How many gurus’ feet have you kissed? Asana kissers are everywhere, even in yoga, but that’s not what this is about. It is about power dynamics and student-teacher relations and cult-ish environments. And sexual harassment and boundaries, and integrity and dignity.
In February, news broke about yet another sex scandal in the yoga community. A student and teacher-trainee filed a $1.6 million civil lawsuit against the well-known NYC studio Jivamukti and one of its teachers claiming sexual harassment. In the suit, Holly Faurot says 20-year veteran Jivamukti Yoga teacher Ruth Lauer-Manenti, aka “Lady Ruth,” sexually harassed her between 2009 and 2013 while Faurot was training to become a teacher at the studio. According to the suit, Faurot had filed a complaint with the studio which went ignored. Jivamukti is run and was founded by well-known yogis David Life and Sharon Gannon, who have yet to make any comment on the lawsuit.
Today, on Slate, Michelle Goldberg dug deeper behind-the-scenes, as it were, of this particular sexual harassment lawsuit and the cult versus culture of yoga, specifically at Jivamukti, a yoga studio strongly focused on devotion and a strict set of core values (read: vegan or bust).
In general, showing respect and holding yoga teachers in high-regard is not a shocking practice. Neither is feet-touching if you’re studying with a guru in India. But in the U.S., the act of surrendering yourself in utter devotion to the point of self-endangerment is not exactly seen as healthy behavior. Being the (in some of the worst cases) almost god-like person in power preying upon vulnerabilities and demanding this unfettered devotion doesn’t ring any healthy bells either.
In the case of Faurot, she had an abusive childhood and was recovering from an eating disorder, she told Slate, so she looked to Jivamukti as a way to help heal what therapy and other treatments hadn’t. “Jivamukti gives you this antidote,” Faurot said.
“I followed their philosophy of total devotion and surrender to a guru with all my heart,” Faurot told the Daily News in February. “That’s why I didn’t question her psychological manipulation.”
According to Faurot and the lawsuit, the sexual harassment involved sleepovers at Faurot’s apartment, nude photos, and other deeply disturbing favors for favors.
Being close to Lauer-Manenti came with professional privileges, including prime teaching slots and private dinners with Gannon and Life. Occasionally, she’d give Faurot small cash gifts. (Faurot estimates they totaled less than $1,500 over the years.) Yet even as Lauer-Manenti emphasized that Faurot was her favorite, Faurot says she would subtly humiliate her. Once, for example, she told her protégé that she couldn’t remember if she had a tampon in and instructed Faurot to check. She complied.
“Was Lauer-Manenti her guru or her abuser?” is a question we hope no else ever has to deliberate in their own lives.
“You kind of felt like if you became her closer student, you would be further along the spiritual path,” Faurot said in the Slate interview. “The fact that she liked me so much, and I was her favorite, somehow I felt so special. I really had never felt that way in my entire life, to feel that kind of love from an authority figure.”
This doesn’t sound too unfamiliar from the statements made from women who claim they’ve been sexually and emotionally abused by Bikram, or Desikachar, or [insert name of any other powerful leader overstepping boundaries and abusing their power]. But some aren’t convinced there’s a problem with an abuse of power, and that it’s not the leader but rather the followers’ fault these things happen.
“This seems to me to be a very nasty way for a jilted lover to get back at somebody,” anatomy teacher Leslie Kaminoff told Slate. Kaminoff used to teach at Jivamukti in the 90s. “This woman was certainly OK with the relationship with Ruth until she found someone else,” he said. As far as Kaminoff is concerned, Faurot was a consenting adult and that should be the end of it. “We’re not talking about people with diminished capacity,” he continues. “You can talk about power imbalance as much as you want, and that’s certainly part of the conversation, but that power that these teachers have was given to them by their students.”
And this mentality, this coming from someone who has been around in the yoga community for a long time, has seen a lot of things and (we might’ve expected) would have a more thoughtful POV on the subject, is at once disappointing and infuriating and just adds to why women/victims of abuse feel discouraged from speaking out. It must’ve been something I did. Everyone else loves this person, what’s wrong with me? I let them do this to me, so it’s my fault.
Sure, we all need to take responsibility for our own actions, but victim-blaming doesn’t appear to be the answer. For Faurot who was in it, it took sessions with her therapist to realize boundaries were violated, she said.
Despite all the wrongness of Kaminoff’s statements, this lawsuit sheds light, once again, on the power that spiritual leaders, or leaders of any sort, can have on their followers, fawning fans, or underlings looking to “climb the ladder.” Sexual harassment in the workplace seems to, depressingly, happen all the time on various levels of inappropriateness. But in the yoga setting, when vulnerability is not only inherently present, but encouraged, and studio culture revolves around cliques and “sorority”-like circles adhering closely to dogmas followed by diligent, compliant apprentices eager to please, saying the people in power don’t hold a higher responsibility for how they act and conduct themselves is like telling a victim of abuse they asked for it.
While the main focus is on the teacher for alleged wrongdoing, the studio itself—its business structure and philosophy—is also being brought into question. Faurot’s lawyer Thomas Shanahan is aiming to look further into Jivamukti’s cultish culture as having an influence on his client’s decision-making. “We’re going to be looking to hire an expert on cults to talk about what’s happening at this school in the context of brainwashing, this kind of guru-worship,” he told Slate. “If their business model is designed to isolate vulnerable people, bring them into what they call their yoga tribe, have them kiss their feet, and then the behavior changes, that’s relevant.”
However this lawsuit shakes out, and however painful it is to keep hearing about these disturbing claims, we hope more people will be encouraged to speak out if they feel they have been a victim of abuse, and that more studios and teachers will be encouraged to keep their power-hungry egos in check.
Read the whole article about this lawsuit at Slate.
- Student Files $1M Sexual Harassment Suit Against Jivamukti Yoga Teacher
- UPDATE: Bikram Choudhury Ordered To Pay $6.47M In Punitive Damages In Sexual Harassment Case
- When Should We Stop Caring About Yoga Teachers’ Sexual Abuse?
- First Bikram Studio In Manhattan Drops Bikram Name Amidst Rape Allegations