If you’re connected in any way to a social media community of yoga practitioners, your feeds have likely been full of a swarm of blog posts and commentary about sex and yoga, and possibly about ethics and the teacher-student relationship. It’s easy to be confused by the barrage of information. Here is the IAYB guide to the conversation.
Last week, yoga teacher and “creator” of the Budokon Yoga system (a yoga and martial arts hybrid) Cameron Shayne posted an article on Rebelle Society explaining why there’s nothing wrong with yoga teachers who have sex with their students. In fact, he confessed to having “engaged in deep and meaningful intimate relationships” with his female students. He asked, “Should we as yoga teachers, and others as yoga students be restricted or limited regarding our sexual partnerships in order to accommodate the beliefs of others?”
At the essence of his argument was that consenting adults have an equal amount of choice and power, and therefore, if they feel attracted to each other, should have the right to act on it. Any “rules” that prohibit teacher-student relationships are morally oppressive. He advocated for teachers to “establish their own code of ethics, rather than obeying social law and/or policy.”
Not surprisingly, Shayne’s post elicited a whole slew of comments. Many commentors called out the blurry lines of Shayne’s position. “In an abstract ethical world everything you’re saying makes logical sense, but I don’t live in that world,” wrote Sean Feit. “I live in a world where power imbalance, sexism, privilege, and patriarchy in all its forms are all alive and well. The responsibilities for ethical action when in a position of authority are not ‘antiquated ideology,’ but mature responses to the very current reality of social inequity and endemic abuse of power.”
And even less surprising but more disturbing, there were a number of people who supported Shayne’s position. “Most of us are capable of forming our own ideas and creating out own sets of values,” wrote one person. Another person commented, “Brilliant succinct and my thoughts exactly. Why do we hold teachers to a higher standard then ourselves. We are human and there are no mistakes.”
A couple of days later, Yoganonymous posted a rebuttal by Chris Courtney, who didn’t name the article he was rebutting because he choose “not to dignify it nor promote it.” He pointed out that many yoga students are vulnerable and it’s imperative for male teachers to maintain strong boundaries, including resisting the advances of students.
“This is a call to action for all teachers and practitioners to support strong ethical boundaries which protect the practice,” Courtney wrote. “You don’t sleep with your students nor do you flirt with them. When you see something wrong happening, you call it out.”
The Counter-response & Analysis
Then earlier this week, Carol Horton took the conversation to a whole other level with a thoughtful analysis on 90 Monkeys. She went to careful lengths to criticize the logic in Shayne’s argument, rather than attacking him personally:
Shayne believes that yoga teachers should not be subject to ethical or regulatory restraints that limit free sexual access to their students. (Presumably, this means adults capable of giving formal consent, although these criteria aren’t stressed.) To my reading, his argument (which is echoed in many of the comments) reflects a mixture of two larger streams of thought that are quite influential in U.S. culture: hyper-individualist radical libertarianism, on the one hand, and irrational New Age spirituality, on the other.
This, in my view, is a toxic mix: capable of legitimating all sorts of power abuses, while at the same time advancing a twisted logic that “blames the victim” when they occur.
Carol’s response was measured and elevated, sparking a thoughtful series of comments and direct responses from Cameron Shayne himself.
The Bonus Read: Remski’s Take on Shayne & the Body Politic
Matthew Remski posted a poetic and eloquent narrative on Shayne’s argument, which managed to contrast the “beauty and hotness” of his body with his flawed reasoning. It’s likely that Remski spent hours watching Shayne’s videos on YouTube before coming to this fascinating conclusion:
“… at the heart of privilege: Cameron Shayne’s body is white and male and ripped and abled before it opens its pie-hole with the luxury of being able to rationalize its behavior, invent narcissistic ethics, or declaim any metaphysics.”
While Remski’s post is not a personal attack on Shayne, it could easily be misinterpreted as one. As of this writing (5pm, Friday), Cameron Shayne hasn’t jumped in the comments section to defend himself or congratulate the commentor who claimed that Budokon changed her life and challenged Remski to do one of Shayne’s DVDs every day for a month. But it’s bound to happen at any moment.
The best thing about this whole debacle is that it’s opened up a conversation about sex, power, ethics, and the yoga teacher-student relationship. The worst thing about this debacle is that we even have to have this conversation in the first place. As many people in the comment sections on the various posts have pointed out, most professions have ethical guidelines that prevent sexual relations and abuses of power. These guidelines aren’t seen as “repressive” or “dogmatic” – they’re a means to ensure that professional boundaries are upheld and a safe environment is ensured for everyone.
It’s difficult to imagine any other healing professional (be it a massage therapist, dentist or shamanic healer) stepping up and publicly advocating for their right to have casual sex with clients or students. Yet it’s not surprising that yoga – situated on the margins, somewhere between healing profession and fitness coach – would fall between the cracks here.
Since this conversation falls on the heels of numerous high-profile sex scandals in the yoga community (John Friend, Kausthub Desikachar, Bikram Choudhury), it’s clear that Shayne isn’t the only person who thinks that yoga teachers are in a position to do whatever they want with students.
The closest thing that the North American yoga community has to a regulatory body is the Yoga Alliance, who has remained suspiciously quiet on this issue. However, earlier this week, the alliance took a public stance on another recent yoga issue: the online yoga classroom camera angle patent situation between YogaGlo and Yoga International. They even started an online petition to urge YogaGlo to withdraw its patent application.
It’s great to see YA take a public stance on something, but it’s pretty obvious that they picked their battles carefully, and they chose the easier one.
So this is a loose introduction to the conversation and threads that have emerged in the online yoga community over the past 10 days or so. Sexuality, power dynamics and human relationships are complex. If anything, Cameron Shayne’s post has brought to light and named a power dynamic that has been lurking below the surface.