When Yoga Teachers Turn Toxic: Sexual Harassment and Abuse in the Yoga Community

The popularity of yoga among women has also attracted darker elements to the practice. antoniodiaz/Shutterstock.com

After leading yoga gurus like John Friend (who founded Anusara yoga) and Bikram Choudhury (founder of Bikram) have been accused of sexual assault, rape, sexual coercion, and fraud, should women beware of male yoga teachers?

Yoga teacher Rachael Fallon believes that some male teachers “use their role, the archetype of the Healer, to get women into bed.” She says she has experienced a number of abusive encounters with male instructors including dating one who was physically, emotionally, mentally abusive. She has also experienced inappropriate adjustments, received midnight knocks at her bedroom door in ashrams from teachers, and even had invitations to teach with male yogis only to realize they expected sex in return.

Fallon says that being brought up by her single mother and never knowing her father left her struggling with her relationship with men, a vulnerability that some male teachers preyed on: “teachers who know my story, who have tried to manipulate me, using my scars to their advantage.”

After traveling all over the globe as both a student and teacher to festivals, conferences, teachers training, and intensive courses, she says she is not alone. “There are always male teachers sleeping with an entourage of woman.”

Certainly, this isn’t to say that the women Fallon speaks of have all been manipulated or that anyone who forms a sexual relationship with a yoga teacher is being violated. Presumably, some of the intimacy is consensual and desired.

But over the past year, various high-profile allegations have emerged to reveal significant abuse against women in the growing global yoga community.

HIGH-PROFILE ALLEGATIONS

In one case, 55-year old Bhakti Manning revealed that she had been sexually abused by yoga guru Satyananda Saraswati. Another guru, Bikram Choudhury, now faces six civil lawsuits from women accusing him of rape or assault. Most recently, in March, a Texas woman named Nancy Duarte set fire to American Power Yoga in Dallas, where she took classes, after she was allegedly harassed by two men associated with the studio. 

These stories are, unfortunately, nothing new: In the 80s, Swami Muktananda, founder of Siddha Yoga, was accused of molestation and rape. And, more recently in 2012, news broke that John Friend, the founder of the Anusara branch of yoga, violated and brainwashed his students by holding Wiccan ceremonies during which numerous women pleasured him sexually so they could (he told them) gain spiritual power.

Of course, sexual assault and harassment against women are by no means limited to the yoga studio. But the ancient practice has become hugely popular in the modern world and as such should be subject to scrutiny. The $27 billion industry now has more than 20 million practitioners, and 83 percent of them are women. Many young women now view yoga as representative of a glamorous and aspirational lifestyle, with magazines dedicated to all things yoga, clothing brands pumping out “must-have” brightly colored tights and tops, and popular yoginis garnering millions of followers on Instagram with their perfect snaps.

And for some male teachers—who claim to practice pure living and that they value the self, the body, and others as divine beings—to prey on their students is another level of manipulative. (Guru Saraswati, for instance, famously preached celibacy.)

Certainly, we know from the endless examples of supposedly upstanding politicians proselytizing the importance of “traditional family values” while in the midst of extramarital affairs that corrupt people in power tend to contradict themselves. But when male teachers abuse their power in the yoga studio, it is far more complex.

Yoga is inherently a far more intimate activity than your typical fitness class both emotionally, spiritually, and physically. So when an assault occurs, these teachers are not only abusing their position of power but also their students’ trust.

“Yoga in the Western world places more attachment on the body, and on physical vitality through hands-on adjustments and little clothing in hot studios,” explains licensed psychologist and certified yoga instructor Rachel Allyn, PhD. “Some yoga students may be more emotionally vulnerable or looking to fill a void. [In class] people get out of their heads, connect to their bodies and their sensuality and feel more liberated.”

In many classes, these “adjustments” Allyn alludes to are meant to help students find correct alignment in a given pose—teachers might guide students’ inner thighs, hips, or lower backs into position. Some teachers may even give brief massages to students to help them relax while they are in vulnerable shapes, like savasana, in which students lie face up on their mats with their eyes closed at the conclusion of a class.

UNCLEAR BOUNDARIES

All of this is to say that there is a fine line between what’s considered acceptable physical touching in yoga and what’s not. Making this line even blurrier is the tricky relationship male teachers in particular can have with their female students—and the basically non-existent benchmarks these men must meet to become teachers in the first place.

As Rachael Fallon explains, an increasing number of studios are popping up and need teachers to fulfill the demands of a growing industry. Many studios offer multiple teacher training session per year, awarding certification to anyone willing to shell out the cash for it. Therefore, she says, we have to question the motivations of some male yoga teachers.

