Posted by Valerie Moselle
I was just reading this week’s article in the GoodTimes Santa Cruz titled Yogis Behaving Badly. The article is written on the subject of yoga teachers and the specter of sexual harassment that has been known to loom in the shadows of the yoga world between teacher and student, guru and disciple. The article points out the tenderness of the relationship between a student and his or her teacher, and how that vulnerability can be, and has been, abused.
Certainly, becoming a successful and inspiring yoga teacher should go hand-in-hand with adhering to the moral foundational principals of yoga (the yamas and niyamas). But it doesn’t always work out that way. Yoga teachers are human, tempted by all the same urges as everyone else. Fear of retribution from an almighty and judgmental God did not make Catholic priests impervious to molesting little boys. There is no reason to think that all yoga teachers would be immune to the same impulses, especially when worshiped themselves by a roomful of women in spandex routinely in the process of opening up –physically, emotionally, and one would hope, spiritually.
It was obvious to me, as I got deeper into the writing, that one of the author’s purposes in broaching the topic of abuse by yoga teachers was to publicly air the events that brought one of our own local teachers under criminal investigation for the alleged rape of one student, and the sexual harassment of two others. As far as I know, those claims are still being investigated by the Santa Cruz Police Department.
On one hand I appreciated the explicit (and anonymous, as the names of the victims had been changed) descriptions of what actually happened to these women. These women felt that they had been violated, and they were willing to reveal the actions that made them feel this way. For a woman who might be feeling weird or unsure about a suspect interaction with a yoga teacher, reading the description of another woman’s experience might help clarify her reaction. Women, especially with a history of sexual abuse (1 in 3) sometimes get confused. Some feel they should give the benefit of the doubt to the abuser, and that they must be misinterpreting the event. A common pattern is to feel they deserved or even invited the abuse. And then there is just plain old shame and embarrassment. To read another woman’s account of harassment spelled out for all to see could (and should) give women courage to confront their own experiences, so that they can make appropriate choices around processing and healing the trauma.
On the other hand this article has caused me a fair amount of discomfort since I first read it the other day. I’ve been chewing on the ‘facts’ I know about our local situation, as they have been revealed to me over time. I have no personal history with the accused, but am aware of the scandals under which he left my former professional stomping grounds. I have heard the rumors that have been floating around the yoga community for years, and have internalized the ‘inside scoops’ from people closer to the source of the ‘troubles’ than I am. None of this is conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, which is why under the umbrella of news organizations, or even the umbrella of Nourish the dirty laundry cannot be completely hung out to dry. We won’t name names, we can’t speak openly about what may have happened, to whom, and because of whom. But by now I am skeptical enough to steer clear of any involvement with the accused. It’s frustrating that in most cases of this nature the ‘real’ story is never allowed to come out. These accusations seem to always exist in the realm of rumor and gossip. I have to say, though it was nice to finally see at least something in print, it’s frustrating that an article inspired by local events had to be so….generalized.
When we are restricted from talking about rape, sexual harassment, or any other kind of violence the offender is protected, not the victim. I understand that until someone is convicted of a crime that it violates that person’s rights to speak about them as if they were guilty. The mechanism for protecting the innocent-wrongly-accused has an important role in our justice system, obviously. I believe in due process, etc… However, in cases like this I find it unfortunate that a potential threat to women is left vague and yet sensationalized. Without specifics, we keep the issue at arm’s length, as if it has nothing to do with us. Or worse, the uninformed assume the yoga world is rife with such problems and allow the fear instilled by the media to color their impression of yoga altogether.
As Judith Lasater so profoundly expressed in the GoodTimes article, this problem is not going to get better when someone gets put behind bars. This issue won’t get better in any facet of our society until women refuse to be victimized, first by the offender and then later by feeling ashamed to raise her voice about it. That’s a tall order. (I know the former statement will have a lot of victims of violence perking up, so give me a moment to elaborate).
A quote came to me through one of my own teachers, Colette Crawford. It is an ‘ancient Chinese saying’, one of those that has no source that I’ve been able to find. Please correct me if I’ve got it wrong, or if you know something about it’s origins that I don’t. It goes like this:
“Mountains will move, wars will cease, when women wake up.”
