by Karin L. Burke
I’m going to write about sex. Heaven help us. And about Jivamukti, Holly Faurot, and Ruth Lauer-Manenti. I’m going to suggest that hips are soulful, complicated things.
I have to offer a caveat. I’ve only ever practiced at Jivamukti like twice in my life. I do not know any of the principal actors in this particular drama. I haven’t interviewed anybody. This isn’t journalism. I can’t speak to Holly Faurot’s experience, or Ruth Lauren-Manenti’s. Nor have I even, to be honest, read all of the material available.
In fact, I’ve avoided it.
I’ve avoided it because I am exhausted by it. I am exhausted by the way teacher-student abuses happen again, and again, and again. And I am exhausted by the way we—yoga teachers, practicers, professionals and lay folk—flounder after each incident. We roil and moan and throw hissy fits, like a very dysfunctional family. We break down. We pick sides. We shout, hurl things about, blame and deny and project and deflect. Most of all, we slide right back into the same old cycles.
I have to offer another caveat: I am a yoga teacher and writer. I run a studio, and I lead an RYT program. I’m a student of Leslie Kaminoff. I’ve brushed writing and debating shoulders with Matthew Remski for years. I criticized his reaction to the case. This felt gross. I didn’t want to get involved in the first place—my key tactic is avoidance, the aforementioned fatigue, nar, nar. Further, I really like Remski. I tremendously respect his work. I see him as a hero, in some ways the kinda folk I want to be, a guy who’s work foreshadows and proves the kind of work I want to do. It is uncomfortable to criticize what you love. Further still, I wondered if my relationship with Kaminoff wasn’t influencing my reaction to Remski. If Remski’s reaction wasn’t influenced by his own, history. The dysfunctional family model, right pure. You see how complicated this is. We whimper. We parse. We walk on eggshells.
I simultaneously am not involved, and I am tremendously embroiled. Remski, Kaminoff and I are all part of a system that also includes abusers. And I am a woman who has hips.
F**k it, then. I’m going to write about sex.
The yoga world is no different than the rest of the world.
We don’t want this to be true. We want our practice to be a sanctuary. If not a transformation. We want this thing, this thing that has personally given us so much, to be unquestioned, trustworthy, self-evident. It hurts to criticize what you love.
And yet, what shows up in a yoga practice is exactly the same shit that shows up everywhere else in our lives. We ground, and what arises out of grounding turns out to be the same familiar patterns of thought, of sex, of money, of self-esteem, of family, and of society that we were trying to get away from.
Our reality is knit together in strange ways. The joy of the body, the strange interface of anatomy and psychology, the question of personality, responsibility, choice. The way we repeat ourselves, even when we’re trying not to and know better. I can’t say that the body and mind are related, any longer, because practice has shown me that they are one and the same thing.
So many of us are running to a yoga studio in an attempt to run away from church. Or a cult. Or stress. Or childhood. So many of us deny or ridicule the teacher-guru relationship because we feel more intelligent than that. It is easy to dismiss the rampant sexual abuse, transference, obsessive behavior of the yoga world as being neurotic, sick, and not our problem because we don’t to question our own dependence on the practice. We certainly don’t want to stop practicing. We intellectualize, deny, say it’s just a physical workout. We want yoga to fix our problems, and then get emotional and reactive when it brings our problems to the fore. Intention is really just a fancy, more acceptable word for motive.
I realized, once, that I am very lucky. I dismissed Bikram’s behavior because I loved the way the practice made me feel. Later, I left teaching commercially in the fall out of the John Friend scandal. I opened up a non-profit studio and taught in my own way, thinking I was better than the scandals and the sell out and the hype.
I wasn’t better than; I was lucky. I fell in love with the practice. Like head over heels. The euphoria. The highs, the devotional vows, the tears. The increasing time spent. The way I sought it out, constantly. I never fell for a teacher, and the times teachers were creepy with me, I simply did my practice and never went back. But once, on retreat, I fell in love with another student. I simultaneously knew that I was projecting—the openness I felt, the tenderness, the vulnerability, the intoxication—and I couldn’t help it. I behaved like a teenager stomping her foot. I cried and over shared. My nerves all stood and my heart ripped wide. It was physical. It was emotional. I was a mess. I apologized and then did it all over again. Then, because it’s my way, I avoided the whole issue and ran away. This was easy enough, when we both went home after retreat.
I’m not any more intelligent or detached or healthy than Holly Faurot, or anybody, really. I am effortlessly neurotic. This shows up in the way I use my practice to avoid my family, or the one pitifully small but actually responsible thing I need to do now and then. The way practice has startled me with my own behavior in intimate relationships, and over time, made me more skillful in them. A bit, a little bit more skillful in them. And, it shows up in the way I want to distance myself from the absurdities of the yoga world.
