thoughts on yoga, the life (pt.2): doo-wop (that thing)

Warning, this is long…  And has a little, necessary, adult content.  Call it PG-13… And apologies to Lauren Hill for appropriating the title.

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s been a tough week to be affiliated with Anusara yoga, the “heart-centered” yogic school founded by John Friend.  We saw this coming; several prominent Anusara teachers resigned recently, and over the last couple of weeks the other shoe dropped.  John Friend was publicly accused of sleeping with his students, employees and teachers, using his teachers to transport (his) pot, defrauding Anusara’s pension fund, and other very racy accusations  Friend has confirmed that some of these accusations are at least partially true, especially about the sex.  Drama, controversy, sex, drugs, abuse of power- all your juicy controversy in one messy package.  Friend resigned his post as head of Anusara and is taking a leave of absence, though since he is the sole owner of the Anusara brand, it’s unclear what that exactly that will mean going forward.

First and foremost, my thoughts and prayers go everyone, especially folks I know, who are affected by this scandal.  The Anusara community is very tight knit, and everyone I know who has an Anusara affiliation is taking this very personally.  Confused, betrayed, and angry are the words I’m hearing most often.  (note: I personally have no strong connections to Anusara; I’ve taken with several Anusara senior teachers who I really like, and I am casual friends with some Anusara certified and “inspired” teachers.)

Beyond the odd mix of heartbreak and tittilation that these kinds of stories bring, there are serious issues, bigger than one scandal, about sex, power, credentials, brands, and yoga at play.  I think if the broader yoga community uses this moment to examine some of them, much good could emerge from this mess.  I’ve already seen a lot of great conversations started this week, some online, some not.  I’ll use these next few posts to look at them myself.  (I especially liked this one)

Starting with sex, since I know just typing that word will up my page hits by a factor of two.  (Kidding, sort of).  More importantly, because while most readers of this blog won’t, and shouldn’t worry too much about yoga certifications, LLCs, shoulder spirals (Anusara alignment cue) and the like, I reckon just about everyone who ever takes a yoga class will have a yoga crush at least once, or twice, or dozens of times.  And how we react to them has real-world consequences.

I like the way my friend Rebecca “Omgal” Pacheco put it on a blog post last year: “Teachers, what part of don’t #$&*@ your students confuses you?”  The California Yoga Teachers’ Association (CYTA), which has to my mind the best code of conduct out there, puts it this way:

All forms of sexual behavior or harassment with students are unethical, even when a a student invites or consents to such behavior involvement. Sexual behavior is defined as, but not limited to all forms of overt and covert seductive speech, gestures, and behaviors as well as physical contact of a sexual nature; harassment is defined as, but not limited to, repeated comments, gestures, or physical contact of a sexual nature.

Furthermore, one of the four yamas, yogic tenets of social discipline, is bramacharya, loosely translated as right use of sexual energy.  It at times has meant full chastity, but in this day and age is taken to mean a relationship with sex and sexuality that is healthy for both you and the people in your life.  Which, I mush assume, means teacher keeping their hands off students.  Just that simple, right?

Okay, maybe not; real life is much more complicated than that.  We are human beings, sexual beings, we have feelings and urges, and we react when attractive people, often but not always beautiful inside and out, express interest in more than just our Warrior II cues.   It’s one thing when a teacher is preying on students, sleeping around at conferences, generally being a heel.  That one (as appears to be the case with Friend) is obviously, glaringly reprehensible. It’s another thing when it’s about two people who both want to pursue a relationship, being grown ups and yogis, etc.  Right?  I mean right?

Full disclosure.  I’ve been around the yoga world seriously for almost ten years now, not as nearly long as a full-time teacher, but long enough to see a lot, and much of it from “the inside”.  And I can safely say that I’ve seen up close and personal just about every teacher/student pairing I can imagine- straight, gay, hookup, marriage, success, mess, and most things in between.  There was once where I was routing for a teacher friend of mine to end a Harry/Sally relationship with a student and marry her, dammit.  (Thankfully, that didn’t happen)  Much more often, I’ve been sitting in the corner praying someone would ask me to tell everyone to cut it the $%#@ out.  And I’m not an innocent bystander; I have, on one occasion, been involved with a woman who could safely be called my student.  I’m not especially proud of it, nor especially ashamed, but I’m not in any rush to do it again.  Suffice to say it didn’t have a fairy tale ending.  (To protect all involved, including me, I don’t want to divulge any details of what I’ve seen or done.)

