No stranger to controversy, Bikram Choudhury, the flamboyant ambassador to his self-made yoga empire, has most recently been accused of sexually assaulting several of his students. According to Vanity Fair contributor Benjamin Wallace, five women have filed sexual assault or harassment related lawsuits against Choudhury. For now, such matters are the purview of the courts. Beyond the scope of his alleged grievous behavior and the distressing effects on his victims, what is also troubling is the propensity for pundits to deride – even denounce – yoga in the wake of news that a seemingly revered yoga figure would violate the sanctity and trust of the student-teacher relationship.
Choudhury is not the only yoga figurehead to come under charges of sexual impropriety. Anusara frontman John Friend last year rocked the yoga world with news of his sexual indiscretions. Indeed, as author William Broad pointed out in his February 2012 New York Times piece, sexual misanthropes and yoga go way back, and we’re not talking about the sexual escapades of the ancient followers of Tantric yoga. Modern-day yoga leaders, as Broad points out, from Swami Muktananda, Swami Satchidananda and Swami Rama all came under suspicion of sexual deprivations.
But like scores of bloggers who examine yoga under a critical lens, Broad, author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards,” takes a giant leap of faith when he asks: “Why does yoga produce so many philanderers?” The notion that the carnal transgressions, or worse crimes, of a mere mortal desecrate and tarnish this ancient practice is outlandish.
Firstly, yoga has an estimated 20 million followers in this country. Does a handful of alleged sexual predators qualify as “so many philanderers?” That any yoga teacher would abuse his or her status in the yoga community not only betrays the sanctity of the yoga-student relationship, but violates yoga’s tenets of non-violence, purity, non-covetousness and sexual restraint.
What we overlook is the fact that these men (for now the accused have all been men) are just that – men. We have, in our infinite capacity to project our egos onto others and to interpret our reality through that cloudy prism, hoisted them onto a godly pedestal.
We overlook that, yes, while they espouse yoga, ultimately, they are businessmen, the heads of companies whose primary goal is to make money. Choudhury has amassed Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and a grandiose Beverly Hills mansion. Friend had ambitious plans to transform his Anusara empire into a $300 billion industry, according to an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post last year.
A discussion on sex/sexuality and yoga could very well be laid to rest with the argument that the ancient yoga sages did not set out to prohibit sexual relationships among yogis. The fourth yama, brahmacharya, does not prohibit sex but guides us to practice sexual restraint, indeed to recognize divinity in our partner.
Few in the yoga world have articulated with as much aplomb as Budokon creator and renowned yoga teacher, Cameron Shayne, the conviction that it’s perfectly acceptable – and frankly nobody’s business – if two adults, even teacher-student, consent to having and enjoying a sexual relationship. However, we’re not talking about consenting adults here, but possible sexual assault. Those guilty will answer to the judicial system.
The rest of us would be wise to contemplate our own paths and take note of times when we caved in to the fluctuations of the mind – and that includes passion. Few yoga aspirants can claim to have conquered avirati – or sensuality – one of nine Chitta Viksepa – or distractions to our practice. Few can truly claim to have never violated ahimsa in thought, deed or word.
Why do we regard mere men like Choudhury and Friend as being beyond the reaches of these tenets?
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