Yoga Culture

Yoga: The Teacher-Student Relationship

By Charlotte Bell

When to call the teacher out.

As I reel through my Facebook feed today, more than half the posts begin with “Me, too.” This is, of course, the social media request to post these words if you have been sexually assaulted or harassed. It’s intended to shine a light on the prevalence of harassment and assault in our culture.

The sheer number of these “Me, too” posts has been huge, but not especially shocking. In my younger days, I was groped three times and flashed twice. The catcalls and insinuations are too numerous to remember.

The stereotypical perpetrator is a person in power, such as a boss or teacher, or sometimes just random guys. (The random guys pattern was a daily occurrence when I spent the summer of my senior year of college in Italy.) I can’t think of a single arena in which this sort of thing hasn’t happened.

My own chosen path, the path of yoga, is certainly not exempt. With alarming regularity, yoga teachers—especially famous ones—are “exposed” (pun intended) as having abused their positions of authority to take advantage of usually younger female students. In fact, the second of my three gropers was a famous yoga teacher.

By the time this article is published, the “Me, too” trend will have passed, but harassment and assault haven’t yet gone out of style. Here’s the story of my gropy yoga teacher experience and what I learned from it.

Thirty-one years ago, in my first year of teaching yoga, I attended a workshop on using yoga to heal back issues. The weeklong workshop was team taught by what was then a who’s who of senior yoga teachers.

Around mid-week, I was enjoying a class with a well-known senior teacher. While we practiced Downward Facing Dog Pose at the wall, the teacher came up behind me, placed his hands on my collarbones and ran them all the way down my front body, and yes, right over my breasts. At first I shuddered. I thought, “What was that about?”

Then, quickly I began to rationalize. This was a famous teacher after all. I convinced myself that he had a good reason to make this “adjustment.” I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable adjusting students this way, but of course a teacher of his stature could not have meant to grope me. I castigated myself for being judgmental and promptly forgot about it.

A few years later, I learned that the same teacher had been called out for making adjustments that were far more intrusive than the one I’d experienced. When I heard the news, I had so sufficiently buried my own experience that it took me a few days to remember. My youth and my starry-eyed pedestalizing of the famous teacher had caused me not to trust my own first instincts. In allowing the teacher to get away with a violation of my boundaries, I had unwittingly allowed the same thing to happen to who knows how many others.

This is an unfortunate pattern in the yoga world. Charismatic, famous teachers misbehave and their devotees ignore or cover up the behavior. I do understand why this happens. It is easy to be swept up in the high-energy current generated by a famous teacher and the happenings that surround them. The current feels good and right, and you get to be a part of it. How could there be a shadow? Plus, many times these teachers are knowledgeable. We’re learning good things from them, after all. We’re all human, nobody’s perfect; the rationalizations are endless.

Whistle blowers are rarely rewarded for their courage. By exposing problems, they are often blamed for causing damage. This is especially true when a community bases its image on “goodness and light.” Anyone who bursts the bubble of bliss—even if that bubble was an illusion to begin with—will be seen as a hater.

The teacher’s seat is an honored one. In addition to being well-versed in anatomy, philosophy and technique, a teacher needs to know himself/herself profoundly—all the places we shine and the places that trip us up. We must accept our humanity and the fact that we are all still on a path of learning. Humility is a teacher’s ally. Our students entrust their bodies, minds and spirits to us, at least for the class period. We are not entitled to that trust; we must earn it.

Here’s how I wish I would have handled the inappropriate adjustment long ago: I wish I had asked, “Can you explain that adjustment to me? I would not be comfortable making this adjustment to a student, so can you clarify why a teacher might want to make this particular adjustment?” This way of responding holds the person innocent until proven guilty—there is a chance that there was a good reason for the adjustment. At the same time this response acknowledges my own discomfort with the adjustment and lets the teacher know that.

I hope that the well-publicized controversies of the past few years and the evidence that teacher misbehavior had gone a long time unchecked will cause us all to think differently about the consequences of rationalizing inappropriate teacher-student relationships. The damage done by long-term denial is profound. People I know who have committed time, energy, money and heart to the communities embroiled in controversy end up confused, angry and often bitter. Had there been more transparency in these communities earlier on, the illusion may have been more manageable once it shattered.

Teachers bear the responsibility of behaving within the guidelines of the cornerstone of yoga’s foundation, the yamas (ethical precepts), as they sit in the power position of the teacher-student relationship. But students also have the power to keep our fallible, human teachers’ power in check by letting them know when their actions are out of integrity.

Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on October 30, 2017.