The House of Yoga is on Fire
I dreamt of fire last night. The flames closed in around an apartment complex that I, along with a community I was member of, was living in. The people at the very top in the fanciest apartments thought they were safe, but they weren’t. The fire came for them too. Everyone took shelter in what we thought was a safe space—a yoga room. It was large and spacious and everyone thought the walls were fireproof, so once people got into the room they let their guard down. Many people decided to practice and I was doing backbends when I noticed a hallway and open window that made the room vulnerable to the encroaching fire. I saw the wood frame of the roof of the apartment complex burning, with sparks flying off and entering the perimeter of the yoga space. What was most upsetting was that no one wanted to leave. People clung to the floor and huddled in the corner, sure that the room would remain safe. Somehow I escaped and woke up in a panic.
I’m not a dream analyst, but the symbolism here is quite telling to me. Fire can be a symbol of so much, from anger to transformation to enlightenment. When a forest burns, it is a vital part of the growth cycle and can be a healthy part of an ecosystem. But, when a forest burns uncontrollably, especially in areas near cities and towns, devastation often ensues. That is all too obvious in the heartbreaking circumstances facing both California and the Amazon rainforest now.
Yoga has been my safe space since I was 19. I sought refuge within this spiritual practice from the beginning. My quest in yoga was intimately linked to a desire to find answers to life’s most significant questions—who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? Through practice, and the revelations that practice has lead me to, I have found some of those answers. But, the yoga world of today is not the yoga world of 20 years ago. Yoga is undergoing a seismic shift of unparalleled proportions. And perhaps this is part of a larger societal trend that is sweeping culture at-large. So, what’s happening in the yoga world and why is the yoga room on fire?
There are some paradigm-changing realizations and revelations that have come to the surface recently that call into question some of the most deeply-held assumptions that many yoga practitioners have come to rely upon. Yoga does not exist in a vacuum and the broader cultural exposure of the abuses of people in positions of power created a space where silenced voices within the yoga world could speak and finally be heard. I, along with all Ashtanga Yoga teachers and practitioners have to face the consequences of the sexual assault committed by founder K. Pattabhi Jois with compassion for the victims and grapple with what may be our own culpability, either directly or indirectly. There are those who either experienced or saw the abuse directly. There are also newer practitioners who either never met K. Pattabhi Jois or only minimally practiced with him and are just hearing about the assault. Yet, each and every Ashtanga Yoga practitioner has to come to terms with the fact they may have participated knowingly or unknowingly in part of a culture that violated the fundamental principle of yoga itself, that is, not to do harm. For many well-intended students and teachers, this is a difficult process, but one that pales in comparison to what the victims themselves have gone through. It is the responsibility of every teacher and practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga to do the work themselves and grapple with these very hard facts. There is much resistance to questioning K. Pattabhi Jois, even now, long after his death and amidst the revelation of these disturbing accounts of abuse. Certified Ashtanga Yoga teacher Angela Jamison writes about how challenging it can be for students to question the authority—
My initial reaction to the victim’s testimony was not one of listening but rather of defensiveness and I too found it difficult to question the long-standing authority I previously trusted in K. Pattabhi Jois. I am not proud that moment. After dialogue with the victims and time spent listening I have since published this blog—
At the core of the issue that the victim’s of K. Pattabhi Jois bring up is the issue of consent. A recent New York Times article centers around the issue of consent in yoga. The victims of sexual assault in the yoga space describe horrific scenes where teachers like Jois hump them and digitally penetrate them. No consent was asked for, and none expressly given. Instead, due to the guru model, consent was assumed by the teacher in an absolute and violating manner. Under no circumstances must this be allowed to continue. Many of you reading this know that I am a victim of sexual assault within the yoga world too. You can read my #metoo story here—
I’m here, in this blog and as a yoga teacher, to contribute to the evolution of the practice of Ashtanga Yoga in what I hope will be a meaningful expansion towards accessibility and inclusivity. I’m here to talk about the importance of consent and to add to a much-needed reimagining of what safety means in the yoga space. I’m here to do what I can to update the guru model for a post-authoritarian era of practice. There is a rampant culture of abuse in which people in positions of power feel entitled for one reason or another to violate the consent of others. This unfortunately happens in the yoga room and in the world at large. Particularly if you’re not a member of the dominant (often white male) culture, your consent is simply presumed. If you make noise and challenge the status quo you may be painted as angry and emotional and told to settle down, not be so divisive, not take things so personally, or to just breathe. The privilege of those in power is the freedom to take space and claim authority. The disadvantage of those not in power is the daily onslaught that threatens the safety of their being. I’m not sure exactly how the guru model is to be updated. The guru model assumes that the teacher is a more highly evolved individual than the student. Perhaps the first step is to treat students and teachers as equal human beings. But, we cannot simply cancel and delete the influence of gurus lest we white wash yoga and appropriate Indian culture. Instead, there has to be a way to honor the contribution of generations of Indian yogis and the expertise of qualified teachers without losing one’s own sense of self. Perhaps there is a way that contemporary teachers themselves can reinvent the concept of lineage in a post-authoritarian world by embracing the equality between themselves and their students.
