As woman after woman came forward exposing Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault, #MeToo has been a rallying cry for women all across the country. Program director for Brooklyn’s Girls for Gender Equity Tarana Burke began the movement ten years ago. The past several weeks it has reached a crescendo of voices giving voice to their experiences of sexual violence and raising awareness to the magnitude of the problem. The predatory sexual behavior of men from all areas of our society, from owners of bars to elected officials, is being revealed. One area that has remained relatively quiet, however, is the yoga community.
I’m not a big fan of simplistic one-liners that often take deep spiritual concepts out of context, but with regards to the perpetuation of sexual violence, this one rings true: what we resist persists. From time to time the yoga community is rocked by the revelation of a famous teacher being accused of or charged with sexually violent crimes. However, once it is out of the news, we treat it like a toxic substance: now that it is out of our body, we can go on with our lives like it never happened. Violence is not something we pick out of an otherwise healthy system. It is like a cancer that has one purpose: to kill its host. Its causes are varied and complex.
Admitting there is a problem.
The good news is that healing occurs when we get to the heart of a problem as opposed to reacting to it symptomatically. Ultimately, sexual crimes are not about sex. They are about power. This is no different in the yoga community than it is in any other realm of society. Historically, the guru-system has laid the foundation for such abuse. The guru holds immense power in their influence over their followers. A brief internet search will yield the names of many prominent yoga teachers who have been accused, and often convicted of, abusing their students. Sometimes people have positive experiences with their guru that benefit them and transform their lives. Far too often, however, the guru abuses their power and the student is left with a scar that never really goes away.
A guru is often assumed to be enlightened or to have somehow advanced on their spiritual path. One might assume that if a person is spiritually advanced they are beyond committing acts of sexual violence. I do not believe that is true. Yoga teaches us that our body, mind, and spirit are of one substance. However, this substance is expressed on this earthly plane as different aspects, purusha (the individual soul) and prakriti (nature), for example. We are complex beings and we have different strengths and weaknesses. I may be highly intelligent, but not very spiritual. Perhaps I am physically strong, but emotionally out-of-touch. Yoga is a way of balancing the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of self so that we have an experience of wholeness, but it doesn’t guarantee we are going to be adept in these areas all the time. In the case of the guru, he or she may have had transcendent experiences in meditation, but have the sexual understanding and maturity of a fourteen-year-old.
Healing in the yoga community.
It isn’t only famous, well-known gurus in ashrams who are guilty of abusing their students. It also happens in our everyday yoga studios. And abuse can go both ways. Sometimes it is the yoga teacher who is being abused by a student. Healing in the yoga community begins in our own studios. It is important for yoga studios to establish a zero-tolerance policy with regards to sexual harassment, whether it is student to teacher, teacher to student, student to student, or teacher to teacher. Some people may bristle at this idea and say we should give perpetrators a second chance. However, it isn’t difficult to not harass someone. Just don’t do it! Furthermore, there is nothing spiritual about having weak, ill-defined boundaries.
Sexual crimes fester in climates of secrecy. I believe it is imperative that yoga students, teachers, and studios know where they can go if they experience sexual violence within the yoga community. Creating a culture of transparency begins at the ground level: with our local studios and schools. First of all, yoga studios should have a set, non-negotiable policy regarding how to handle sexual abuse. During teacher training programs, yoga schools should spend time discussing ethics and sexual misconduct within the yoga community. Secondly, victims can report abuse to Yoga Alliance for investigation and possible revocation of registration of any of their yoga teachers or schools. This is not a perfect solution, however. Due to limitations regarding what Yoga Alliance is able to do to advocate and educate the yoga community about how to handle sexual assault, I believe the yoga community would be helped by the creation of a third-party governing body where victims could report crimes and be directed to sexual abuse services in their area.
Creating safe sacred space.
For many people, yoga studios and schools are safe places where they develop healthy, holistic relationships with their bodies. In general, yoga teachers are kind, understanding, and help us foster positive relationships with our bodies. Most yoga students are simply seeking peace, a deeper understanding of self, and a community where they can grow and learn. Occasionally, an individual may not be in a state where being part of a yoga community would serve them or anyone in that community. Someone who refuses to honor codes of sexual conduct would be an example of such a case. This doesn’t mean he or she is cut off from Yoga. Yoga is the essence of who we are. That includes all of us. However, that doesn’t mean that certain behaviors are appropriate or should be tolerated.
As more and more women come forward to share stories of their experiences of sexual abuse, it is vital that the yoga community evaluate its conscience in this area as well. We’ve made mistakes in the past. We can do better. In fact, we must do better. We must strive to create an atmosphere that honors everybody, every body, and every soul.