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Yoga, Scandals, Personal Responsibility, and Collective Growth

The yoga community’s weathered some difficult storms in recent years. Many dedicated practitioners have been hit hard by the fallout, some devastatingly so. Others, of course, have sailed through more or less unscathed. Regardless of how well your personal life and practice have fared, however, there’s much to be gained from taking some time to reflect on what’s been happening, and what may or may not have been learned as a result.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a recap of some recent yoga headline news. This past spring, three women filed lawsuits against Bikram Chourdhury, accusing him of rape, sexual assault, and human trafficking. Last fall, five women filed a police complaint charging Kausthub Desikachar, the grandson of Sri T. Krishnamacharya himself, with sexual, mental and emotional abuse. Earlier that year, a fed-up employee launched a lurid website accusing his boss, Anusara Yoga founder John Friend, of sexual abuse, financial duplicity, and employee endangerment.

In addition to the guru scandals, a series of controversies have revealed some serious rifts in a community that likes to proclaim “We’re All One.” There have been heated and at times nasty arguments over whether yoga can indeed “wreck your body,” the cultural effects of yoga commercialism, the legitimacy of selling “yoga for weight loss,” the acceptability of injecting yoga into the political arena, and more.

I think it’s safe to say that this onslaught of scandals and controversies has produced some big waves of emotional reaction. Which is understandable. Particularly for people who have been hurt by the actions of a disgraced teacher or fallen guru, it’s entirely appropriate and even healthy to feel angry, betrayed, grief-stricken, and more. And even for those not so immediately involved, it’s normal to have difficult feelings come up when a practice you love becomes embroiled in scandal and controversy.

I wonder, however, whether we in the yoga community have been holding sufficient space for each other to safely process such feelings. I could be wrong, but it seems like the most common reaction to the waves of difficulty that have crashed through the yoga world of late has been to try to separate and disassociate from them. If that’s true, it’s a big problem, because it means that we’re squandering what could be a valuable opportunity to transform our selves and our community in positive and empowering ways.

Yoga teachers and other leaders in the field have a particularly important role to play in this regard. In times of rapid upheaval and flux, your actions are more likely to generate significant ripple effects, touching the lives of not only your students, but also others you might never personally know. As such, this time offers a valuable opportunity to leverage your own learning and growth in ways that support the larger community – and, in so doing, make a meaningful contribution to the evolution of modern yoga.


“Don’t Give Your Power Away”

If we’re to make the most of this time, however, we need to reflect on how well we’ve responded to the controversies and crises that have broken to date. Of course, this is going to vary enormously from individual to individual. On a collective level, however, I believe there’s reason for concern.

Most notably, the two most common responses I’ve heard to the guru scandals have been to attack the perpetrators as scumbags and/or observe that those negatively impacted “shouldn’t have given their power away.” As partial or temporary reactions, these aren’t necessarily bad. There’s a problem, however, if and when they become overly one-sided and sustained. Why? Because when that happens, you’re splitting what’s really a widespread pattern of problematic interpersonal relationships into two disconnected halves: bad leaders or hapless followers.

This way of framing what’s at stake focuses attention on the actions of isolated individuals, rather than patterns of human connection in relationships, organizations, and society. Such a one-sided and unbalanced perspective not only distorts our understanding of what’s been happening, but blocks forward movement toward healing, connection, and growth.

Saying that someone else “shouldn’t give her power away” implicitly confers blame and presumes superiority. Logically, there’s an underlying assumption that each of us can and should control the powerful psychological (or, if you prefer, karmic) forces driving our attraction (or aversion) to others. There’s also an unstated accusation that if you can’t consistently do this, then there must be something quite wrong with you – something that, it’s implied, the person telling others “not to give their power away” doesn’t share.

Such a dynamic not only creates emotional separation, but runs the risk of generating feelings of defensiveness and shame on the part of those accused of “giving their power away,” and self-righteousness and grandiosity on the part of those making the accusation. As such, it perversely reinforces the problem of negative interpersonal relationships that it’s supposedly trying to stop.


Reality Check

What the “don’t give your power away” paradigm fails to recognize is that it’s entirely normal to be driven toward (or away) from particular people by powerful unconscious forces. Emotional patterning based on the relationships we experienced in early childhood is deeply imprinted into our psyches, quite literally encoded in our nervous systems. Of course, some of us are more sensitively wired than others. But no one is immune to the power of early conditioning.

This is why good psychotherapists (and yoga teachers) create safe environments in which clients can allow their unconscious reactions to being in a therapeutic relationship come up and be constructively worked through. Eventually, old wounds inflicted by insufficiently supportive and loving relationships can be healed through caring, insightful, and compassionate ones. Typically, however, such processes take years of work, and are often never fully completed.

