when yoga is abusive: dissecting the dynamics of yoga sex scandals

(image via examiner.com)

(image via examiner.com)

Guest blogger Hope Bordeaux digs into the teacher-student relationship underlying recent sex scandals in the yoga world. What can we do as a community to prevent future scandals from happening? Keep talking.

By now, many people will have already read about the new sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Sarah Baughn against Bikram Choudhury. For regular IAYB readers, this isn’t a shocker. There’s the distinct feeling of “yoga sex scandal fatigue” in response to recent yoga news. Sex scandals have been a sad part of North American yoga culture for decades, as Stefanie Syman revealed in The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. And Bikram Choudhury is, after all, known for saying ridiculous things about sexual relationships with his students, like: “What happens when they say they will commit suicide unless you sleep with them? What am I supposed to do? Sometimes having an affair is the only way to save someone’s life.”

But rather than shrugging and moving on, I think these cases are worth talking about. If you feel that yoga has both physical and emotional benefits, what can you do to prevent those benefits for being used as lures by someone with a desire to exploit his or her students sexually?

To begin, I think it is important to acknowledge that yoga, like the larger culture, needs to be less dismissive of sexual harassment and assault claims. Students who accuse teachers of mishandling funds rather than bodies would, I imagine, face much less criticism for staying in the yoga culture after the alleged crimes occurred.

Then there is the susceptibility of the student-teacher relationship to corruption. Reading Carol Horton’s recent book, Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, I was struck by how her analysis of the contemporary yoga scene may reveal some of the potential factors behind abuse: namely, that yoga culture’s tendency to give teachers celebrity status while dismissing critique and encouraging constant positivity can silence students while inflating the narcissism of some teachers.

As Horton writes, “The yoga teacher-student relationship is inherently fraught with with interpersonal issues not dissimilar to those of the therapist-client…the most common reason  many yoga students tend to idealize their teachers is that many of us unconsciously yearn for a perfect, parent-like figure that will care for us in an all-knowing, all-loving way (112).” Combined with a culture that, as Horton says, encourages positivity over critical thinking, this makes for a fertile ground for exploitation.

Deconstructing the Teacher-Student Relationship

According to Baughn’s accusations, Choudhury assured her that she’d win a yoga competition if she had sex with him, an example of quid pro quo harassment. However, abusive manipulation can be subtle and pervasively harmful, too. Baughn also says Choudhury told her they were “connected in a past life,” and that only she could understand him, in an apparent attempt at seduction via guilt-trip. It’s worth noting that similar claims about shaming and guilt have been made in other yoga communities during past scandals, stretching back decades. As disaffected former SYDA member and psychoanalyst Daniel Shaw writes of his ashram years, “While apparently inviting others to attain his state of perfection (shamelessness) by following him, the cult leader is actually constantly involved in inducing shame in his followers, thereby maintaining his dominance and control.”

In many ways, this is the dark, unexamined side of yoga sex scandals – the way that the act of teaching leaves the student vulnerable to exploitation in the guise of affection and acknowledgement by the teacher, if the teacher becomes unethical and corrupt. I don’t think it’s correct to claim, as William Broad essentially did after the Anusara scandal, that unethical sexual behavior is the result of libido-raising “rapid breathing” and spandex in yoga classes (the “it’s the Tantric yoga, stupid,” defense). I’m more concerned that cases of teacher-student manipulation might parallel what psychologists call “grooming” of the victim in child sexual abuse cases.

Because the teacher-student relationship can replicate the imbalance of authority between an adult and a child, I think the comparison is an intriguing one.  In that situation, warning signs of abusive grooming could include things like giving special attention to vulnerable students, controlling student behaviors, and sexualizing physical interactions between student and teacher as “tests” to see which students are least likely to protest inappropriate behavior.

Breaking the Pattern: Dialogue & Discomfort

Psychologists characterize grooming as a gradual process of boundary-crossing by authority figures that culminates in assault, which often leaves the victim conflicted about their role in events. In turn, the victim’s internal conflict makes exposure of the perpetrator’s activities less likely. Some survivor’s organizations describe a pattern of alternating praise and rewards with anger and criticism by the abuser, designed to cultivate the victim’s loyalty, while silencing doubts. Sound familiar?

In Western athletic culture, it is a cliché that struggle and unhappiness are worth the cost of your discomfort if you “win” in the end.  Translated to membership in organizations and schools, this platitude can be a risky contract. Youll be part of something special, organizations promise students, if you just follow our rules and be good.

But what happens if your organization is dysfunctional, as some charismatic yoga schools appear to be? This is a question that the whole yoga community, and its many facets and incarnations, should be asking. Situations such as this latest Bikram scandal present an opportunity to open up a dialogue around creating healthier teacher-student relationships.

Hope Bordeaux blogs about yoga, books, & creativity at www.hopebordeaux.com. Her weekly column, “What to Read on the Subway,” runs every Monday at The Daily Muse. Beginning this summer, she will be reviewing books for the yoga podcast Where Is My Guru.

  1. This article <3<3

    To be perfectly frank, while I completely agree there does seem to be fatigue around stories of yoga sex scandals, I don't think the underlying topic of abuse which is behind this kind of behavior has been touched on enough and that's a discussion which needs to be vigorously pursued at this juncture.

    Carol and Hope have both cited the teacher-student relationship dynamic as being one of the factors, but I also think a more insidious factor is has something to do with economics. Some of these more charismatic and popular instructors bring in much-needed cash to studios, many of which struggle to stay open. Instructors with "a following" seem to be ripe for the narcissist, abusive ploy, and feel that they can get away with it and if they're let go, they take their following with them which then may or may not put the studio in the red. This culture of enabling comes from all directions, it's not just students and/or followers.

  2. Thank you for this.

  3. Thank you both for the positive feedback. It’s very appreciated!

    Earth Energy Reader, I agree that money plays a role in these scandals as well, particularly the fast-paced “rehabilitation” and return to teaching of many individuals that Roseanne has covered at IAYB.

    Bernadette, I am a reader/fan of your blog, so I would say your recent post on withholding self-approval is spot-on, too–if I feel unworthy, I’m more likely to take a teacher’s assessment as gospel, and that is part of these situations, too.

  4. Thank you for your post! Talking about this as much as impossible is important because it is only when students stop supporting these teachers that the teachers will learn they cannot continue with abusive behavior.

  5. Apart from the abuse issues there’s also the unmentioned issue of yoga competitions! Are these people practicsing yoga or merely doing gymnastics?

  6. Great article, though it worries me that you describe as “ridiculous” the suggestion that some people use the threat of suicide to get what they want. Would you be so dismissive if it was a student claiming that their teacher had used such a threat?

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