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Yoga and #metoo: We Can Do Better

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by Karin Carlson

“On some level, I wish also that I had spoken publicly about them (Jois’ sexual assaults) before now, but they were confusing…I didn’t really know how to talk about them without disparaging the entire system.” Mary Taylor

The #metoo movement has roiled social media and the news cycles for months. Industry after industry has shuddered through a series of allegations that prove sexual abuse goes hand in hand with our current structures of power.

I’ve been quiet.

I’ve been angry. I’ve been upset. As a yoga teacher I’ve felt a need to set my agenda aside when it comes to wider social issues. As a woman I’ve felt a need to take care of my own boundaries.

As a yoga teacher I’ve been upfront about the reality of sexual abuse and the inherent vulnerability of a yoga practice. I hope my teaching stands in defiance to cultural standards; I want to provoke exploration of our own inner worlds, both joy and sorrow. I hope I have been approachable as an ally. But I’ve avoided any kind of public statement about #metoo. It felt inopportune. I didn’t want to use shared pain as a personal platform.

More honestly, #metoo hit a nerve. I’ve been confused, hurt, and pissed off. Closer to the bone, still, it’s one thing to read the news, to have conversations in public, and to do some serious ball breaking in all sorts of contexts, but another thing again to question yoga. I’ve wanted to keep yoga separate. I’ve wanted to keep it sacrosanct. I don’t want to befoul something so dear to my own sanity, so necessary to my own well being.

But #metoo applies to yoga as much as it does the red carpet or the Senate. We need better conversations in our yoga practices. We need more integrity in our teaching. We need accountability and willingness to face reality in our yoga practice.

Silence, incredulity, and misogyny trickle down social ladders with far more efficacy than economic benefits ever have. Social outrage has brought with it a barrage of information, emotional overwhelm, and pain. Good men have been left confused by the prevalence of sexual misconduct, the systemic undermining of women and kids. Women have expressed relief and a swelling of pathos. But people have also expressed pain at reliving some of the worst moments of their lives, having to question their own behaviors and relationships, having the things most precious to them put to public scrutiny.

There is a sense of hope, of justice. We are alight with passion and righteous anger. But there is also a sense of frustration and foreboding.

I’m frustrated. I’ve found the movement hard in its hyperbole and late to the game insights. I’m angry that we’re still surprised by revelations of sexual assault. It’s infuriating that we should debate the reality of rape culture when we have a pussy grabbing predator in chief. #Metoo has brought important issues to the table – including bringing some perps to task, shaking up institutional hierarchies, and creating a platform for victims to speak out.

But let’s not make the mistake of thinking it is entirely safe for victims to speak out. Let’s not confuse honesty and justice. Let’s not think publicly sharing their story is the right thing for all survivors to do. For many it’s really not. It’s really, not.

#metoo is a good thing. But it isn’t an answer to the problem. It’s just a collective howl.

The language of this whole discussion still places the burden of proof on women*. That language keeps us talking about how many women are assaulted per annum rather than talking about the number of men getting away with rape. This burden is an inheritance – the inheritance is generational, deep to social structures, possibly foundational. It’s a heavy weight that shames girls and diffuses accountability. The burden of shame distorts real vulnerability to “men are bad” and “women are angry.” The truth is not that men are bad, but a small minority of abusive people get away with harm over and over again. The issue is not that women are angry but that women are targets.

This pervasive atmosphere threatens even those women and girls who are not personally targeted and it confuses the population as a whole about complicity. This is the means by which fear can wound as deeply as physical blows, this is how the psychological damage of rape culture lays hold on so many voices, even those who aren’t directly involved. Shame poisons everybody. Shame dirties the whole damned culture. It’s a displacement of accountability. It’s a way to think that “it happened to me once” is the end of the story, when in reality women often live through repeated transgressions. The transgressions begin when we are children. They range from unsolicited demonstrations of adult penises, to date rape, to a shame-based gendered reality as working adults. Women will be objectified in school, in the workplace, by the media, and in public spaces while making less than a man for the same job done. It’s patronizing, pure and simple. The difficulty is the way in which we’re all participating in it.

Dismantling the patriarchy means acknowledging the ways in which we lie to ourselves.

Gurus and cults

Spiritual, physical, and emotional power over others creates abuses of power. Yoga is no exception. We’ve got ourselves a long litany of known, suspected, and occasionally outed abusers. The current manifestation of yoga is shallow: social problems breed in its atmosphere like fungus. Things are positioned to get worse, not better.

