yoga, sex, ethics & responsibility: the IAYB guide to the conversation

yoga, sex, ethics & responsibility: the IAYB guide to the conversation

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.

The Source

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.”


Tara Stiles’ clothing line with Reebok has a similar libertarian & individualistic stance on “the rules.”

The Response

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.

A scene from Hollywood movie Couple's Retreat satirizes inappropriate advances from yoga teachers

A scene from Hollywood movie Couple’s Retreat satirizes inappropriate advances from yoga teachers

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.

What next?

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.

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  1. Update from Cameron Shayne. In the comment thread to his original post, he answers the questions I posed to him directly about the material effects of his political views. Here’s one of his answers:

    2. I would respond to those who feel physically, emotionally and sexually threatened by my politics by asking what have I done to them, against them or with them? I have no interaction with these people. I am absolutely transparent with all people who walk into my class room. I would never even flirt with an mature adult who was clear and honest with me and themselves.

    He obviously thinks that someone has to be personally acquainted with him to have a sincere reaction to his politics. I wasn’t asking him about those who know him personally, but about those who don’t know him but have heard his views and find that they add to the toxicity of the general culture. It’s almost as if he doesn’t understand that he. wrote. an. article. and. what. he’s. written. matters. to. people. he’s. never. met.

  2. Donna Farhi has a great book on this very subject: Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher Student Relationship. Great book on professional ethics for yoga teachers!

  3. The Parliament of Religions resignations, though not a focus of online yoga rage and more a Hindu concern (and as such far removed from yoga), deserves a mention. It is false to pin Shayne’s arguments as arguing anything goes, they’re about self-respect and personal freedom; they don’t add up and are almost surreal in their assumptions, but that doesn’t mean he is the monster the commentariat would like him to be.

  4. I, on the other hand, went for the unelevated reply:

    This has all been a hoot, but I have to say my favorite part so far has been discovering that on his website, Cameron Shayne has given himself the ironic title of “Kancho.” In Japanese, Kancho is the word for a prank common among schoolchildren, in which you make a pretend gun out of your hands, sneak up on someone, and jab your fingers at their butthole as hard as you can. Which is sort of how I felt reading this article: it was painful for me, I bet Cameron felt pretty cool at first, but in the end we were both a bit embarrassed, and then we got to laugh about the whole thing.

    So listen, Kancho. You seem to be sitting atop a pretty big mountain of moral relativism here. I know, I know, like you said, you’re just speaking your truth. But let’s pause for a moment and consider that the notion of “your truth” is a bunch of sloppy nonsense. “Truth” literally means corresponding to objective fact or reality, a notion you explicitly deny: “All experience is subjective” or “[The] act of seeking outside one’s self for answers is folly.” What you have here are a bunch of opinions, dressed up in fancypants phrases like, “The guru is dead” and “There are no victims.” And you’re totally entitled to those. I personally find them hilarious to observe, and look forward to more of them; please subscribe me to your newsletter. And let me be perfectly clear: I’m all for you humping anyone, anywhere, anyway the two of you can agree upon. That’s the rich reward of the fact that we’re all big kids now. Never mind the fact your entire setup is predicated on the fact that in your classroom you’re the boss and you get to decide what is or is not for sale. Try working at Dunkin’ Donuts and every now and again asking a customer, “Would you like a BJ with that?” You’d lose your sprinkle privileges real fast over that.

    But here’s where you really lost me: you’ve pitched your tent on both sides of the field. On the one hand, you’ve made a striking number of normative claims about the nature of a common reality–really most of your article consists of statements about how the world is and how humans function. On the other, you’ve adopted this I-am-a-rock-I-am-an-island style of logic that implies no such common reality exists to any degree, and everyone’s experience is so radically subjective that none of us is qualified to assess the values of another. That itself is a huge claim about reality and a big assessment on values. It’s also a fortress of solitude wherein your privileged experience, “your truth,” is rendered conveniently untouchable by outsiders. When someone disagrees, they’re reacting or being dogmatic or “projecting,” a little piece of word-candy you can’t seem to stop sucking on.

