On Yoga Abuse
Once upon a time I had an assist which involved a teacher putting two fingers into my vagina.
I tell this story not to inflame, but to serve as both a warning and a lesson. At the time, I was not 100% clear that this was not okay. That seems crazy, but when you are so deep down a yoga rabbit hole of being a devoted student, you lose some boundaries.
However, I got clear, and then I made peace with it.
This is what I did. It was a three-step process.
1. At first I yelped, “WHAT THE FREAKING FREAK WAS THAT?” But I’m from New York City, so you know I didn’t say freak.
2. Then, I didn’t allow any more assists from this person. Even though this assist was outside my yoga pants, and even though it could have been “accidental,” he held his fingers in such a way that continued the “probe.” If you don’t know what I mean, it’s probably because you don’t have a vagina.
3. Lastly, I let it go.
Gone, baby, gone.
In fact, I didn’t even remember this incident until recently. I was having wine with a friend and we were having a good laugh about the bad old days when suddenly it came up. When I let something go, it’s gone.
Before the comments roll in telling me how one should behave with two unwelcome fingers where the sun don’t shine, let me say, I did the best I could. I was newer to yoga and I’d had fingers on my tailbone, in my anus (that was accidental), a head in my pelvic region and backbends hung from ropes like fifty shades of yoga. But I did know this – my vagina is a no-go zone.
Today, Iyengar yoga is roiled by allegations of sexual impropriety and abuse dating back 30 years. A few years ago it was Bikram yoga, whose founder was abusive and sexually inappropriate. Kripalu had its own crap-alu. Kundalini is accused of being a cult-ilini. And who can forget Anusara, where the founder liked to hang out on bear skin rugs with naked (but willing) Wiccans? That poor bear.
What is a yogi to do?
We have available to us the same three step process.
1. We need to recognize abuse and call it out.
Not every deep assist is abuse. Some may help us find internal subtle actions. I’m thinking of hands in the groin to encourage rotation.
But this is what we all know now: If it feels invasive then it is invasive. Period. This is the lesson that yoga teachers everywhere need to understand. It doesn’t matter what the teacher “intended.” It only matters how the student felt.
We yoga teachers need to be better with communicating what we’re doing, and why, and teaching compassion, not just yoga. If that means that the student takes longer to find a pose, then so be it. It’s a lifelong endeavor anyway. There’s really no rush.
2. Then we say no and change the culture of yoga.
Yoga, fundamentally is not abusive. But inherently, it inspires a kind of reverence for a teacher that can be both healthy and pave the way for victimizing. If a teacher helps you feel better in your body, and free in your spirit, it’s natural you would adore him or her.
While the student needs to develop boundaries, it’s also up to the teacher to put the brakes on that kind of veneration. I tell students: “It was in you all along. It’s not me, it’s you! Your dedication, studentship and focused attention brought the change. I just pulled back the curtain.”
However, many teachers take that kind of idolization and start to believe they are the Doer of All Things. That often leads to an abuse of power. Abusive teachers need to be called out and have their certification taken away in a timely manner. What is timely? I don’t have a definitive answer. But in my heart, I feel that a 30-year-old allegation probably has used up its statute of limitations. I can only imagine the mistakes and missteps I made 15 years ago as a new teacher.
3. We need to let it go.
And finally, when it’s the right time, we have to let this stuff go. While we must never forget the abuse of power, when it’s the right time, we must try to forgive, or forget, or just move the fuck on.
Yoga is meant to heal, both our bodies and our minds and spirit. We are not supposed to spend the rest of our lives as victims, re-living our past traumas like some kind of perverse Groundhog Day. We are meant to live in the present, wiser and stronger from our experiences in the past.
I know this from personal experience. I was once violently, sexually attacked and left for dead. But that’s not a memory I spend much time with. I dealt with it (and continue to deal with it), and then I put it away so I can be the person I was meant to be. The past is there to teach us . It was never meant to be the place we spend the rest of our days.
I don’t know how I feel about the Iyengar allegations coming forward that are 30 years old. I just don’t know. Victims say they are just remembering their abuse. I understand that completely because I only now remember the vagina monologue, and that was barely 12 years ago.
I just don’t know how I feel, and I think from a victim’s perspective, that’s fair.
But at some point, we as a yoga community, we as a community of victims, we as a community of vulnerable people who come to yoga to heal, we as a community of yogis who wish to live our best lives, we need to move the fuck on. We need to move forward to heal.
The past is such a worm hole. We can go down, and down, and down, or we can make a truce with it. Or as I like to say, that shit is gone, baby, totally gone. It’s time to live in the present.
Michelle Marchildon is the Yogi Muse. She is an award-winning journalist and the author of three books on yoga.. Her fourth, Theme Weaver: A Companion Workbook to Plan Yoga Classes, is due in the fall of 2019.