Report Reveals Disturbing Underbelly In The Yoga Industry & Teachers Are Speaking Out

mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor By Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor

Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.

NYTimes Article Reveals a Story of Abuse in the Yoga Industry

Image by Megan Doty / mbg Creative x iStock

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Citizens of the yoga world are coming together after a recent New York Times article revealed disturbing instances of abuse taking place at yoga studios and workshops all over the world. 

In 2017, Rachel Brathen, a popular yoga teacher and author of the book Yoga Girl, posted on Instagram asking if anyone had ever been touched inappropriately in a yoga class. What she got back was a sea of recollections and exposure. The comments on her post brought to light an alarming but all too real abuse of power and countless cases of sexual assault taking place in public yoga classes. 

According to Times reporter Katherine Rosman, "being propositioned after class and on yoga retreats, forcibly kissed during private meditation sessions, and assaulted on post-yoga massage tables" are just a few of the many exploitations students have experienced. Female yogis, both students and aspiring teachers, also reported their breasts and genitals being touched, groped, and violated by instructors during so-called hands-on adjustments. 

Though Brathen uploaded her Instagram post two years ago and wrote subsequent public blog posts on her site, this topic has not received the attention it demands and has largely been ignored. As the Times reported, nine women came forward in April 2018, detailing their treatment by a renowned guru. Nothing came from it. One can only hope that this latest story (and related coverage, like the Netflix Bikram yoga documentary set to be released on November 20) will finally take the yoga industry to task and force it to change. 

While the instructors featured in the article grew defensive when their adjustment practices were questioned, other prominent teachers have shown their support for the article and students who experienced abuse. According to them, this conversation has needed to happen for decades

"I feel like I have been screaming to deaf ears for so long on this topic," said Tara Stiles, founder of Strala Yoga and mbg Collective member, in response to the Times piece. "Abuse in yoga is everywhere and is passed down by controlling language, harsh adjustments, and a superior attitude teachers carry. These methods are taught in trainings by nearly every major style of yoga. Sexual abuse that we all agree is criminal is at the peak of this continuum. Until we change our methods, the crimes will persist."

Stiles' partner and Strala co-founder, Michael Taylor, expressed similar frustrations, noting that there's a cult culture in yoga, which ultimately leads to students being manipulated.

"It's upsetting that so many people get trapped by abusers and abusive systems," he says. "People come to yoga with vulnerability and hope, and then get tricked and abused. It's a time that people need protection, and they're not getting it."

Other teachers question the judgment of yogis like Jonny Kest, a popular teacher in the yoga world who, despite being confronted by multiple students, continues to make "intimate" adjustments. Some teachers, including Kest, have historically pleaded the fifth when faced with backlash—alleging, as Kest told the Times, that this approach "aligns with countless other yoga boutiques nationally and beyond." 

Even if you put aside the #MeToo movement, this is a blatant disregard for a person's right to privacy. Why is this not obvious—especially to teachers who claim their intention is to create a safe, open, “let it all go” kind of environment? 

"As a yoga teacher, this seems so obvious to me," says Maria Pramaggiore, a longtime certified yoga instructor and professor at Maynooth University in Ireland. "Empower students to practice non-harming for their own selves (to decline poses, if needed) and ask them to consent verbally to be touched. None of this 'raise your hand in down dog to opt out.' C'mon now."

At mindbodygreen, we've seen the impact that yoga can have on a physical, spiritual, and psychological level—it literally saved our founder from back surgery—but none of the benefits, mantras, or teachings mean anything if our safety is compromised.

To those who have suffered abuse at the hands of yoga, we see you and support you. To the studios and organizations training tomorrow's yoga teachers, the onus is on you to protect all students. It's on you to identify these issues and impose a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate contact. To the teachers, treat your students with respect, and don't hesitate to report wrongdoing. Be in relentless pursuit of a space that's safe for everyone. Only with action can we build the path forward.

And to those resisting change in an industry that's been perpetuating these abhorrent and illegal practices—the future holds no space for anything but enlightened and ethical yoga.

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