Consider this my official notice – I’m leaving yoga.
Perhaps I should say I’m leaving “yoga” – the antiquated label that modern society has played fast and loose with; the word that, for many outsiders, conjures emaciated models in tight clothing performing freakish circus poses or bohemian sycophants warbling religious tunes from distant lands.
Don’t misunderstand. I’ve invested 20 years in the realms of yoga, and I’ve spent nearly 30 years studying India’s complex socio-political cultures and history, even dabbling occasionally in classical Orissi dance. So when I say I’m leaving yoga, it’s neither a rash nor uninformed decision based upon a troubling experience or two across a few fleeting years. Allow me to shed some light on my thoughts…
Shortly following the news of Pema Chodron’s resignation(1) from the Shambala community in response to their Board reinstating Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, I stumbled across yet another scandal of abuse within the yoga community – Vishnudevananda(2) of the Sivananda lineage and the decades of sexual assaults he inflicted on his followers. Ugh… the all-too-familiar pit began to form in my stomach. I paused, calculating how many other authority figures linked to yoga had recently come to my attention with stories of their forays into physical, sexual, or verbal abuse – there’s the notorious Bikram Chodhury, of course, but also K. Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, Manouso Manos, Amrit Desai, John Friend, Kausthaub Desikachar, Akhandananda, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Ruth Lauer-Manenti, Paramahansa Yogananda, Krishnamacharya, Ramakrishna(3), the list continues to grow and is difficult to keep up with these days. How many hundreds knew about these issues before they were disclosed, and are we at risk of becoming desensitized to it all?
To quote Joel Salatin, “Folks, this ain’t normal”.
Some are arguing that we must separate the teachings from the teachers, but should we? When is a bad apple more than just a bad apple? How many stories of abuse does it take before we begin to consider the possibility it’s the institution itself that is flawed? Are the teachings founded in proven histories and applied principles which reflect our highest selves? Or in reality, is there a lot more of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ from these influential leaders? Perhaps we ignore the signs because yoga is an ancient shadow adding a glimmer of the exotic in our mundane lives, hazy rituals promising a little structure in a chaotic world, leading to a tantalizing climax of exclusive enlightenment if we would, but only submit, unquestioningly. Are we really just sitting comfortably in a socially-acceptable version of Orientalism, propped on a plump cushion of patriarchy? What if yoga hasn’t proffered a grand revelation after years of dedicated practice? Well then, you either fake it as many do, or concede you must not be doing it correctly. Back up into Sirsasana and ten more Maha mantras after you touch your forehead to the ground at the guru’s feet… and since you’re down there…
Something is beginning to leave a bad taste in my mouth, and it ain’t the kombucha.
Apart from the outlier, Lauer-Manenti (5), all of the perpetrators are men. This is a fact that mustn’t be overlooked. I wonder if there are other spiritual organizations that see millions of women encouraged to make sacrifices and set aside their critical-thinking in order to demonstrate their unwavering devotion… to men? Hmmm….
Surely, this pattern must be familiar to you by now.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I have crossed paths with male teachers in yoga who have treated me with the utmost respect, remained humble despite amassing valuable knowledge over their many years, and whom I admire greatly. And I have also met the other male teachers –
the openly condescending, neatly dismissing students who contradict them and must be taught the error of their ways, and the snakishly charming, coyly flirting with students ensuring a continuous stream of revenue from the lonely and insecure, squatting on their mats, starry-eyed and eager to feel special.
You say Jai Ram, I say no thanks.
Which brings me around to some other points I’ve been lingering on for some time. Yoga is founded in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, all of which are patriarchal in their foundations. Worshiping a compliant goddess here or there does not detract from the fundamental truth that if somewhere down the line only a male figure is considered the final voice of authority, you’ve got yourself a patriarchy. I love to discuss spirituality, but as a feminist, I’ve yet to embrace the subjugation that inevitably seems to hatch out from the mud of any organised religion, to loosely quote I, Claudius(6). Let’s face it, India is hardly renowned for women’s equality(7) no matter which way you drape the sari. If Hinduism is popularly considered the ‘root of yoga’ (unless one precisely recognizes it’s a multi-root system, not to mention a smattering of other lost religions because none were created in a vacuum(8)), and many people believe the religious practices should be a key component of anyone’s yoga, then perhaps the widely-accepted term “yoga” is not for me. I believe we each bring enough baggage from life to the mat I don’t need to also fill the space with statues, incense, or retail therapy. Some would say as a person not born into a Hindu family, I can never be Hindu anyway so why pretend at it in the first place with religious chanting, contrived pujas, and smoky altars? Some would say as a “white” person I am exploiting my colonialist “white privilege”. Some would say I’m perpetuating the commercial stereotype that all yogis are thin. Some would say for anyone who is not specifically an Asian male, participation in yoga is entirely inappropriate, which obviously rules me out on both counts. I’ll explore each of those ideas in blogs to come, but for now I will defer to the fundamental message I have heard time and again:
Teach what you know
What I know is I’m completely disinterested in trading one dogma for another. What I know is I don’t need a pontificating third wheel trying to insert himself between me and higher consciousness. What I know is yoga should be a safe haven for all to explore their innermost truths. What I know is my version of yoga is becoming increasingly dissimilar to its fashionable interpretations. What I know is there is a difference between respecting expertise and fawning over a dysfunctional hierarchy. What I know is there is a long history of women being purposefully silenced and conveniently removed from yoga(9), from the annals of Ayurveda(10), and from so many related subjects that today’s orientalists admire. What I know is I am tired of inadvertently supporting the oppression of women while being expected to keep quiet about it since I’m ‘upholding the teachings’. And whose ‘teachings’ might those be? When I scan the Yamas and Niyamas, I find tenets that are not exclusive to yoga – honour, truthfulness, tenacity, integrity, kindness, self-awareness, self-discipline, loyalty, the pursuit of knowledge… these principles are universal, and therefore don’t need to be taught under the yoga umbrella at all. That is what I know.
New path, same lamps
The encounters I’ve had on my journey through yoga have taught me much about the world, about myself, about the complexities of what it means to be human. This path has lead me to many a crossroad and I find myself at another one. As I narrow my eyes and try to see down this new direction, I may not see far, but I notice the lamps that have guided my way in the past are there – my tenacity in continuing research and reflection, my commitment to truth over comfort, and the voices of wisdom from beloved teachers who have challenged and supported me.
So what does this all mean?
Not much will be noticeably different in class. I will continue teaching the practices in a similar vein, I’ll maintain my professional development, and will still offer the universal principles for contemplation. I will continue to cultivate a community for like-minds to find support and sanctuary, but I will slowly cut ties with a word that represents so much of what is wrong with the world. Instead I will slowly drift towards describing what I offer as mindful movement – a general term that is open to more possibilities, inviting a more enriching and diverse practice that empowers the student, and, for now, a term that will more accurately represent what I hope to share with students who honour me with their presence.
So perhaps we’ll see you on the mat. It’s a blank canvas for you to paint the practice of your choice. I’ll be the one wandering around who jokes too much and doesn’t say ‘namaste’.
- Given the informal nature of this blog, I will not cite every single resource, but one can simply add “abuse” at the end of a name in a search engine and let the Internet do the rest.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5084543/ Women are known to have been healers across the globe since before recorded history. It is reasonable to assume ancient medicinal institutions would have required their established knowledge to build upon, whether that was ever recognised or not.