“There is no criminal check, no education required. A guy can get out of jail [and] sign up for a teacher training, which is impossible to fail. Next thing you know he has a room full of students at a big studio,” she says. “If he is charming and good looking, girls fall at his feet.”

As Newsweek reported in 2011, “the mainstream and marketable cult” of American yoga is all-too-attractive to the narcissistically inclined: “Becoming a yoga teacher allows an insecure person to act spiritually superior…Yoga acolytes, like rock-band groupies, hang on the approval of their favorite gurus—thus allowing that narcissism to flourish.”

Carol Horton PhD, coauthor of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, doubts that most men invest the time and money necessary to complete yoga teacher training simply because they want to have a socially acceptable excuse to touch and check out women’s bodies. Yet, she admits that even for men with the best intentions, “it can be extremely destabilizing and seductive to have a roomful of people start looking to you as the source of whatever profound experiences they may be having on their yoga mats.”

And yet, one must wonder what brought some of these women to the yoga mat in the first place. “These women might be damaged and seeking healthy relationships, using yoga to heal wounds,” Fallon says. “Maybe they are depressed, recovering from trauma, healing from an illness, going through a divorce, or they lost someone they love and are grieving. The last thing they need is their yoga teacher crossing boundaries, and making sexual advances.”

Some male yoga teachers have been accused of abusing the trust of their female students. Syda Productions/Shutterstock.com

Some male yoga teachers have been accused of abusing the trust of their female students. Syda Productions/Shutterstock.com

Fallon set up a Facebook page, “The Yoga Activist – People and Teachers Against Abuse in Yoga,” with the aim of raising awareness about this often overlooked issue.

“After I started my group, I got endless emails from women who have been sexually abused and manipulated at a time in their lives when they were vulnerable and fragile,” she says.

Also problematic, of course, is that the current culture of treating yoga teachers like deities makes it hard to speak up against them when abuse does happen, sexual or otherwise.

Sheila Magalhaes, owner/director of Heartsong Yoga Center, recalls witnessing a “big time” yogi humiliate a fellow student during a workshop and found herself unable to speak up against his verbal abuse. “He told her—so everyone in the workshop could hear, from his podium on his mic—‘You…in the big tee shirt…I know why you wear that shirt…you come to me, six months, practice, you no longer have that big fat butt.’”

As a new teacher, she was shocked by his crass treatment of the woman. But even now, as a veteran teacher, she wonders: “Would I have had the courage to say something out loud to him, and the group, that his words were unacceptable? Probably not…which is why these things continue to happen.”

It may come as no surprise, then, that Bhakti Manning—who brought the aforementioned case against Satyananda Saraswati—is doing so nearly 40 years after being abused and, notably, years after Saraswati’s death.

And because the lines of appropriate physical touching, and consent, are often already unclear, this only compounds the fear of speaking up. Admitting abuse of any kind is already difficult enough, but when it’s at the hands of a beloved, attractive teacher who your fellow students put on a pedestal, one can only imagine how much more difficult it would be to voice his wrongdoings.

BEYOND SELF-POLICING

Because of the very contentious nature of what goes on in a yoga class and the often-confusing teacher/student relationship therein, yoga teachers must remember that being teacher is a job—that they are professionals who need to act as such, says Nick Potenzieri, a yoga teach with more than 10 years’ experience.

“In the business world there are very clear codes of conduct,” he says. “Yoga teachers’ boundaries should be clear from the moment they walk in the studio. They need to remind themselves that while they are guiding students with something very personal and often times intimate, they need to remember that they are professionals within a business.”

Self-policing, however, just isn’t enough, especially when it comes to ensuring the comfort and safety of all students.

“It is very common—even standard operating procedure— for teachers to adjust students in class without having any sort of system in place to protect against unwanted touch,” Horton explains.

“Women should have support for setting their own personal boundaries, particularly—although not exclusively—when it comes not only to being touched by the teacher. Yoga studios and teachers would do well to think seriously about what sort of messages they are sending on this issue.”

Yet, as veteran yoga teacher and naturopath Dr. Lynn Anderson puts it, seasoned teachers should be adept enough verbally to not have to rely on manually adjusting students, thus eliminating the possibility of foul play on this front, at least. “If you’re perfected the art of teaching, you shouldn’t have to touch anyone,” she says.

The overarching issue is that there can be little to no accountability or regulation regarding what conduct in yoga classes, training and retreats—in part because abuse in the yoga community remains a taboo within the community.  

“A psychotherapist would not have the right to have a personal relationship outside of therapy, and I feel with yoga the same rule applies. Only in yoga it isn’t enforced, and there are no consequences,” Fallon says. “Sadly, we never talk about the shadow part of practice in our spiritual circles. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to appear negative, or we feel too ashamed to expose our imperfections.”