These practices call to people who are lost. Yoga is marketed as a balm for physical and emotional pain. We all come to yoga as clients or students, which makes us vulnerable by definition. There is zero accountability and a high expectation of charismatic teachers. Projection and transference run high. I am not interested, here and now, in naming the names of the patriarchs or the revered saints who turned out to be assholes. That work is important. But it’s not the work I’m doing right here. Right here I’m simply establishing the background: like #metoo, ours is not a culture of isolated abusive incidents, it’s an atmosphere in which harm thrives.

I have never been hurt by a yoga teacher. My traumas preceded yoga; yoga was the thing that helped. So when criticisms of yoga come up, I tend to distance myself from the chaos. I compromise. I trade off a little insanity in order to keep what is dear to me close.

Although the cliques and scandals of the yoga world didn’t have anything to do with me personally, I was always aware that they were there. There have been teachers who were inappropriate. There have been weird moments, too much skin, too much touch, uncomfortable spaces. There have been studios and schools in which the relationships between students and teachers, insiders and outsiders, were clearly unhealthy. But this always existed just outside my personal orbit.

This is my point: misogyny and abuse of power are systemic issues. They are old school and endemic. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that the same issues exist in yoga.

But when it comes to yoga, I’m (and “I’m” means “we’re”) oddly disinclined to do the right thing. I’m prone to selective listening. Sometimes this expresses itself as spiritual contortion, a kind of dichotomy between yoga and real life. Oddly, this also shows up as unity talk, a kind of everything happens for a greater purpose and therefore acceptance, trance. Personally, and this is important, there is a renunciation of responsibility. I lean back into the safe distance of theory and philosophy. Again: I, and I mean: we.

My first exposure to yoga was the Bikram school as taught in New York City in the mid 2000s. I was new to the whole shebang; my experience was limited to local teachers and a room that shook when the train passed below. I never came anywhere near Bikram himself, nor his inner circle. I heard the stories. I knew what went on at trainings. I was familiar with his outlandish “script” and heard each and every one of his lecherous jokes secondhand. I saw pictures of his throne and his body, nearly naked, mounted on the nearly naked bodies of his students. I knew.

But I wanted the yoga. I needed it. And so, as millions of others have done in similar scenarios, I rationalized. I figured it had nothing to do with me.

Accountability and complicity

The “none of my business” response is familiar. It’s how most people respond to domestic violence or campus rape. It’s also how we respond to abuse by the upper classes, as if rules and ethics no longer applied, there. Like middle ground Americans dumbfounded when someone like Trump is elected to office or confused by the urgency of Black Lives Matter, “none of my business” is related to “I had no idea.” It’s an attempt to focus on a rare and evil individual take so that we don’t see how pervasive the bullshit in the atmosphere has become.

By ignoring the broader implications, “none of my business” shores up the status quo. It’s complicit, but banal. It’s only ever guilty of having had really good intentions and really bad information.

This is how #metoo has been effective: Hollywood suddenly refused to be complicit. It outed Harvey Weinstein. Hollywood kicked him to the curb. Charges have been brought against him in multiple countries. The press ran and continued to run the story. Other power brokers refused to work with him. Once the ball got rolling and other men were accused, they too were canceled from programming, dropped from studios, contracts were ended and charges brought. The tech industry did the same. The media followed suit. With Roy Moore, the good old boys themselves came under fire.

#metoo is a rare case of society holding perpetrators accountable.

I watched all this with a kind of guttural, primal, deep satisfaction. It was as if all the ancient rage of wounded sisterhood had finally, finally landed a blow. My oldest, deepest, personal and ancestral wounds flickered in the dark. The fall of the patriarchy seemed a plausible, and a tremendously beautiful, and a completely earthly season whose time had come.

And I started to wrap my mind around something I’d not been able to, before.

To say “it has nothing to do with me” is complicity. Generally speaking, even if a man in a position of power is known to have committed an assault, he’ll not lose his backing. He won’t lose his job. People will still buy whatever it is he’s selling. So long as we buy in, we’re part of the problem. I don’t say this lightly.

In those first few years of practice, one of my teachers used to tease about how slavish we were to the practice. We’re a cult, you know, she’d say. She meant this as a joke. I took it as a joke even as I knew, more or less, that it was true. It spoke some ugly realities about the things I was doing and the people I was associating with. But I couldn’t admit a flaw to something I loved so much.

I didn’t know how to question the system without dismantling the system.

So instead of questioning, I said it was none of my business. That is, I said exactly what society taught me to say. It’s slant talk, proof of the ways we’re taught to believe it’s in our own interest to undermine victims. So long as ordinary human beings are complicit, rapists won’t be held accountable. If it is in our interest to uphold the system, accountability is impossible. Rape culture thrives.

I said scandal in the yoga world didn’t concern me, although it very much did concern me. It was everywhere around me, at every single stage of my practice.

