Yoga and the coalition of abuse

I never thought of it as abuse, but after the shocking stories that have emerged out of the #metoo movement from Hollywood to Yoga Shalas I’ve started to question.

As a little girl I never focussed on my gender. I played cars, pretend wedding and climbed trees. I wasn’t thrilled when I developed, but I wasn’t frustrated either. It all just seemed a matter of course. I was boy crazy. Did I want to be one or was it pure attraction? I’ll probably never know. A child’s view is different to an adult. What I did know was that any intimate feelings I had were to be kept private, especially as I headed into puberty.

Every intimate experience I had was both confusing and thrilling. If a boy ‘abused’ me, I wouldn’t have seen it that way. All my friends did stuff with boys so why shouldn’t I? Drunken fumbles, schoolboy crushes, forbidden rendezvous, a touch from a way too older man. What young impressionable teen didn’t think this was the norm?


It was after the royal commission into sexual abuse in the Satyananda community that I began to reflect and to try to tease out more of what I’d experienced as a youngster. Were those moments that I had brushed off, violations? Was the phrase, “oh that’s just how men are” or “c’mon what’s the big deal?” phrases I had used with my friends to excuse the hurt and shame I had felt at the time.

The more I reflected the more I sensed a play between sexual, physical and verbal abuse. And not just in my childhood. I could trace a thread all the way through both my dance and yoga careers. As the perpetrators and enablers are now coming to light in the yoga fraternity, I realise I have been complicit in allowing these acts to continue. Not because I am an abuser, but because I saw no harm in my teachers doing as they pleased. I have been taught to respect my mentors.

When the whole Satyananda community exploded I was shocked that two of my most respected mentors and senior acharyas of Satyananda refuted the allegations. When so many victims came forward to corroborate the abuse wasn’t it obvious that their guru was fallible? Wasn’t it their duty to show compassion, apologise? Or at the very least come out with a statement to show remorse or regret? Instead anyone who supported the accusers were vilified. I was so affected by their response that I avoided them when I saw them crossing the road. Who wants to chat happily with an enabler?

But this isn’t just about sexual abuse. It’s about the physical abuse, the inappropriate language, the way we treat others. Whether it’s the lies our abusers perpetuate, the promises they make, or the threats they hold over our heads. It’s hard work to find anyone these days in a position of power who isn’t domineering and insensitive. And yes, I am talking about leaders in the yoga community too.

arid barren clay cracks

At a time when we as a human race are at our most vulnerable, with our very survival on the line, we deserve better. Facebook is the worst offender.  When a timeline update is turned into a civil war on the subsequent thread you know there is a problem. When Facebook purports to be a platform to connect with the good and happy stuff of life, there sure is a lot of meanness, pettiness and ugliness.

Abuse should never be allowed in any situation. We are sensitive and delicate creatures with fine-tuned emotions. We thrive on love, care and connection. What the f…ck people get it together!

So why is it that when a spiritual yoga teacher is exposed as abusing his or her students that we leap to their defence or dump them like an old sandwich. It has more to do with who we are and the idea that we have created of ourselves then the offender.

If the whole basis of what I teach relies on my teacher being a noble and dharmic individual. How can I possibly justify his abusive behaviour? It means that what I teach, and share is also adharmic. Who am I without the lineage?

tealight candle on human palms

Questioning the lineage and the teachings is far more confronting then questioning the teacher. Like when my Iyengar teacher would hit me hard in class or force me to stay in a posture way past my comfort zone. I had the crazy idea that it was for my own good. I mean didn’t Mr. Iyengar the saint of yoga do the same thing? Surely pristine health would emerge if I tolerated this abuse? Not true. In reality it permanently damaged my neck and rendered my ability to sustain shoulder stand useless.

And what about the time, after 9/11 when I was literally a nervous wreck, shocked beyond belief, sick as a dog and my then yoga mentor insisted I keep working, because karmically it wasn’t my time to leave. And then when I did leave was ‘unsure as to where I fit in anymore’.

When a friend revealed to me recently that her yoga mentor undermined her in front of her own students and colleagues, I was floored. We look up to these people well beyond when we studied with them and to have them treat us like underlings or worse is not okay. Are they just perpetuating what they have learned from their own flawed teachers? What we experience in a yoga class is not necessarily how the person behaves in business or in private. Shouldn’t we expose them? Or is it better to say, “Oh that’s just typical, that’s just the way they behave?”

Is it only with sexual abuse that we now draw the line?

me too printed paper wall decor

I feel it’s time to acknowledge abuse no matter what the form and find ways to respond that not only call out the abuser but address the bigger picture. In trying to be supportive to my friend I urged her to confront her mentor and explain how the words and actions made her feel. It was one thing to take the abuse, another to feel affronted and upset and another to take back the power by saying, Enough. Easier said then done. Definitely easier when it’s a conversation between two people where there is a possibility of resolution. Much harder when the abuser is in abject denial, feigning innocence or worse accusing the abused of making the whole thing up to get attention.

These kinds of abuses are not supposed to happen in yoga. The whole premise being there is only love, peace, oneness etc. That’s why it’s so disappointing and heartbreaking when we find out how fallible our yoga teachers are. Human after all, protecting fragile ego’s, sustaining some secret fetish. Lashing out when caught in the act rather than reflecting or apologising to the abused. And worse committing the abuse again and again continuing to take advantage of their position and power. I.e. getting away with it!

When something terrible happens, when calling out our accuser backfires, or the situation can’t be resolved, when institutions like the royal commission and other agencies refuse to believe us, how can we come to terms with what has happened?