Our consciousness is knit together in uncanny ways. Practice begins to unravel us.
The thing is, transference is actually a healthy thing. You want transference to happen, in psychotherapy. It’s where the gold is.
And, it happens between students and teachers of yoga. It should, if we want yoga to do the things we say it does.
I think the current popularity of downplaying the role of the teacher is problematic. It’s symptom of dysfunctional system, not a healing or post-modern evolution of the dysfunctional system.
The problem is we’re a messy, violent society, and yoga has become utterly socialized. We call RYT 200s ‘teachers’, because that’s what the market demands. It’s easy and we want what we want. But convenience isn’t necessarily ethical. RYT 200s are woefully unequipped to deal with transference or trauma, being nothing more than representative sampling of society, themselves.
Transformation happens interpersonally. Every single religion and intervention known to history knows this. We still know it in the context of education, medicine, and mental health. To deny that anything less is happening in a Core Power class, or an ashram, or a bunch of mats rolled out in a YMCA, is denial. To clamor for trauma informed teaching standards is, I tend to think, both a non-issue and an oxy-moron.
I think it’s very nearly predictable that boundaries and sex and shame and abuse will come up. We’re dealing with bodies, after all. And I think until we recognize that people are coming to yoga with f**ked up psychologies at the same rate the general population has f**ked up psychologies, until we deny the ability to ‘heal’ people or ‘transcend’ suffering, this stuff will keep on happening.
The student teacher relationship is precious. A teacher can see patterns and doorways and truths that we can’t see, that we didn’t know were there, simply because we’re too close to them. Stay with me, this is hard to articulate, this is loaded with gunshot and cultural bias and taboo: the student teacher role is one of intimacy. And trust. And time.
The issue is that a teacher isn’t a person. A teacher is a context.
And, the teacher is a person.
I trust my teachers. With my body. When a teacher asks me to do something I’m uncomfortable with, I do it. I work at it for a long time. Falteringly. Self doubtingly. Eventually, with more clarity. I go to my teachers because I trust them, in some ways, more than I trust myself.
I trust them to help me feel, and then support me while I do the difficult work of dealing with my shit.
Would I give them money? No. Would I betray my own ethics, sexuality, or politics? No. But again, I think I am lucky to have had good teachers throughout my life, pre and post yoga.
But you’re goddamned right I will listen when my teacher invites me to feel something, see my insecurities and work with them, step out of my comfort zone. I’ve done bizarre things on my teacher’s suggestion. We all have. This business of standing on our heads is absurd, if you think about it. I’ve sounded mantras. I’ve taken to bowing to my own mat, in my own home, when there is no one there to bow to. I’ve committed to studying with them at significant personal investments of time, money, and choice. I am directly, and intimately, toying with my own boundaries. I hope to work with my teachers for many, many more years. I sometimes examine my own body in the mirror, baffled by what teachers have seen there. I want to see what it is they see.
I insist: this is very much about relationship. In some ways, my teachers are closer to me than are friendships. More intimate. You see, I trust that my teachers don’t actually want to get anything from me. Friends, and my family and my lovers, all do.
People walk into public classes with bodies. To work with the body means to work with the mind. People are walking into studios, gyms, and teacher training programs with sexuality, family history, compulsions and fears. We’re walking in with a desire to please, with our fear of rejection, and our need to be accepted. No matter how secular, how pop cultured, or how choreographed the sequencing is, the moment people engage their breath and their movement they are playing with shadows, old wounds, broken hearts, and neediness.
The yoga world is no different than the rest of the world. And yet, if you’re reading this, you’re probably also partial to the idea that yoga is different, yoga is special, yoga is important.
We all want, somehow and probably very inarticulately, for yoga to fix our problems. We want our yoga to feel good.
In other words, we want transcendence.
We don’t get what we want in this practice. Yoga doesn’t fix our problems or cure our illnesses so much as it heals our relationship with reality. I often say that yoga saved my life. What I mean is, yoga enabled me to do the things I needed to do, like get my ass to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and keep my butt in that chair. To reconcile my teenage runaway angst. To return to my family after all of those years running away. To work with my own depressions and fears and failures so skillfully that I can, perhaps, be a more useful member of society. But yoga didn’t, like I first wanted, fix my drinking problems or relieve my depression. It only made them achingly clear.
Two days ago a teen girl told me she’d attempted suicide that morning and asked for yoga to help. I referred her directly to her therapist and called 911. Yesterday someone else confided her disordered eating. I referred her to a therapist. Two weeks ago someone asked what was happening to her, cited strange, assertive and socially engaged things she was doing in her world, said yoga is doing this, what is happening to me? I agreed with her, roundly. Yoga made all these interactions happen. I told her to get out there, keep doing the advocacy work on the governmental level. Sticking around working on advanced poses with me wasn’t going to do as much.
