In 1998, a friend of mine traveled to Mysore, India to study with a well-known guru. When she returned I asked her about the experience. She had a fantastic time, deepened her practice considerably, and was more committed than ever to keep her yoga and meditation practice steady and strong. There was, however, one thing that left her feeling uneasy.
The yoga master under whom she was studying would repeatedly show unwanted attention to the female students—hugs that lingered far too long, comments about appearance and assists that felt awkward at times and violating at others. This left her feeling conflicted. On the one hand he had helped her deepen her practice considerably. On the other hand, his behavior was very inappropriate and left deep emotional and psychological scars.
I would like to say that this is the only time I’ve heard this story, but sadly, I have heard versions of this story hundreds of times from women all over the world. As a gay man, women will frequently feel comfortable telling me things they might not otherwise tell my straight male colleagues. Sometimes the stories involve inappropriate behavior from a well-known teacher or guru. At other times the behavior came from a relatively unknown teacher. The details change slightly with each situation, but they are all strikingly similar at the same time.
When my book, The Yogi Entrepreneur, was first released, I was surprised by the emails I received. I had expected messages about marketing and community building, but what caused me to really sit up was the emotional and heartbreaking messages I received regarding a story I shared in the book.
Several years ago I led a retreat to India. After the closing circle, a young woman approached me and gave me a big hug. She had tears in her eyes and she said that she wanted to thank me. Retreats can be powerful and moving experiences for many people, so gratitude is not uncommon.
Her gratitude was not for the reasons I had expected, however. “I want to thank you for being gay,” she said as her eyes filled with tears again.
Over the years I have heard a lot, but this statement knocked me back on my heels. It must have shown on my face because her tears quickly turned to laughter.
“Thanks,” I said, “ but I’m not sure I can take credit for that. It is certainly not something I planned. It just sort of happened that way.”
Jennifer was a very attractive woman by conventional standards, and I’m sure she receives a lot of attention from heterosexual men. The problem was that she was receiving too much inappropriate attention from male yoga teachers, and when she signed up for my retreat, she feared that she would have to spend the whole retreat fending off my advances. Once she learned that I had no interest in her in that way, she was able to relax and go deep into her practice.
Another student, Kelly, overheard our conversation and chimed in. Kelly was attractive as well, but she was slightly overweight. “I have to agree with Jennifer. I’m so tired of going to yoga classes where the prettiest girls get all the attention, and fat girls like me are invisible to the teacher. One of the reasons I come to your class, Darren, is that I know you are not there to hit on the pretty girls. I know that you are there to work with everyone.”
The yoga classroom is designed to be a refuge. The world outside is often brutal and unfair. Justice and equality can be elusive and we can often feel unsafe as we face the things, big and small, that assault us every day. The yoga class should be a place where we can take a break from all of that, recharge our spiritual batteries and prepare to go back into the world with a greater resolve to improve our lives and the lives of others. Many times this refuge is where we find the courage to stand up for what we believe to be true and the equanimity to make meaningful changes in our lives and in the world.
When people feel unsafe in the yoga class; when they feel violated or disrespected in some way, we as teachers are doing the exact opposite of teaching yoga. The harm we do to our students, our personal reputations and the reputation of yoga more broadly is immeasurable. I believe that just as other industries are starting to empower women to say #MeToo, the yoga community needs to acknowledge that we have a problem, commit to addressing that problem directly and to empowering women to say no to unwelcome or abusive comments, touch and sexual advances in the yoga space.
To yoga students everywhere, I invite you to share your story with a teacher you trust. If you are feeling subtle or overt harassment—you are likely not alone. I suspect there are wonderful teachers in your community who will listen to your concerns with an open heart and an open mind. You deserve to be heard and we as a community need to listen even if you are sharing something uncomfortable about a teacher we otherwise admire.
To my fellow teachers, the time for looking the other way has long since past. At the end of the day, our job is to create a safe space for all of our students. If we continue to accept inappropriate behavior in the yoga space we are not yoga teachers at all. Sexuality and romantic attraction are difficult and a room full of scantily clad bodies can make it even more challenging. But that is no excuse. When we learn of inappropriate behavior on the part of fellow teachers, it is our responsibility to say something and to stand with women who voice credible concerns.
Of course, not all people being harassed are women and not all those doing the harrassing are men. Some may make accusations that are not credible, while others will doubt that a prominent teacher could do such a thing. Many of us have acted on attraction in ways that may have made others feel uncomfortable. Men and women, gay and straight, yoga teachers and non-yoga teachers alike can fall into this trap—and we often do. And yet there is a difference between awkwardly handling an attraction and causing someone to feel violated and unsafe.
I believe that the healing associated with yoga is profound. Honest, respectful and permission-based touch that is a part of so many yoga classes provides a much needed counterpoint to uninvited or unwanted touch in other facets of our society. I believe male yoga teacher can and should model what it means to be a true gentleman and many women can find in yoga the courage to stand up and say #MeToo.
But before any of that can happen, we need to look deeply and honestly at our community—including some very prominent senior teachers and gurus. We need to say collectively, NO MORE. We need to look honestly at the romantic and sexual attractions that sometimes form and make every effort to acknowledge the attraction without expressing in ways that make our students feel uncomfortable or violated.
Make no mistake, this will be painful and humbling for our community. But the foundational principles of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, will light the way and in the end, our community will be stronger. If we do this, yoga will continue to be a much needed refuge in our often chaotic world.