It’s in the sharing of our stories that we find comfort. In the most recent outing of another male yoga teacher’s abuses many other women have rallied to corroborate the story.  If enough of us say ‘enough’ things will change.

We can also say ‘enough’ with our actions. How do we choose to live in the world? How do we choose to treat others? What kinds of legacies do we want to leave for our children. If we can’t tear down the old skyscrapers of misogyny can we learn to build towers of indifference.

low angle photo of four high rise curtain wall buildings under white clouds and blue sky

In the Yoga Sutra 1.33, Patanjali says the key to peace is “cultivating an attitude of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard for the wicked, Thus the mind-retains its calm.”

If we see the good in others, help those less fortunate, delight in the achievements of others and maintain indifference to those who would do us harm then we remain undisturbed.

Understanding the true import of yoga, the insight that is gained results in real compassion and empathy which includes compassion for the abuser. If modern yogis  truly understood yoga,  we would not be left still grappling with this.


5 thoughts on “Yoga and the coalition of abuse

  1. This is so hectic. I didn’t even know about this abuse scandal from the Satyananda school, but it makes sense now with my experience with the swamis from this tradition that I met. I agree, very abusive.

  2. ‘Never Give Up On the Truth’ By Michelle Wade

    Thank you for yet another beautifully written, poignant article. I’d like to share my story to show my concern for what has been happening in ‘my yoga world’. I would hope that by putting pen to paper I might get closer to ending this sarga I find myself in. Its also a written record of what I am dealing with. I hope that I might connect with other Yoga teachers/students going through similar experiences particularly in the Northern Rivers and Gold Coast areas.

    I am right there in the midst of abuse from a yoga teacher and her partner. Firstly, it was abuse and discrimination in the classroom by her and the owner of the studio. I eventually left the practice as there seemed no resolve after unanswered emails and phone calls. I found it difficult to leave given the level of personal transformation I had gained when ‘I could’ practice in safety. Yet there was no resolve. It’s 2-3 years later after practicing at the Bikram studio and I’m still copping the abuse from the teacher, this time remotely.

    Everything they do is intended to inflict harm, mislead, isolate, reduce, make fool of, and manipulate my body without my consent. There is sexual misconduct. It affects my study, my work, my relationships, my family life. I would hope that she is not teaching at all, anywhere. As for him working in the health care industry his reputation, conduct and being of sound character should mean everything. Either way they should both spend some time looking at why they feel the need to inflict harm on others. Where does that come from?

    I know of one teacher who was abused by her as well, unfortunately I don’t have her full name so can’t contact her. I know of two senior students I practiced alongside who know but choose not to be involved. A longtime ‘head she bang’ of a local studio knows, but also chooses to do nothing. I find this surprising given her supposed emphasis on honesty, integrity, peace and love. Putting in practice what she was taught by her Guru? Is there not a ‘better’ way to teach? What was overall effect? I’m at my wits end, my health has been adversely effected, with immunity down again after another belt of it. My reactions are low vibrational. I don’t feel myself. My daughter has also been adversely affected.

    I took some relief in your writing and from the excerpt from your article…

    ‘In the Yoga Sutra 1.33, Patanjali says the key to peace is “cultivating an attitude of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard for the wicked, Thus the mind-retains its calm.”

    If we see the good in others, help those less fortunate, delight in the achievements of others and maintain indifference to those who would do us harm then we remain undisturbed.
    Understanding the true import of yoga, the insight that is gained results in real compassion and empathy which includes compassion for the abuser. If modern yogis truly understood yoga, we would not be left still grappling with this’.

    I would agree that compassion and empathy for the abuser is the ideal end result, albeit after some processing. I have forgiven them both on multiple occasions in the past. I would say that I could be ‘too’ forgiving. I’ve had enough.

    The abuse is still ongoing and of the remote-type now. The type I can’t get away from. Its anywhere, anytime. Its uninvited and generally sparks up more after I make some reference to the abuser in person to someone or discretely online. The more I speak up, the more abuse I get. It seems they have difficulty with me revealing the truth, and they continue the behaviour when I repeatedly ask that they, ‘leave me alone and get on with your own lives’.

    This article is yet another attempt to be left alone. I have notified the Police (its not something they know much about). If I don’t see any change, then I will publish names.

    I wonder…what are the general criteria for students looking to do Yoga training? And how long are they taught for and are they monitored afterwards? Surely they would be of good character, sound mind, have no criminal tendencies/records, and free from major addictions? I guess it could be hard to know this at the outset, but surely could be more evident over time? After all, they are looking after a class full of people!

    Some thoughts from the perspective of a student:

    -The yoga room should be a safe space, and the relationship of teacher/student should stay in the yoga room.
    -There should be a private safe space where any issues/reactions from either party can be discussed in a timely fashion. An understanding that all feelings/reactions are valid.
    -There should be transparency, honesty, no personal vindictive motivations from the teacher to the student. They should be trained to deal with student projections. Students should be supported.
    -Teachers should be trained in the area of mental health and how to deal with it, just as they are in the case of a sore knee or hip.
    -There should be clear communication, no avoidance, no denial, no bullshit answers.
    -Students should know the full, legal name of each teacher.
    -There should be Empathy from both parties. If teachers display abusive tendencies in training or afterward they shouldn’t be certified.

    Having said all that, I still love yoga. However, given my experiences I choose to practice alone in 2020 and years to come. xxx

    Much love always,
    Michelle Wade

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