In the yoga spaces of today there is often a power dynamic between teachers and students. That hierarchy is something that must be questioned and repositioned if we are to truly update the guru model. Yoga teachers of the contemporary world are not high spiritual gurus or shamans who hold a special, more spiritually evolved status. Most have only completed a cursory 200 hour training before entering into their own domains as teachers. I believe that a 200 hour training is simply not enough to train potential teachers in the knowledge, subtlety and experience required to put your hands on another person’s body. Massage therapy schools often exceed 1000 hours of training and therapists must pass numerous exams before receiving their license. I think yoga teachers should be held to at least some equivalent standard. Perhaps instead of teacher training factories that pump out 200 hour certified teachers, we could recast the 200 hour course as a prerequisite to a teacher training, not a teacher training itself. A full and thorough education of yoga teachers is sorely needed to better equip prospective teachers to safely and sensitively address the needs of their students.
Consent is delicate and must be taken into account each and every time a yoga teacher places their hands on a student’s body. It cannot be assumed to be given, it must be considered each and every time. When a victim of sexual assault agrees to have samples taken as part of a rape kit, the medical team involved is instructed to ask for consent at each step. By asking the victim to say a verbal “yes” as each sample is taken encourages reclamation of agency and power.
It is easier for a student who wants an assist to ask for it than for someone who is unsure to say no. Particularly if a student is a trauma survivor, their own agency over their bodies will be compromised. In this case, it is the teacher’s responsibility to create a safe space for the student. There are numerous possible solutions that a teacher could consider. Some teachers use consent cards, where the students indicate if they consent to being adjusted or not by placing a card with the appropriate marking near their mat. Others have students start class in Child’s Pose and place a hand on their back if they do not want to be adjusted. This allows the student’s choice to be seen only by the teacher. I personally do two things—I announce at the start of class that every student always has the right to let me know that they’d rather not be adjusted and, prior to assisting a challenging pose like backbends, I ask for consent. It’s pretty simple and non-dramatic. My intention is two-fold: first, to let the students know that they can say no to me and second to create an atmosphere of equality between teacher and student.
When I see a student who I asses could use a bit of help in a pose, I say something like, “Would you like some help with that?”. Now, there are instances where I may adjust a person’s hand position in Trikonasana where touch is minimal and far from any personal zones. In that case I make eye contact but may not actively ask for consent. There is no perfect solution. Each and every time I adjust a yoga student I am actively conscious of the issue of consent. I encourage all teachers to keep that at the forefront of their thoughts each and every time they place their hands on a student’s body. That in and of itself could be a paradigm shift in the yoga world. I do not assume that I know better than the student and I remain sensitive to the student’s reaction and response. If at any moment the student decides that the adjustment is no longer appropriate, we have the capacity to stop and I will not push. The premise of my interaction is that we are on the journey together and I may be able to offer some assistance at a crucial part. But, if that assistance is not welcomed, or if it doesn’t work or is harmful, then I will not continue and will make the necessary modifications to my teaching to assure that no harm is done. Let me absolutely clear in stating that it is the teacher’s responsibility to ask for consent and to create an attitude that empowers students to speak up when something doesn’t feel right. The student cannot be blamed for not speaking up when the teacher creates a space meant to intimidate and dominate.
And yet, consent is a fluid thing that cannot be taken for granted. Someone may consent in general to being assisted and then change their mind halfway through an assist. A student may want to be assisted in some poses and not others. Others still may be interested in being assisted, but unsure of whether to trust the teacher. It’s a grey zone where the only clear solution is for teachers to ask for consent every single time. The responsibility is on the teacher much more than on the student. It is the teacher who benefits from their position of power and has the potential to abuse it. Yoga teachers are not perfect. I am not perfect. Sometimes hands get too close to personal zones and sometimes injuries happen. My suggestion when a situation arises that is potentially harmful—be it an injury, an inappropriate touch, or anything else—is to immediately take responsibility for it, apologize without making excuses and make time to listen to the student if they wish to share their feelings about the matter. For students who have been the victim of abuse or assault by a teacher, finding a support group and seeking counseling and therapy can be a first step in reclaiming power and agency. Anneke Lucas runs a #yogametoo survivor group on Facebook. Her work in the field of healing sexual trauma is unparalleled and deeply healing for many other survivors.
