Modern Yoga: Turning a Blind Eye on Sexual Abuse Allegations?

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

More sexual abuse allegations have surfaced for one of modern yoga’s gurus, the late Swami Satyananda, following earlier proven abuses of his disciple and head of his Australian mission, the late Swami Akhandananda. While the allegations and extent of the alleged abuse are sobering, more noteworthy is the deafening silence in the US yoga community and widespread failure to acknowledge these allegations.

The Yoga Publications Trust, Satyananda’s publishing company, is responsible for numerous publications commonly employed by modern yoga instructors, practitioners, and scholars (e.g., the Muktibhodananda translation of Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Yoga Nidra). Matthew Remski has called for a ban on the publications until the outcome of the trial, which has been met with … overwhelming silence.

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Why aren’t more yogis speaking out? Have we become desensitized from the plethora of sex abuse allegations and scandals found in yoga, other spiritual practices and religions, and, of course, politics and industry?

In recent years, abuse allegations against US gurus Bikram Choudhury and John Friend were made, both of whom have silently maintained their empires and personas, with the support of the yoga community. Other yoga masters have also been involved in sexual abuse scandals with their students, notably, Kausthub Desikachar, Sai Baba, Swami Shyam, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Rama, Swami Muktananada, and Amrit Desai.

Turning a blind-eye on abuse may be far more complex than desensitization. For some, the silence could reflect the difficulty of balancing satya (i.e., “what is true?”) vs. ahimsa (“don’t be so judgmental”). The inability to reconcile these may be complicated by another factor: Some teachers and practitioners may be concerned that to keep the brand (and perhaps, individual) identity intact, they must protect the lineage holders and remain silent.

For many in the yoga community, yoga becomes an integral component of our ego/identity. If we acknowledge the systemic nature of sexual misconduct among many of modern yoga’s gurus, we may fear the consequences too great to bear. Key stakeholders in the yoga industry—instructors, trainers, and business owners—may fear the threat to their bottom line and personal livelihoods. Yoga practitioners and consumers may also fear the judgments others could develop about our beloved teachers, practices and identities.

Other potential reasons for blind eye syndrome abound. We may feel uncomfortable criticizing those in power or feel unworthy to do so, not trusting in our own wisdom. Or perhaps, when our eyes flicker over painful headlines, as good yogis we conveniently choose “forgiveness” (i.e, forgetfulness), rather than “dwelling on the negative.”

Yet make no mistake: Turning a blind eye to the suffering inflicted by yoga’s gurus is exactly the same behavior that enables these behaviors to persist.

Our silence suppresses the truth in our heart-mind (bodhicitta) that connects with others’ suffering, longs for justice, and weeps for expression when we gag our instincts to speak out. Silence strengthens our own mental entrapment and dependency (samskara) along with the structures that enable oppression and suffering. When we focus excessively on the positive, turning our eyes from the pain and unsavoriness in our own hearts and the yoga community, we become participants in the cycle of abuse.

Despite the powerful incentive to turn a blind eye, authentic yoga practice requires truth in the service of liberation: Burning samskara, calling out the inner and outer oppressors, rendering justice, owning the shadow. Righting the balance.

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Tremendous courage is required to see our teachers as flawed human beings, because it may mean relinquishing the hope that we will entirely transcend our own human suffering or become enlightened. Yet the reality offers a much sweeter promise. When we stop deifying gurus and engaging in magical, illusory thinking, when we can embrace all of ourselves—dark and light, we see reality as it truly is, and ourselves as we truly are.

As we recently blogged, speaking the truth (satya) in the service of justice is a natural outgrowth of engaging with our own samskara. For every abuse scandal in modern yoga, blind eye syndrome played a likely role. Clear seeing and speaking may require momentary sacrifice and discomfort, but is a minimal price to pay for your own safety, peace and liberation, as well as those of your communities.

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