Yoga Australia, a professional association for yoga teachers, met on the Gold Coast to discuss the do’s and dont’s of yoga practice, which in some cases has resulted in abuse of vulnerable students by unscrupulous teachers. It’s no longer a taboo topic: people are speaking out about abuse within the teacher-student relationship in yoga practice writes Rachael Kohn, host of The Spirit of Things.
Complaints that teachers in positions of trust have taken advantage of their students are not unknown in the burgeoning practice of yoga. When I attended an ashram in Montreal, I knew a swami who later became the subject of a major sexual abuse expose in Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail.
To say I knew him, though, is a slight exaggeration. His presence at the ashram I attended a few times was more mythical than real. He never showed up, although his many female students regularly anticipated his arrival. The endless broken promises aroused my suspicion, and I decided that my friend could attend alone in future.
Similar stories have emerged here in Australia. In recent years the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse received a 200-page submission on Swami Satyananda Yoga Ashram, based at Mangrove Mountain, New South Wales, detailing reports of sexual abuse by a former leader that date from the 1970s and ’80s.
Establishing minimum standards of training and accreditation as well as a code of ethical practice, including a complaints process was one of the reasons why the Yoga Teachers Association was formed in 2000. It was renamed Yoga Australia in 2008.
The current president, Leanne Davis, based in Queensland, has been a yoga practitioner since the 1970s and says the days of ‘staying mum’ over known abuses is over.
‘People are speaking up a lot about the abuse that has occurred in that teacher-student relationship in yoga,’ she says.
‘One minute of not speaking out is one minute too late. And maybe this has been going on for hundreds or thousands of years.’
She says the yoga community has reached a point where abuse is no longer tolerated.
‘Things were condoned under the name of yoga, because they were traditional practices or because they came from India or because we should be able to surrender our will or ego, and that shows your devotion in yoga. Things were tolerated in yoga because it was considered to be “yogic”.
Power imbalances and giving up control
Canberra-based teacher Alan Goode admits that the imbalance in the teacher-student relationship has led to abuse in the yoga setting, just as it has in other sectors of society.
He recalls that when he trained in India with guru BKS Iyengar, he encountered practices that would probably not be acceptable in Australia.
‘It was very clear from the outset that Iyengar himself was a very intense human being, a very intense teacher,’ he says.
‘My initial reaction was one of being overwhelmed by some of the teaching methods. Iyengar himself was very demanding as a teacher, would slap people, would kick people.
‘Culturally, that’s acceptable [in India]—but someone kicks me and I go into terror and rebellion soon after.’
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Tamara James, a Brisbane-based yoga instructor and physiotherapist who focuses on pain management, said she did not encounter any experiences of the abuse of power during her training in India. She said, however, that she did not always ‘choose to step into her own power’—language that points to the self-responsibility yoga and most Eastern practises encourage.
A striking contrast is Swami Muktibodhi Saraswati, a teacher from Melbourne who gives the impression she has never had a problem ‘stepping into her own power’.
She was an early convert to yoga, when her mother brought home reading materials from the Gita Institute, and had clearly built up confidence as a young person. ‘Submission’ is just not in her lexicon, if it means giving up one’s control.
‘I disagree with that word,’ she says. ‘[My practice is] nothing about submission at all, and everything about listening, listening, hearing, and weighing up if the information is useful or not to me … I like to be in control of myself. I don’t like anyone to try and control me.
‘When I see other people trying to control other people, I just look at the situation and think, that’s just not working for the person who is being controlled if they allow that.’
A responsibility that falls to teachers
Swami Muktibodhi, like other yoga teachers, is keenly interested in a holistic approach to health that integrates body, mind and spirit. But among those who seek out yoga classes, some are particularly vulnerable, according to Janet Lowndes, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher who heads the Australian Institute of Yoga Therapy in Melbourne.
She specialises in eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder, but the national statistics for depression alone suggest that one in five students who come to her classes will be suffering depression.
This places extra responsibility on the yoga teacher—who often works alone—to respond to vulnerable students in appropriate ways.
If the yoga teacher practices self-reflection or virtuous introspection, known as svadhyaya in Sanskrit, or mindful awareness of drives, fears, and motivations, then he or she will act ethically.
If that doesn’t work, Lowndes has a simple check-in question that she invites all therapists and yoga teachers to ask themselves.
‘If there is anything that I am doing, or I am about to do with a student or a client that I wouldn’t tell a colleague or a mentor about it, then I really need to question that,’ she says.
‘Perhaps this is not a good idea for me to be doing this, if I wouldn’t behave in exactly the same way if a peer or mentor of mine was here in this room as well.’
The Spirit of Things
Bendy bodies are what you want, but sometimes bendy ethics get in the way of good yoga practice. Yoga Australia, a professional association for yoga teachers, met on the Gold Coast to discuss the do’s and dont’s of yoga practice, which in some cases has resulted in abuse of vulnerable students by unscrupulous teachers. You can listen to this program on Radio National on Sunday May 1 at 6:05pm or download the podcast from The Spirit of Things.