As a student it is hard to speak up and potentially challenge the authority of the teacher. And yet, the student’s voice is the voice that the teacher most often needs to hear the most. If, for example, your teacher is giving you an adjustment that doesn’t feel good for your body or, worse, feels violating and you don’t tell someone, that can have many negative consequences. If the teacher doesn’t have any negative intent, they may not be aware of the harmful impact of their actions. But if the teacher intends to abuse or dominate, sharing your experience may prevent others from being harmed. It is a heavy burden to bear as a survivor of sexual assault. Silence perpetuates the culture of abuse and allows it to continue. It is perhaps too much to ask that students directly confront abusive teachers themselves. But perhaps there is work to be done in setting up resources for victims of assault and abuse within the yoga world to get the support they need to heal. Whether that includes therapy, help speaking to authorities, legal counsel or other support. Let me absolutely clear in stating that the burden is not on the student or victim, but on the people in positions of power, the teachers and studio owners, to create a safe space for practice that makes room for the voices of the hurt and wounded to speak up and be heard.
But perhaps the issue of consent begins with one’s own relation to the body and the practice. If you do not ask your own body for consent before pummeling through poses, it is unlikely that you will be sensitive enough to ask for consent from your students. We can only ever treat others with the same level of love and respect we have for ourselves. This brings up the question of the need to go deeper or do more poses. Ashtanga teacher Ajay Tokas recently encouraged students to question the obsession with “catching” (read his Instagram post here). I fully support this line of thought and would encourage students to also question whether one needs to bind, lift up or do other poses that are considered benchmarks or gateways in order to be a worthy practitioner. The reality of different bodies doing this practice means that not everyone will be able to perform every asana in the same manner. I am interested in reforming the hierarchal nature of asana progression in Ashtanga Yoga. One day I hope to teach a Mysore Style class where people of all levels are practicing according to their own body’s needs. I will celebrate the day when I have a student doing a chair sequence next to one lifting up into handstand next to one modifying with blocks and straps next to one with both legs behind their head. In order to make this practice truly accessible we, as teachers and students, need to be accommodating of modifications for all levels.
The yoga teacher of today ideally has knowledge, skill and experience in the practice of yoga that they can share with the student. But, as far as I can see, no yoga teachers of today are enlightened masters living in perfect alignment with God’s will. Absolute authority is dangerous and breeds a kind of inevitable corruption in human beings. Let history be the proof of that statement. And yet, we as humans are susceptible to believing in the authority of someone whom we view as superior. There is something that feels good about being told what to do. It takes the responsibility and agency out of the picture and allows you to lean back into the safe space of being held by someone else. But, yoga is a path of discernment and empowerment. Students are eventually meant to wake up themselves. If that’s the case giving over full authority to another human being is a misstep along the path.
But, having a spiritual guide, pastor, rabbi, shaman or other moral counselor can be immensely useful. Looking up to someone whose manner of being feels like a call to a new and better humanity is natural. We all have heroes. However, when we divinize our human heroes and delete their humanity we get into trouble. In my experience, the only perfect being is God. We, as reflections of the Universal perfection, carry that seed within us. And yet, every single one of us—the gurus and heroes too—are imperfect, flawed, and human. Rather than hiding our humanity or being upset when the humanity of our teachers is revealed, perhaps we can learn to acknowledge (but not condone) these imperfections. Humanity is capable of both incredible acts of love, tenderness and kindness and also incomprehensible acts of violence, cruelty and war. Making sense of these opposing forces is the work of the spiritual path.
The Guru Stotram defines the guru as someone who dispels darkness. In other words it’s someone who can turn the light on in a dark room. Perhaps this is a good metaphor for what enlightenment means, to shed light on something. The guru can do this because they’ve gone through that process themselves. But, the best teachers are not the ones who guard the light switch and abuse their power. The best teachers are the ones who teach you how to turn the light on by yourself and then get out of the room.
This is not the end, but rather, the beginning of a discussion. The house of yoga is on fire. We, as the teachers and students of yoga, will choose whether that fire will be purely destructive or, if something better, a new iteration of the yoga method that is more healing, inclusive, and awakened will emerge from the ashes.
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