I will firstly mention that this blog post contains details of abuse. If this is likely to cause distress in any way please think about whether to read or not. Secondly, it's a blog post, so is primarily my thoughts.
The post is in response to a week where a video of B.K.S. Iyengar hitting a student was shared heavily across social media, and self-proclaimed 'guru', Mooji had been reported to be running an abusive cult in Portugal. The list of 'gurus' reported to have been abusive is extensive, to the degree I cannot name any who have not had reports. By saying reports I am not in any way claiming their innocence, but stating what has happened (so far). As many of the 'gurus' are deceased they have evaded court, but Bikram Choudhury is one such 'guru' who is alive and faced numerous lawsuits, leading to him fleeing the U.S. and in hiding. Bikram Yoga can no longer use that name, but continues under the title of Hot Yoga.
A little bit of context before I continue. Society has shifted a lot in recent times, so the videos which are nearing 100 years old of Joseph Pilates 'manhandling' (interesting the masculine in that word hey? Doesn't that say something?) people when viewed in those times were completely acceptable. Whilst I don't know the exact date of the Iyengar video, I do know that corporal punishment in schools was only banned in 1986 and for parents as late as 2004 (although there is still a legal defence of 'reasonable punishment'). This might explain a little why the crowd do not seem shocked at Iyengar as they would probably be so now. This in no way excuses matters.
A more dangerous reason is the guru/teacher- student relationship. Matthew Remski's book Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond is very soon to be released and will do a far better job than I ever could of detailing this. Simply put, people put all of their faith into gurus, to the degree that they cannot do any wrong. So when people see their guru hitting someone, and claiming he is doing them a favour by helping them to remember, faithful onlookers will agree with the guru. This gets worse.
I remember during Pilates teacher training watching videos of Joseph Pilates assisting students and I was horrified. Some of the assists were really rough, forcing people into positions, and I even recall one of him standing on someone to assist. At the time I hadn't seen the horrific Yoga assists performed by 'gurus' such as Pattabhi Jois, but this was already bad enough. In our exam we had to assist students, and I never really felt comfortable doing this. I have written on social media why I won't do assists, but to summarise, it's because I have no idea of someone's past and what might be a trigger, unless I describe in detail what assist I am about to do I cannot get informed consent from the student, and if the body needs manual assistance to move into a position, to me that is a sign that the student's body isn't ready for said position.
The assists by some gurus, including Jois, amount to physical and sexual abuse. How did they get away with this? Once again, it's that guru-student relationship where the guru can do no wrong. Students would either turn a blind eye, or disbelieve that the guru was doing any harm. Does this sound familiar in any way? Let me just say, B.B.C. This guru-student relationship is prevalent throughout society. People either disbelieve or ignore. I heard an R Kelly song out in a venue a few weeks ago and had a discussion with the barman I know there about how he is a sexual abuser and they shouldn't play his songs. 'But you can't escape he's a talented musician' he replied. Yes you effing can. It's not OK in any way in my opinion to in any way endorse a human being who has done, or is doing those things. Playing their music, you are giving them money, helping fund that lifestyle. In Yoga, using a quote by Jois, Iyengar or a whole host of other gurus is endorsing what they have done in some regard. If you saw someone using a Jimmy Saville quote on Instagram you'd probably pipe up about it and it should be the same for ANY abuser. I hold my hands up to having used Osho quotes before, but it is not something I will do any more in light of abuse and my own shifts in belief.
Our idolisation of people has allowed these things to happen, in Yoga, and society. So many of those in some line of power, be it gurus, politicians, musicians, or what have you end up as abusers. I'm not taking away responsibility from the abuser but we have to also take some accountability here. WE SHOULD NEVER LET THIS HAPPEN OR IN ANYWAY ENDORSE THESE 'HUMANS'. Is it something lacking in ourselves that leads to the idolisation? Prior to the secularisation of society this infatuation was with 'God'. In response to a lack of religion it became celebrities, and in recent times spirituality has become somewhat a counter culture to celebrity culture. It all amounts to the same thing.
The danger I see with spirituality is there are an awful lot of masks to help cover up the abuse. I wrote recently about the Yogic practice of Asteya, what it was and how it could actually be harmful. Asteya can be the practice of gratitude, which is heavily taught in spiritual circles. It's a very good thing to practice, but if it is taken to the extreme it can be dangerous. It would be very easy for a 'guru' to teach that you must be grateful for everything, in which case for example, the student should be grateful for the abuse. It will be teaching them a lesson that they needed. This is really REALLY not acceptable. Another thing taught frequently is that everything that happens to you is something you've manifested. So again, that abuse, you've manifested it! Eff right off! Tantra teaches to accept the light and the dark, which is a great thing in my opinion. Too often we're taught to suppress any dark and that it's all positivity. Yet again though, this teaching can be, and does get abused. The abusing 'guru' can tell the student to 'accept my darkness as much as my light', and it is in line with their teachings.
The causes I see are two things; masculinity and the hierarchical structures in place. It could actually be said that it is one thing; masculinity. The hierarchical structures stem from masculinity. Not all of the abusers are men, which is why I say masculinity and not men. As soon as there is one person at the top, with people below, it is open to abuse. Whether that's a classical structure in politics or the less obvious one in celebrity culture. It would be overly simplifying things to say that the solution is equality. This structure always seems to return.
I do know that it would be easier to make changes to Yoga than society as a whole. Even easier is in our classes. To try to say it is only teachers who need to change is disempowering to the students. I try to invite students to question everything, including what I say; for students to do their own research. That is the students' responsibility. As teachers we should be teaching in a way that is open for students to do this. Teach to lead students to their own discoveries opposed to enforcing our views. For example I often teach for the feet to be around hip distance apart. Students just take that information, with no real understanding why. I could say 'it's our natural alignment' or 'a stable position', or I could teach occasionally with the feet together to give the opportunity to feel the difference. We can allow students to make their own decisions about what is good for their body, and give them a variety of options. Teachers should do their upmost to become trauma informed, be that through a formal course or further reading.
For Yoga as a whole we need to stop 'bashing' the lineages. Not only is it in itself abuse, but all that will occur is a defiant defence which will not soften. We need discussions and open questions from all sides. We need to listen wholly to the victims for their thoughts on how to help create a change. Karen Rain is a victim of Jois who is active in writing about change, such as her blog post here. She's an advocate for no longer using the name of abusers for profit. Instead of aligning ourselves with lineages or schools we should be Yoga teachers. The sole reason for stating anything else is for profit- you want students to know what kind of Yoga you teach in order for them to attend class. You could be a Yoga teacher who trained with 'such and such', to give credit where it is due. But for example, I do not call myself a 'Real Flow Yoga Teacher' (sorry Tammy) as this can reinforce the hierarchical structures. I am a Yoga teacher who trained with Real Flow Yoga. Just like I'm a Pilates teacher who trained with Alison Swan. Within the different schools of Yoga we can look at the structures in place and soften them by some means. Each school could have a council, opposed to one or two 'in charge'.
If you notice, a lot of this is a more feminine approach.
Yoga deserves a lot of credit in being very much ahead of other movement forms. I know Pilates is somewhat behind, and don't get me started on Personal Trainers. I don't know the answers, but I know I have a huge responsibility as a teacher to educate myself as much as possible, and change the way I teach. As I say, the issue is society wide, but if we all start to make more informed choices and discussions, those might just get noticed in the bigger picture.