Separating the “teaching” from the “person”

I was so addicted to the practice I was willing to ignore the glaring defects of the subculture. Sometimes we dismiss the problem by trying to parse “the teaching” from “the man.” The movie business does this with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski; offense is acknowledged, then excused in the name of art.

This is a hard inquiry, but it bears asking: what do you do with the system? Do you watch Annie Hall? It is hard, but I think human beings can do hard things. I have to believe human beings are capable of that much discernment. I think we can both take Woody Allen to task and talk about cinema.

I imagine Catholics faced with this same, mildly sick in their center, feeling, when the question of diddling priests comes up: how do you maintain fidelity to God, when God’s earthly works are evil?

In feminist studies, it’s said complicity in a culture’s wrongs reflect our own self-hatred.

This is a challenging premise. It posits agency, but most of us would argue ignorance of having any. How are we responsible for the whole of a system? Who are we to disparage the great works of art and history and culture? How are we to assume ourselves responsible for something we stepped into ignorant? What does an ordinary Catholic have to do with sexual abuse in the church? What did Americans know of what was happening in Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Italy? Am I my brother’s keeper?

In the first few years of my practice I was certainly naive. I was ignorant. I kept practicing because I needed the practice. But when the John Friend scandal broke a few years later, I was a teacher, and I did feel a sense of responsibility. I spoke out even when I knew it put my job on the line (I lost it). I trusted what I was doing more than I needed the system.

It’s only in retrospect that I can see the differences between the two periods of my practice; other than my response, there is very little difference between the scandals in the two schools. So why did I respond differently? Where did that confidence, come from? Why did I feel compelled to resist as a teacher when I hadn’t as a student?

Maybe this is just the gift of love and relationship: a parent will take personal risk to protect the more vulnerable.

Maybe it was just enough time, a few years, to move me from self-hate to something beyond it. Here’s another thing feminists say: you can’t “empower” anybody, women included; women already have power.

Maybe self-hatred and self-ignorance are the same thing.

So how do we move from disbelieving it has anything to do with us to shaking the system down?
I don’t have a terribly hopeful answer, other than to say it is possible. Hard inquiry is valuable. If we feel empowered enough, we won’t have a problem disparaging the system.

That’s easy to say and hard to see happening. While I and lots of folks I know have dismissed the Ashtanga system, for example, for a handful of reasons, I have a hard time imagining a time when yoga as a whole says, let’s just end Ashtanga yoga.

Too many people still feel the system is beyond repute. Too many people still want it.

In other words, too many people don’t believe themselves, or us collectively, capable of anything better.

The false narrative of karma, the problem with trauma

One of the gifts of this practice is the way in which it changes our perspective. Only when we realize we’ve been seeing things from a very specific point of view are we able to take in the possibility of there being any others. You wake up one day and realize you’ve been stuck in a story or an old tape. You observe your own thinking and behavior in practice, and suddenly understand that this is the way you think and behave all the time. Only then do you have the option of doing something–different.

It’s important to realize the dominant narrative is not the only narrative. It’s important to challenge the stories we’ve been taught. The familiar and well-worn story of compassion fatigue, of doing the best we can, the idea that some things will never change aren’t the whole of reality. These are just stories like other stories. To say that this is just the way men, or society, is, like using karma to argue powerlessness. It’s bigger than me, therefore I can do nothing.

I don’t think karma works that way. I think karma says here’s what you’ve been given, now what are you going to do?

Our use of the word trauma isn’t much different. Indeed I think there is a danger to habituating language, medicalizing it, or abstracting it away from ourselves. These days it’s become popular to talk about trauma, victims, even a need for “trauma sensitive yoga.” I’m not saying trauma sensitive yoga is a bad idea. I’m just wondering if yoga without trauma sensitivity means anything. I’m wondering what trauma is supposed to mean. I wonder if there is any one of us who isn’t touched and impressed and wounded. Nobody gets out of here without a broken heart. And I don’t think a broken heart is the end of the story.

I’m suggesting that while the cultural exchange between east and west had some problems, and while yoga as we know it today has some major character flaws, I don’t think it has to be this way.

To look for psychological reasons for rape culture and make victims of survivors might be causing us more trouble. It slides dangerously close to the idea that men are aggressive, predatory, and irrational when aroused (read: ”men are bad”). It also comes dangerously close to dismissing victims as damaged (read: “broken humans can’t be fixed”).

If we look carefully, alternative threads to this story are readily available. I’m partial to the one that says not all men are predators; those few who are abusers tend to have been abused; the opposite, however, is not true: most survivors of abuse do not become abusive.
Read that five times slowly. Most survivors of abuse do not become abusive.

