but old problems still persist. I am tired of waiting, and I have no stomach for the false sense of participation that places like social media create. You aren’t doing anything by posting that article about how terrible that thing is. WRITE TO THE SOURCE. Get your voice heard. Start doing something. I have written to the Yoga Alliance many times this past year and 4 out of 5 times I got a response from them. Never was it an autobot response, and a few times my emails got passed on the higher up people. Now in the end nothing yet has changed, but it seems someone is at least listening.
Step 2: Start doing some research on how to support these women who are still struggling to get their stories heard. Please open your ears and listen to what they have asked for. Many have asked for acknowledgement and recognition that the sexual misconduct. As of writing this Pattabhi Jois’ yoga school in India has not acknowledged what happened to women under the hands of their founder. They should. Bikram? Kundalini? Anusara? Many of these schools are “under new management” and attempting to try and find a way forward. It seems that way forward is to stop really talking about what happened. I understand perhaps from a business perspective that carrying on while not really talking about the past seems to be a strategy for taking your business into the future. Bikram’s new CEO says that he wants to make Bikram the “women’s empowerment yoga”. The irony of this being the case while their founder raped an 18 year old girl has not escaped me, nor should it you.
So instead of trying to save the business, let’s instead try to save Yoga. Let’s not allow this to get swept under the yoga rug, but instead be bold. Be brave enough to speak this history. Be brave enough to tell people about what happened and how you don’t believe it is right. Remind students that yoga doesn’t fix you, so don’t expect that it should have fixed these individuals. Yoga is a system through which, with diligent practice and understanding, you can utilize to help heal yourself and perhaps still the mind. Therefore, let’s not let predators continue to use yoga any more then we let bosses use their positions of power to sexually harass their subordinates.
Step 3: Let’s stop intellectualizing this, shall we? Seeking out voices that only are there to create concepts that explain why this happens in yoga does not help. This is not just a yoga issue. This is a systemic issue. Wanna play the “only in yoga” game? Well surprise, it isn’t just yoga. Yoga does not now, nor did it ever exist only in a vacuum. Yoga is influenced by the larger societies in which it is practiced. So do you want to know what happened? Then look for voices that explain why our system of culture is broken, not those talking about why yoga is broken. It isn’t broken. It doesn’t work like that. So support organizations that are trying to make change in society not just yoga. Actively work to stop the system of control and exploitation that pervades every level of society. This requires boots on the ground. It requires strong voices and strong backs to carry the heavy burden of societal change. I can’t tell you where your role in that change is, that is for you to decide. But please decide, even if it is just talking to that cousin or donating to that cause. Do something tangible. Write another letter. Start thinking of ways that we can change this together.
Thank you once again for reading!
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