Of course, therapy is not the only way to work out relational issues. Many other practices can help, including yoga, self-study, and, of course, investing time and energy in supportive friendships, partnerships, and family connections. The therapeutic model is extremely useful, however, in that it offers an excellent framework for understanding why human relationships are both so difficult, and so important.


Yoga, Community, and Culture

Bearing this psychological perspective in mind, it’s helpful to consider the scandals and controversies that have plagued the yoga community lately in light of the following facts:

  1. Millions of people in in our society today find it difficult to form supportive, loving relationships, and join nourishing, healthy communities. The unprecedentedly rapid rate of change in modern society has generated widespread social disconnection, which in turn causes substantial confusion and suffering.
  2. Given this situation, charismatic leaders promising easy answers and instant community can be highly seductive to millions. The same is true of many products and pre-packaged experiences, which are aggressively marketed with the implicit promise that consuming them will provide meaning and fulfillment.
  3. No matter how wonderful yoga may be, as a socially embedded practice it will inevitably become enmeshed in the larger culture of which it’s a part. And when you consider the traditional mystique of the guru-disciple relationship, as well as the contemporary tendency to market yoga as a magical cure-all, the potential for problems of poor leadership and cultural confusion in the yoga community is quite evident.

Putting the recent profusion of yoga scandals and controversies into this sort of socio-cultural context enables us to understand them in a more positive light. Rather than viewing them as shameful failures, we can see them as not-so-surprising developments in a community that’s struggling to find its way through some very challenging social conditions. Even more positively, having these formerly hidden problems burst into public view can be seen as a positive corrective to a yoga culture that was becoming increasingly blinded to the negative consequences of its own hype and mystique.


Personal Responsibility?

In the hyper-individualistic context of American culture, psychologically- and sociologically-informed perspectives on social issues such as the one I’m presenting here are often met with skepticism, if not hostility and derision. Specifically, saying that individuals are profoundly influenced by their own unconscious minds and social position is commonly attacked as a rationale for evading “personal responsibility.” Grown-ups are responsible for their own actions, it’s argued. No excuses or qualifications allowed!

The “don’t give your power away” argument is simply a “yogic” version of this familiar line. If you’re messed up enough to fall for an abusive guru, it’s implied, then that’s your own damn fault! A parallel logic pops up in controversies over yoga injuries and hyper-commercialism. If you choose to study with unqualified teachers who might cause injury, that’s your problem! If you’re troubled by seductive ads that commodify the “yoga body,” that’s your weakness! and so forth and so on.

From my perspective, the vision of “personal responsibility” conjured up by such rhetoric is empty and fake. What’s responsible about condemning people without making any serious attempt to understand them? What’s responsible about implicitly bragging that you’ve above any equivalent issues? Such aggressively simplistic responses to complex problems are really defensive moves designed to protect oneself from the threat of opening up to frightening feelings of disorientation and discomfort.

This is the opposite of compassion. Healing and growth occur when we see our selves as connected with others, not walled off and fortified against their experiences. If the yoga community wants to grow in response to the wave of recent scandals and controversies that’s swept over us, then we must learn to swim with the new currents they’ve created in more promising directions. The best way to do this is to experience this time as a new opportunity to learn from and connect with one another.


Sharing That Silver Lining

While I don’t necessarily think that “every cloud has a silver lining,” I do believe that we have the capacity to create positive meaning out of even the most heart-breaking disasters. I’ve also found that yoga can be an incredibly useful tool in this regard. Traditionally understood as an alchemical practice, yoga can help us transform the pain and difficulty we’ll inevitably encounter in life into opportunities for learning, transformation, and growth.

Given the recent storms that have blasted through the yoga community, this is a particularly opportune moment to find some silver linings. In this article, I’ve argued that perhaps the most promising way to do this is by improving the quality of our interpersonal relationships. In my view, this requires shifting our focus away from the real or imagined faults of isolated individuals, and toward how we connect and communicate with one another, both within the yoga community and beyond.

In future articles, I hope to propose some more concrete steps the yoga community could take to create conditions that better support healthy interpersonal relationships. First, however, I’d like to hear your thoughts. What do you see as the central cause of the scandals and controversies that have ripped through the yoga community of late? How well do you think the community has responded? Do you agree that this is an important time of potential growth? If so, what if anything do you believe should be done to facilitate this process?

Some big bubbles have burst and some strong silences have been broken. While I don’t want to minimize the pain of that process, I do want to recognize and maybe even celebrate the fact that it’s opened up some vital new space for creative exploration and growth. My hope is that the yoga community will step into that space committed to creating newly compassionate connections, both to our selves and others. If we do so, I feel confident that our path forward, while uncertain, will most certainly be illuminated by newfound promise, brightness and grace.


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Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. She holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago.

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