    An alternate scenario would be that each of us, in our privileged but limited experience has unique but incomplete access to a reality we share to differing degrees. Within that experience, we can discuss and debate the validity of claims to truth, and in that context certain claims are indeed more or less valid based on their ability to more or less completely render a reality none of us can completely perceive individually. That’s precisely the value of seeking outside oneself for answers: by reflecting our own experience back to us through theirs, others can reveal aspects of ourselves we are blind to because of habit, proximity, or, let’s face it, plain ignorance. That’s what a guru, a teacher, a therapist, a friend, a lover, or a hobo on subway who says you look fat in those pants is good for. Oh, you’re still gonna have to do all the work, but it’s nice to have a heads up.

    In this scenario, your detractors are reflecting back to you the opinion that you’re wrong about a number of things. On the one hand, I don’t fault you for discounting the opinion of people who don’t know you. On the other, if your article is complete unto itself and as you say “most normal humans share the same mental, emotional and spiritual capacity to critically think,” then your readers actually possess everything required to make a potentially valid critique. You have defended this article simply as a statement of your experience. You have responded as if your awareness of yourself and your experience is always accurate beyond others’ observation. You have responded, in effect, by saying, “No one else a position to tell me I’m wrong about that.” I am responding by saying, “You’re wrong about that too, Kancho.”

  5. Ehm… Should any yogi be having “casual sex” with anyone? Isn’t “casual sex” the equivalent of using another person’s body to get a quick high? How is THAT grounding, in any sense of the word?

    This dude, whatever his name, being a man has been socialised to see sex as a quick “high”, and he’s clearly operating from this point of view. Then he’s using loosely based yoga principles to justify it.

    But this has nothing to do with yoga, and everything to do with the way our society has conditioned us to see sex.

    Notice how different the conversation would go if a teacher had fallen in love with a student. Suddenly there’s no controversy of any kind. And there would be no clash with yoga principles.

    • Frankly, your interpretation of casual sex (or in scare quotes “casual sex”) is wrong and judgmental. I disagree wholeheartedly with the power imbalance of teacher/student sexual relations, be they falling in love or otherwise (so no, there would still be controversy if a yoga teacher becomes involved in a romantic relationship with a student because power dynamics are power dynamics). But I’m sorry, people have all types of intimate relationships and it is not up to you to decide what is grounding or pleasing for others.

      I find these kinds of broad, reductionist statements of what is or isn’t yoga very distasteful and othering. The above comment distracts the discussion away from a sorely need one on helping establish ethical behaviour as a norm within the yoga community to making pronouncements as to how people should choose to navigate their personal relationships.

    • Casual sex is “the equivalent of using another person’s body” Seriously? My god. I’m not sure what has led you to this type of thinking as far as sex is concerned, but it is irrelevant. And who says that sex is the antithesis of grounding? How odd. Sex is much more than a “quick high”. It’s about connection, touch, emotion, feeling, etc.

  6. If i hadn’t already left the Yoga Alliance, I would do so now in response to their failure to take a stand on this crucial ethical issue. For god’s sake, what sort of professional association is this?

    • The YA is really an insurance company, is it not? People pay them a sum of money to protect against being sued. Is that correct?

      • YA is mostly for “credibility” but is recently under new leadership and moving toward being a more useful trade union, with membership giving access to discounted insurance and a retirement plan (though how good or not these are i don’t know; this is not an ad :)).

      • As it stands now, I believe that people pay YA a sum of money to appear on a list of people who have paid to be on their list. Perhaps this will enable a person to acquire insurance by paying more money to someone for something somewhere, but it is not part of the importance of registering:

        It appears that YA is as rigorous about checking listees credentials as the bank who issued your four-year old a credit card. But that is, of course, just my subjective opinion.

  7. I am so disappointed that this is still such a controversial topic in the yogic world. I am completely against yoga teachers sleeping with their students. The yoga student approaches yoga usually for healing and looks to the teacher for unbiased guidance and trusts that the teacher has their best interests at heart. There is a reason why Bhramacharya is one of the Yamas and pillars of the practice. Teachers pursuing students for sex blurs the lines of trust and accountability.

    I agree that the Yoga Alliance and other professional yoga teaching associations as well as conferences and festivals must take a strong and clear stance on this issue.

  8. I found this moving and insightful article (from Elephant Journal March 2012) by Kelly Morris about this very topic. It expresses quite specifically what Mr Shayne’s argument fails to. I wonder if Mr Shayne might want to take up Ms Morris’ suggestion of discovering what “the historical content in his classroom actually is!–kelly-morris/

  9. “and challenged Remski to do one of Shayne’s DVDs every day for a month.” what’s next? who can piss the longest? sounds like a real guy thing. and yes, I’m rolling my eyes.