I’m partial to the story that says healing is possible.

Forgiveness, redemption, and accountability

We conflate forgiveness, redemption, and accountability. I was once asked if I had done the work of forgiving my rapist. I shot back something snarky. I said the suggestion blamed me, rather than my rapist, for the pain of rape. I said some things are unforgivable.

I don’t know why, other than ignorance, we find it so hard to hold sexual offenders accountable. Why we should excuse the founder of a yoga school, or Picasso, or the college kid who rapes an unconscious girl behind a dumpster. It’s as though we fear holding people accountable would make everything fall apart: life as we know it would end, where would the accusations stop, men would no longer be men, we’d never understand or get any sex.

But this is conflating accountability for redemption. They are not the same thing. Accountability means the buck stops somewhere, the past has to stop. Redemption speaks of the future. It is related to hope, and justice, and truer things than before. So far as I understand redemption, the only way out is through. That very directly means the only hope we’ve got—for yoga, for politics, or for history—is in accountability.

Which brings me back to forgiveness. I don’t know if I can say I’ve forgiven. I don’t know that anyone should. I don’t even know how possible forgiveness is. I think trying to forgive prematurely, or being told to do so by others, means we’re not really doing the work of healing. I think the work of healing is hard. But when we do that work, something happens. Maybe it’s not forgiveness, exactly. It’s not like the pain ends. Not exactly. Nor does the shame. Nor the need to be very careful indeed about who you share your heart and skin and pussy with.

But I do think something happens. There is a new thing in your experience. This new thing both remembers and no longer has to. It’s rather wild, far beyond what you think of as you, but when it speaks it speaks with your own voice. Forgiveness insists on having a life with love in it. Forgiveness has fuck all to do with the people who cause harm. Forgiveness has to do with the folks who vow no further harm, not from this point forward, not in my name and not here and not now. Forgiveness is wild. It’s brave enough to be vulnerable. Forgiving recognizes that the system can and should be dismantled.

*When I say women, or indicate women are gendered targets of sexual violence, I understand and imply that sexual violence affects people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants and children as well. I understand that this is systemic. These issues are intractably related.


Karin Carlson has been called a Master teacher, a teacher’s teacher, and a revolutionary. These days she’s deconstructing asana, teaching to folks who’ve been disillusioned or injured by standard yoga fare, and learning Sanskrit. She’s writing and she’s teaching online. She can be found at returnyoga.org.

[Editor’s note: The #metoo movement does not exclude yoga. We believe it is important to tell our stories, foster discussion and support one another. Learn more at yesyogametoo.com. #yesyogametoo]


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11 comments… add one
  • Spread Your Wings Not Your Legs

    You can start with hip hop, guru-rapist Russell Simmons?

    Yoga Dork shamelessly promoted him for years — right here on this blog site.

    You’ve been totally silent about Simmons ever since this story broke TWO MONTHS AGO.
    How much longer?

    “Russell Simmons accuser calls out his ‘spiritual learning’ defense amid sex assault claims”

    Is he funding you? Is he funding your friends?? Come clean. If so, give the money back.

    HBO and JC Penney have severed their ties. Why hasn’t David Lynch or the Jivamukti losers, the Gannons?

    What we’re seeing here is the consequence of Yoga, Inc. thinking that anyone and anything with a “yoga” label must be hunky dory — and if not, well it’s still good for the cause!

    There are no standards, no morals, and no vision in this industry. No social responsibility. No personal responsibility. Yamas and niyamas that are TOTALLY empty slogans.

    So you get what you get……

    Spiritual pimps and spiritual whores.

    Come to Jesus
    Come to Buddha
    Come to Shiva

    Tis the season!! PEACE

  • Anon

    “Stalin’s Italy”? please correct this

  • Dwayne

    I’m not going to say much (as a middle-aged male yoga practitioner, I haven’t and never will experience abusive behavior), but it seems to me that the “Guru tradition” is infinitely exploitable by scoundrels, as evidenced by the endless history of scandals in American yoga over the past 100+ years.
    I don’t always agree with “secular Buddhist thinker” Stephen Batchelor, but maybe his thoughts on “Why I Quit Guru Yoga” are germane here (though Yoga does not refer to Patanjali yoga et al.):

    • Thank you for the thoughtful link. Buddha said (I paraphrase) don’t believe what you are told until you can confirm it with your own senses. Use your common sense. When we give over ourselves and our common sense, we are the loser.

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  • Great thought, great guidelines & such an interesting post, really keep it up, I am also a yoga teacher, teaches the world, must visit on the link

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  • There are many feelings that come up around the #metoo movement

  • There are many feelings that come up around the #metoo movement

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