I’m not saying that we can necessarily end rape and sexual harassment. With things as they are we have no control of what another brings to the relationship we have with them, whether that is the relationship with a friend, a date, a teacher, a family member, or stranger on a dark street. What we do have is the ability to overcome shame, heal, refuse silence, and raise awareness with the purpose of creating an environment where inappropriate sexual advances are never tolerated in any way by anybody. Ms. Lasater’s fantasy about a woman standing up in the middle of class to announce an indiscretion, and then asking for solidarity in a boycott of the class is now my fantasy too. My greatest disappointment is the gossipy nature of these discussions, when they come up. Oh, and the fact that this teacher is still teaching.
My first thought was that there should be an organization for yoga teachers through which complaints can be filed and investigated. That way, even if there are no prosecutions, at least there is a record of complaints. You see, there very well may not have been a crime committed here. Making passes at women, after all, is not illegal (except in the workplace). But I think we can all agree that yoga teachers should not be making passes at students, any more than college professors, police officers, or therapists should be. If there were some way to log a complaint, Yogis could be left to make their own judgments about teachers. They would have a place to go to to look for red flags, or to place a warning for future students.
Then I realized that no governing body can protect us from these teachers, both few and far between, by-the-way. It’s up to us to refuse to be taken advantage of. Though I understand the purpose of the article, and the assumptions we have been guided to make. Though I appreciate the interview with Judith Lasater, and the efforts to give voice to this serious issue–we will not see the end of this, as Ms. Lasater points out, until we, as a community start talking out loud. We know this is happening. It’s fine to name names and issue warnings.
My own mother was annoyingly over-protective when I was a kid. She was constantly reminding me of self-defense techniques, talking with me about abuse and what to do if I feel unsafe with someone. It was one of my least favorite things about being her child. “Maaaawwwwwwwmmmm. Cheeeeeeeez.” But in my early 20s when I found myself suddenly in a violent situation with a boyfriend of two years, I knew what to do. I got the hell out of there and pressed charges. Not because I was angry and wanted to get back at him. But because I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. I knew that whatever the outcome of his proceedings that he would have a blemish on his record reflecting what happened to me. I knew, even then, that that blemish might in some direct or indirect way, protect another woman from escalating harm.
This is one case where I think we should speak up, even if it feels like gossip. If you are experiencing, or know someone who is experiencing problems with a yoga teacher, (or anyone else for that matter) you owe it to yourself, and all women everywhere to talk about it. Share it with your friends, a counselor, or a help line. Share other incidents in your life that have made you uncomfortable. Heal your own experiences by bringing them into the light and asking those that you love and who love you to take a look at them, even if it’s the last thing you want to do.
As a student of yoga, tell your fellow yoginis when a teacher crosses the line and disappoints your sense of morality, and by all means stop going to see that teacher. Share with your fellow practitioners the teachers with whom you feel safe and respected. As well as the names of the studios in which you feel supported. The word ‘guru’ refers to a teacher that brings a student from the darkness of ignorance into the light of understanding. In speaking about this problem out loud, we become gurus by bringing this uncomfortable subject out of the dark closet in which it has lurked, and into the light of our collective awareness.
It is unfortunate that we have to keep our wiles about us as we venture into the yoga world and subject ourselves to our teachers. But we do. I for one, have felt relieved to have been nowhere near the teacher that shall remain unnamed in this post, or the studio that supported him despite multiple complaints. Instead I remain grateful that I am in the fold of an organization that puts the health and well-being of it’s clientele at the forefront of it’s mission (thank you Nourish) and to be teaching among teachers I would recommend to absolutely anyone who asked, male or female, regardless of their history. Finally, I am grateful to be able to sit with my boss and fellow teacher, Victor, and discuss this serious issue together. He and Jocelyn have brought this issue out into the light of Nourish by discussing it openly in meetings, and have asked us to share our feelings and insights about it with our students, and anyone who will listen. Their message is clear. Sexual misconduct among yoga teachers should not, under any circumstances, be tolerated. “We want people to know that Nourish is a safe place to practice yoga.”