Do you see what I’m saying? Yoga restores us to the world. The real world of sexual assault, blame and denial, power and inequality, rather than endlessly seeking to transcend them. I can help people see where they are stuck in postural and behavioral patterns. That might provoke them to some personal shifts. But that is all I am qualified to do.
I have been lucky. There have only been a few times, as a yoga teacher, I have felt it necessary to end a relationship with a student because their attraction to me didn’t resolve. I haven’t been abused by teachers. But I have gone through painful periods of disillusion.
I have worked with countless students who have been in sexual relationships with teachers, had friendships with teachers, sexual abuse scenarios with yoga teachers, fathers, priests, university professors, bosses.
And yet, so many of those students go on in their practice. So many people bring their dysfunctional childhood, violent neighborhoods, war scarred memories to a yoga practice. And even though so much yoga is bullshit, so many of them tend to keep going. To find a better teacher. To seek out something, more. So many people have been physically hurt by an astanga practice, or emotionally hurt by an Anusara scandal, and yet here they are.
I tend to think that ‘scandals’ like the one at Jivamukti will go on happening, can’t but not happen, so long as people with hips walk in with their neurosis and people who also have hips and neurosis get teacher training certificates.
It is my hope, though, that we continue to look for teachers.
In terms of mental health, we’re stuck if we can only see people in black and white, victim and perpetrator terms. If we can only tell one story of our father, we’re stuck. If we can see that he was both a good and a bad father, had both good and bad characteristics, then we’ve begun the process of healing.
Honest reflection throws blinding and sometimes uncomfortable light on the disappointments, the mistakes, the absurdities, the failures and the crimes committed within the yoga tradition. There have been many. And yet, here we all are, still trying to practice yoga. Still trying to believe in it. This should help. This should free us from the naive expectations and the equally naïve resentments we’ve cultivated.
We can’t blame victims, and we can’t continue to simply blame the system.
This is a wisdom tradition. The teaching of wisdom lays out clear, and personal experience readily verifies, that schools of thought bring forth violence, injustice, and betrayal of truth just as often as they bring forth remarkable revolution, personal or communal transformation. They bring injury just as often as they reveal anything like insight. Wisdom is a practice of being neither foolishly discouraged by human cruelty nor foolishly idealistic about its purported ideals. It is dangerously naïve to believe that because yoga has such deep promises at it’s root, the current of benevolent non-attachment and ahimsa will flow through its teachers and students, en masse. It ain’t so. It can’t be. This isn’t true of Yoga in general and it isn’t true of Yoga in an individual’s experience.
The teachings (and common sense, and science) saddle us with this difficulty: individually and collectively, we betray our ideals in our actions, yet it is possible in the midst of samskara for lives to change. But this possibility is hard: it demands both the working together of communities, and it requires individuals who are intensely devoted to the work of understanding themselves.
Do you see what I mean? There is no f**king such thing as transcendence.
I think that I went through a very, very long process. At first, I understood yoga as a body, thing. Then, I understood yoga as a personal development, thing. Now I am at a place where I actually think yoga is something sacred. Here’s the kicker: it never stopped being those first, things. It can’t. It didn’t stop being superficial, it simply became more. In time. In relationship.
This is what we have to do: become a whole f**king lot more, personally, and we have to relate. We must. We have to have nuance enough to see that victim and perpetrator isn’t good enough. Anyone telling you they know the answers to, or who to blame for, these terribly complex problems isn’t really being honest, in some way.
It aches. That the yoga world is no different than the rest of the world. I hate this. Just as I hate my family, sometimes, but still love them. I hate the yoga world, but I’m not about to stop practicing. Remski, Kaminoff, Holly Faurot and I are part of a system that also includes abusers. It’s a tremendous burden to realize the group is a body, and the body is broken. I mean, how do we accept the dysfunctional family and also believe in the possibility of healing? I don’t even know that I do believe this, that it’s possible, that we can work toward more integrity in teacher-student relationships. But I do want to try.
Maybe if we got good at this people would call the Jivamuktis out, before so many people got hurt.
Karin L. Burke is the founder of Return Yoga, a non-profit studio in St. Cloud, MN. She’s trying to change the YTT model into something called the Deeper Practice Curricula, which could be training for certification, but is more like mentorship and personal study. She’s also slowly writing a book.
- The Disappearing Art Of Mindful Communication
- Jivamukti Sexual Harassment Suit Revisits Questions Of Guru-Worship And Abuse Of Power
- Magical Thinking, Yoga, And Internal Inquiry
- How Yoga Can Make Things Better. And Worse.