On April 5, I opened the email from the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the US with a sinking feeling. It announced the conclusion of the independent investigation of one of my senior teachers for “inappropriate touching” of students. I had been following official communications, media coverage, online and offline discussions for the past year with concern, and the release of the detailed report by the independent investigator brought closure to some aspects of this situation for me. Yet, as I continue to parse through my personal reactions as well as those of “the yoga community,” I am struck by what appears as hesitation by some of us to confront what it is about our culture – a much broader concern than any single perpetrator or accused individual – that contributes to the silence around abuse, how we allow it to happen, and the real harm to individuals as well as to our community of practitioners. Without acknowledging and understanding this, we can’t even begin to take the steps we need in our personal practice and as a community to prevent harm to ourselves and each other.
In Yoga, we observe and discern the effects of what we do, in asana and in life. What happened with that investigation of the senior teacher was at least a push for us as teachers and practitioners within the Iyengar lineage to take a clear, obvious stand: there can be no room in Yoga, whether in or out of the classroom, for sexual violence. That seems to be a straight-forward moral and ethical position. The problem arises when we take a simple vow in response, to keep the mind pure, to have only healing intentions as teachers and students, and to ask each other to see only healing intentions. Preventing sexual violence, or any other form of abuse for that matter, cannot be only about intentions, regardless of legal definitions. That’s too easy, too naive, and downright silencing. It becomes a form of gas-lighting, when we second guess what we experience or witness, because how could inappropriate touching be possible if we are all supposed to have only pure intentions? Am I the one who is perverse or overly sensitive? And, it’s too easy to use pure intentions as an excuse for abdicating responsibility for our words and actions as teachers, and as students witnessing the inappropriate behavior. Our practice is about right action, right speech. So, we have to discern the effects, the results of our actions and words, not just our intentions.
With so much experience that can appear subjective and open to interpretation, we fortunately have fundamentals – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – that form the basis of our practice, to guide us in discerning whether actions or words are wise or to be avoided. This guidance is embodied in part in the Yamas and Niyamas – literally, the restraints and observances, internal and external, that are to guide our thoughts and behavior in our daily life. Amazingly, each one of them is relevant, but two of them – Ahimsa (non-violence), and Svadhyaya (self-study) – are critical in understanding what contributes to perpetuation of abuse and what we need to do to prevent abuse from happening.
When we consider Ahimsa from the perspective of non-harm to others, as a teacher toward a student for example, we might be able to recognize abuse as harm inflicted when a physical adjustment is given that destabilizes a student and causes injury. Less obviously, we might consider the harm inflicted by well-intentioned adjustment that involves a more sensitive, private part of the body, or harsh words spoken in anger or indignation that cause shame, fear, or triggering a visceral feeling and memory of past abuse. And, just witnessing transgressive words and actions can be harmful in its own way; look no further than the effects of domestic violence on children who were not the direct target of the abuse. Ahimsa must guide us in restraining what we say or do to others and whether we should speak up when we witness harm being done.
Just as importantly, we must also be vigilant about non-harm to ourselves. We observe our own actions and response in class, regardless of how others may respond to an instruction. What discomfort, pain or emotional disturbance am I willing to tolerate? What is acceptable or necessary? And necessary for what purpose? To get deeper into a pose? Or possibly to correct a deeply ingrained, unhealthy pattern that I have become accustomed to? I need to learn to be and practice being present in my body, my emotions, my thoughts to recognize and acknowledge what I experience as I am experiencing it.
We are all so different as individuals, and teachers can’t possibly be aware of every particular circumstance about us – injuries, physiological variation, and past trauma – to avoid any possibility of an instruction or a commonly applied adjustment causing harm. If I crave with attachment the pursuit of knowledge, mastering a complicated pose, or getting that tight hip to release, my ego might turn a blind eye to what my body might be telling me about pain, or what my gut might be telling me about discomfort regarding a pose, or a teacher’s instruction or behavior, doing so at the expense of harm to myself.
This is where Svadhyaya also is critical, as we study our physical, mental, and emotional self while we practice. We discern the effects of what we do while we practice, as well how the environment in which we practice affects us. When we push aside our discomfort, pain, or emotional response to just get through a class or a pose, we may in that process ignore signals of danger or miss an opportunity to learn. Svadhyaya. Is this truly healing? In any setting where there are power differentials, cultural differences, and differences in physiology and life experience that affect what we are willing to do and to accept, we all – students and teachers – must be vigilant and ask ourselves, why am I doing or saying this? Could this cause harm? Am I insightful because I can see the potential in myself or my students, or am I being greedy, wanting more? And is more on this day, in this particular pose, the appropriate action? Is this a temporary discomfort that will over time illuminate some greater truth, or is this unhealthy, harmful? Perhaps this approach to practicing Yoga is not the right one for me given my particular needs? Thank goodness there is a diversity of teachers, styles and Yoga lineages we can choose from to guide our practice. There are always other options, different ways to illuminate a path, as long as we are not attached to delusions created by our ego. But, to get to the point where we can begin to ask these questions of ourselves, we must be practicing with Svadhyaya, present in our physical, emotional and mental body.
Is practicing the Yamas and Niyamas then sufficient to build a culture of intolerance toward abuse? Consider one further teaching: Sutra 1.33, which introduces four virtues to help still the mind. These are attitudes toward others – and toward ourselves – that we can cultivate to guide our intentions and behavior when responding to conflict, abuse, and other challenging situations: Maitri, Karuna, Mudita and Upeksha – friendliness or loving-kindness, compassion for suffering, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. How might we respond to practicing in an environment that pushes us to ignore pain within ourselves or those around us? Could we approach ourselves and our fellow practitioners with compassion for our suffering? Could we allow ourselves to sit with the emotional discomfort we may feel instead of pushing it aside? Perhaps we could respond with equanimity to that pain or discomfort, without ignoring it or turning a blind eye. Perhaps then, we might be more willing to acknowledge what is happening, to consider what wise actions might be appropriate to ensure that abuse does not continue.
If we can be guided by the Yamas and Niyamas, and approach each other and ourselves with this sense of care as described in Sutra 1.33, borne out of compassion for suffering and willingness to face pain without dismissing or minimizing it, we might be able to lay the foundations for building trust: trust in our own body and mind to know the difference between harm and healing, trust that we can bring any concerns to a teacher or fellow practitioner and not be further harmed, and trust that a respected confidant will not reject or minimize our experience simply because it appears inconsistent with their experience. When harm is experienced, this culture of trust and compassion, supported by the ethical guidance of Yamas and Niyamas, makes it possible for silence around abuse to be broken, for teachers to learn and improve, and for each of us to ultimately trust that our journey in Yoga can illuminate truths that resonate and support our journey in healing and continued exploration.
This post was written by Hia Phua