While the yoga tradition has an ancient and robust code of ethics, the yamas and niyamas are often only discussed as philosophical ideals and not enacted in a daily practice. Sexual misconduct allegations against former luminaries like Bikram Choudhury, Pattahbi Jois, and many other teachers, show us that a revered teacher does not equate to an ethical teacher. Because there is no “yoga police” or “HR department” for yoga, it lies upon the members of the yoga community—studios, centers, teachers, and students—to stand up, speak up, and change the status quo.
Yoga’s #MeToo stories
Following the nationwide #MeToo movement, yoga-specific #MeToo stories have been published on several yoga teachers’ blogs, as well as in the comments of articles about how common this issue has become in the yoga world.
Rachel Brathen, aka “Yoga Girl,” called on Instagram for yogis to share their #MeToo stories, and received more than 300 responses from women and men detailing a range of violations from offensive remarks, perverted adjustments during class, to violent attacks when victims were physically trapped, assaulted, and/or raped.
Yoga teacher Kino MacGregor shared her own #MeToo story, detailing a job interview where the studio owner assaulted her, referring to himself as “the true guru.” Karen Rain published her account of being sexually assault by Pattahbi Jois, and shared that she witnessed Jois fondle, grope, and hump many other women, and wondered how it went on for so long.
Many women who’ve shared #MeToo stories report feeling confused and ashamed by these violations. Those feelings were compounded by not knowing how to define what happened to them, where to turn, or what to do—a stinging reality when yoga is all about peace, respect, and ahimsa (non-harming).
Yoga Alliance is a resource for survivors
The non-profit Yoga Alliance issued a statement on sexual misconduct in the yoga community advising all survivors of sexual misconduct or other crimes to contact the police, a victims’ rights advocate, and/or a lawyer. One such advocacy group, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), is consulting with Yoga Alliance as they redevelop their teachers’ Code of Conduct to strengthen policies that will clearly address issues of sexual misconduct in yoga. Additional resources include calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673), or chatting anonymously at online.rainn.org.
The focused attention of an authority like Yoga Alliance is good news. But not all studios or teachers are affiliated with Yoga Alliance, and with the proliferation of yoga teacher training programs, the quality of ethics education may not always measure up.
Yoga studios must step up
If boundaries have been crossed during a yoga class or elsewhere, students should directly alert the studio manager or owner, says Kerry Maiorca, Chair of the Board of Directors for Yoga Alliance.
“Victims should know it is not their fault,” Maiorca said, acknowledging that reporting abuse—or even speaking up in class about an unwanted adjustment—can be easier said than done.
One way studios or centers can encourage transparency and communication is to establish procedures for addressing these issues and make them clear through their own code of ethics. In her New York Times article Yoga Teachers Need a Code of Ethics, yoga teacher Sarah Herrington suggests that community centers, meditation groups, and yoga studios post a code of ethics like the one written by Jack Kornfield’s Spirit Rock Center, which clearly addresses sexual misconduct. By making that code accessible both online and in-person, studios create awareness and conversation. They signal that theirs is a safe space where abuse isn’t tolerated and where it can be reported.
Students should know that there are no “gurus”
The physical and spiritual practice of yoga can leave students vulnerable, and it can be easy to conflate the positive effects of yoga with a charismatic teacher. On her Facebook page, People and Teachers Against Abuse in Yoga, yoga activist Rachel Fallon writes, “How many live with shame, and even question themselves because these teachers are ‘spiritual leaders,’ or ‘gurus?'”
It can’t be said enough—yoga teachers of all levels are flawed humans. If a teacher asserts a guru status, like MacGregor’s attacker and countless others, or if they justify shady behavior with “enlightenment,” run the other way.
For so many of practitioners, yoga offers sanctuary, ease, and safety. For survivors of sexual violence and other traumas, yoga can be incredibly healing. By recognizing and reporting abuse, creating and adhering to ethics, and perhaps most importantly—believing each other—we can all help keep it that way.
Do you feel safe at your yoga studio or practice space? If so, how? If not, what needs to change?