    • We used to try to piss the farthest, not the longest, Linda. But this is a little more complex than a guy thing. The commenter was “Jenny Hagen”, who wrote —

      “Cameron Shayne is a teacher on the edge of the “new” yoga, one adapted to a Modern Western Society. His Merge of Martial Arts practice with Yoga changed my life. I’m a better person, mother, partner, yoga teacher & massage therapist because of his practice techniques. I’ve only used his beginners DVD with over ten years of formal yoga practice and 220 hours of Hatha Yoga teacher training behind me. He saved my life & my sense of self worth. I do not care what he does in the bed room…Rodney Yee (also one of my treasured teachers) married his former student… Any one who puts them self “out there” subjects themselves to criticism and judgement…I commend them for having the “GUTS” to do so in the first place. I challenge you, author, to take to the mat with Shayne’s Beginners Budokon practice DVD every morning for a month and see if you do not feel better, look better…and walk through your life just a little more spry and sure footed….Politics are Politics…plain and simple….you will always have the bad with the good reviews if you do anything note worthy in life. Again, I do not care what he does in the bedroom or who with….but what he brings to his mat. He changed my life for the better & for that, I am profoundly GRATEFUL!”

      So we have Shayne’s women students (whether in person or by DVD) who are suppressing the politics involved by lauding his physical pedagogy.

  10. I’m just surprised it’s taken THIS LONG for this conversation to finally come up after years and years of it going on. I don’t understand why the larger, general yoga community hasn’t brought this up sooner. Every time it has, it’s always fallen on either deaf ears or been drowned out by supporters of positions like Cameron Shayne’s

    Oh wait. I know why.

    This is gonna be a little simplistic and overtly generalized, so apologies in advance but most of the people practicing yoga, if the numbers at studios are anything to go by are largely women, and even more specifically women in their 20s and 30s (i.e child-bearing years) who for whatever reason can’t seem to stand up to predatory, charismatic male yoga instructors, of which they are unfortunately, too many. The women and practitioners who I have seen take some of these aforementioned instructors to task are generally either older women, married guys (whose wives have been hit on) or gay instructors. Expecting the Yoga Alliance to take a stand on such a contentious issue is never going to happen. YA is terrified of legal action by anyone against them, particularly for defamation of character so there is no way in hell they’ll touch this with a 10 foot pole.

    Some ripped heterosexual men in a roomful of beautiful women in suggestive poses are unfortunately going to do their best to get their johnsons wet with as many women as they can. I’m not saying that’s right, in fact I find it immature, irresponsible and downright degrading and unevolved. These instructors might even feel entitled to do it. The groupies may or may not want to join in. Those of us who disagree, however have the choice with our presence, our conscience and our dollars to not frequent these studios or classes or instructors or “teachings”. Every last one of us can make our choices known with our actions.

    As for Cameron Shayne and Budokon, as far as I’m concerned Budokon is for bobos.
    Not buyin’ it so consider me out. The same for Rodney Yee, Bikram Choudhury, John Friend and Kausthub Desikachar and anyone else who follows their lead. Being an instructor is NOT a free pass to becoming a lothario. Being an instructor is a free pass to instruct. Period.

  11. I’ve been following this conversation with fascination, and don’t have much to what has been eloquently stated by many others. While Shayne can certainly navigate his life as he chooses — and I applaud him for being transparency around seeing students as potential sexual partners — I truly hope people won’t use him as an example of a committed yoga practitioner.

    While I have not read everything surrounding this kerfuffle, it gets my attention that there is so little mention of brahmacharya. ( Yasmin Yoga excepted). Even the most modern, liberal interpretation of this precept contained in the First Limb of Yoga calls for sexual respect. When a teacher chooses to engage sexually with a student, it seems to me to be a violation of the relationship, and most certainly not a practice of brahmacharya.

    Too many people forget — or don’t know — that yoga is ancient practice that has a foundational philosophy, precepts, guiding principles and moral codes. People are free to take ancient postures and marry them with something else and call it whatever they want, but I really wish they’d stop calling it yoga.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. Cameron Shayne on Why He Wrote an Article About Yoga Teachers and Students Having Sex
  2. More citta vrtti about sex with yoga students, oh, and Louis CK – Sean Feit Oakes, PhD