Here’s the thing: in seeing and being in these situations, I’ve seen even remotely positive outcomes less than 5% of the time.  I personally know only one happy ending, a stable marraige; I know a lot more that were messy to post-tornado messy, certainly including the current Friend mess.  Because, as I mentioned back when I started this blog, yoga teachers occupy a odd space in student’s lives, much more than step or spin instructors, but less than priests.  I turn again to the CYTA:

We recognize that the teacher-student relationship involves a power imbalance, the residual effects of which can remain after the student is no longer studying with the teacher. Therefore, we suggest extreme caution if you choose to enter into a personal relationship with a former student.  

I’ve seen teacher’s reputations be damaged because they are then seen as preying on their students, whether that was their intent or not.  (often not)  Hypothetically, it’s possible (not likely, but possible) that all of the women John Friend was involved with threw themselves at him, were completely consensual, and have no regrets.  That still wouldn’t make what he did any less reprehensible, or repair his reputation one iota.   Some of these “yoga rock stars” no doubt often have attractive students and acolytes literally throwing themselves at them (usually a him, let’s be honest) all the time.   I’d like to think I’d be strong enough in that situation to rebuff them.  But realistically, I think the Vegas odds would favor the groupies.

Which leads to my other point:  Students, for God’s sakes, don’t ever, EVER, EVER proposition your teachers, ask them out, get all slinky with them, etc.  Last year, I was subbing at (studio to remain nameless, somewhere in Eastern Mass.), a time and place very unusual for me.  I was just single after a tumultuous relationship, and said something about it in class, trying to be all yogic about it.  After class, a person came up to me and said thanks, I needed to hear that.  They said wouldn’t normally be at that class either, but their spouse was at another Eastern Mass studio as we spoke, trying in their words “to seduce” (yoga teacher X, a casual friend of mine and a solid and well regarded teacher)  Now, I have no way of knowing if any of their story was true, or my student’s projection, or some combination, but I’ve seen it happen.  And that conversation it really, really shook me.

Did I mention it rarely ends well?  I don’t care how hot you are, when you proposition your yoga teacher you are entering a situation where 95% of the power is on their side, especially if it’s someone who inspires you, and/or someone who carries any weight in a town’s yoga community.  You are putting yourself at considerable risk (losing teacher(s), or friends, or reputation, not to mention inviting an emotional roller coaster, if you are a yoga teacher and their student, losing work) and for what reward?  A particularly satisfying orgasm? There must be another way.  Bragging rights?  Grow the hell up.  A successful relationship?  Good luck, but don’t hold your breath.   Sorry if I sound like a cold jerk, but I think you’re putting yourself in a position where the downside is substantial and the upside is unlikely.

In 2003 Judith Hanson Lasater, one of the senior American yoga teachers, published an article in LA Yoga magazine called “A Line in the Sand”, about yoga teachers, students, and sex long before this current crisis.  (I can’t find a link online yet)  Some in the community have suggested a hard rule, don’t date students, ever; she neither agrees nor disagrees.  But she adds one possible alternative: if a teacher and student feel drawn towards each other romantically way, they cease contact for six months, allowing each party to seek counsel, and get some discernment about what they really want without compromising themselves or their potential partner.  This is a softer boundary than a psychotherapist or the like would be asked to follow, but a solid boundary nonetheless.  I think it’s eminently reasonable as a minimum requirement; it’s a boundary I wish I’d drawn, and I hope would absolutely draw in the future.  If it really is a life partner, I can wait six months for that.  And if it’s something else, I probably don’t really need it.

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One Response to thoughts on yoga, the life (pt.2): doo-wop (that thing)

  1. Natasha Mckenzie-Martin says:

    Thanks for these, I love these two posts on yoga teaching. I’m in my third semester at cortiva massage therapy institute, and in my second professional ethics class. I really have found tremendous value in these courses, especially in learning the psychology of the teacher/student dynamic, I think it should be de rigueur for all yoga teachers as well.

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