Yoga, Sex, and the Teacher-Student Relationship
Since I started tracking the steady stream of news, controversies, and online debates in today’s yoga world, I’ve had to struggle repeatedly with the challenge of confronting beliefs that are profoundly different from my own – both with regard to yoga, and many other issues as well.
On the whole, this has been a positive experience. Most of the time, when confronted with radically different sensibilities, I’ve been able to push the envelope of my own perspectives and find common ground. It’s been enlarging, and at times enlightening to discover ways of connecting with people who hold very different views on issues ranging from the advisability of “yoga for weight loss” to the foundational nature of the universe.
When I read Cameron Shayne’s recent post defending the righteousness of male yoga teachers who choose to pursue “hot, casual sex” with as many female students as they fancy, I knew that I’d hit a point where I didn’t want to bridge the divide separating our views. In this case, I believe that setting a clear boundary that says “NO” is more honest, clarifying, and potentially valuable than trying to find common ground.
The fact that Shayne’s post received a lot of enthusiastic support (including from the lead editor of Rebelle Society, which published it) suggests that a cultural rift has developed in the yoga community over the issue of whether teachers should enjoy open sexual access to their students, or respect long-standing norms requiring sexual restraint.
Considered in conjunction with the recent wave of high-profile yoga scandals, it’s clear that the issue of sex and the teacher-student relationship demands our attention – as well as an appropriate response.
Addressing the Conflict
To be clear, I’m not advocating some sort of war between the forces of sexual freedom and restraint. Nor am I in favor of issuing wholesale condemnation of any particular individuals or groups. The last thing we need is for the yoga community to replicate the same sort of hateful, vicious, polarized dynamic that infects so much of our culture and politics.
At the same time, I believe that the ethical standards and teaching protocols advocated in Shayne’s article should be unambiguously rejected.
How, then, to deal with the fact that Shayne and his supporters will undoubtedly think that it’s my views that are wrong, and not theirs? Is it possible to assert strong differences on the highly-charged issue of sex and the teacher-student relationship without falling into damaging negativity and conflict?
Only time will tell. But I’d suggest trying to accomplish this by:
- Acknowledging that the divide on this issue is too big and too important to ignore
- Working to depersonalize the conflict by debating ideas rather than attacking individuals
- Strengthening the role of a regulatory body (e.g., Yoga Alliance) capable of distinguishing teachers who support norms governing sexual restraint from those who reject them as outmoded “dogma.”
Analyzing the Argument
Shayne believes that yoga teachers should not be subject to ethical or regulatory restraints that limit free sexual access to their students. (Presumably, this means adults capable of giving formal consent, although these criteria aren’t stressed.) To my reading, his argument (which is echoed in many of the comments) reflects a mixture of two larger streams of thought that are quite influential in U.S. culture: hyper-individualist radical libertarianism, on the one hand, and irrational New Age spirituality, on the other.
This, in my view, is a toxic mix: capable of legitimating all sorts of power abuses, while at the same time advancing a twisted logic that “blames the victim” when they occur.
Here’s how I’d break it down most simply:
1) Hyper-individualism refuses to recognize the fact that systemic power differences really do exist. The idea that there are no power issues in play in the teacher-student relationship because we’re all free and equal individuals replicates the larger cultural logic which holds that it’s wrong to limit individual contributions to political campaigns because a billionaire and a homeless person have an equal right to “free speech.” (Yeah, right.) Any sort of more realistic understanding of how individuals are necessarily affected by the larger social context of which they’re a part is rejected out of hand in favor of a dogmatic adherence to the hyper-individualist view.
2) Hyper-individualism easily slides into self-serving “blame the victim”-style reasoning. For example, Shayne asserts that the “issue of vulnerable idealistic adult students being taken advantage of by egomaniacal male teachers for me is like the war on drugs: another completely corrupted strategy designed to deal with the symptom rather than the disease”:
The guru/students manipulation — like cocaine — is the symptom of a larger problem; the student’s lack of self worth, identify and voice. Clearly the corrupted guru is a problem, but the student, like the user, is the real disease.
By extension, it is solely up to the individual student to cure her personal “disease” of vulnerability to the predations of others, not least including the yoga teacher whom she may have turned to for guidance and support.
3) Radical libertarianism represents the logical extension of hyper-individualism into the social realm. If you believe that the only proper way to see people is as individuals divorced from any consideration of social context, then it makes sense to see all norms or regulations established for the collective good as illegitimate and oppressive.
Again, you see this sort of reasoning in American society frequently: for example, the belief that any sort of gun control laws – even limiting convicted felons from acquiring machine guns! – is an intolerable infringement of individual liberty.
4) Combine hyper-individualist radical libertarianism with New Age magical thinking, and unrestricted teacher-student sex is easy to justify. Anyone who’s spent any time in the yoga world is probably familiar with New Age spiritual platitudes such as “everything is exactly as it’s meant to be,” “everything happens for a reason,” and so on. In general, this pairs nicely with hyper-individualist radical libertarianism, as it provides a “spiritual” explanation of why we should never concern ourselves with pesky issues of abuse of power and exploitation – after all, everything’s perfect just as it is!
Hence, Shayne assures us that “you cannot have sex with the wrong person — only a person that provides you with another intrinsic part of the whole that becomes your story”:
As with all action, its meaning is assigned by us, created by us, experienced by us and remembered by us . . . the very idea that you can project onto sex a special quality that may exist for you, but not for another, is arrogant, assuming and stepped in antiquated dogmatic ideology.
5) Logically, then, if a student ends up feeling sexually exploited by a yoga teacher, that is simply because she is “choosing” this negative perception. Notably, there are also many “Tantric” variations on this sort of irrational New Age thinking, which I won’t go into there as they weren’t featured in Shayne’s post. They do, however, come up in some related comments – and, I’m sure, are quite familiar to those who remember the recent Anusara debacle.
The Teacher’s Responsibility: Zero
Illogically, Shayne’s argument that exploited students “chose” their negative perceptions is presented in conjunction with an explanation that the reason that yoga teachers “sexually misbehave” today is “because they finally can”:
The majority of all yoga sex scandals involve one or more desperate devotes and a teacher who figures out, maybe for the first time in his or her hopelessly hip-less life, that they can get laid . . . They are doing what any male or female given sudden persuasive license would do when bombarded with adoring energy — engage it. Only the naive and emotionally underdeveloped would fall prey to it.
There is a horribly circular logic at work here: the exploited student is the “real disease” because she is “naïve and emotionally underdeveloped” – yet, when she is exploited by a power-hungry teacher, she is faulted for “assigning” a negative meaning to the encounter, rather than embracing it as an independent choice that she made to support her own self-development and spiritual growth!
Meanwhile, the teacher is conveniently off the ethical hook and gets a pass – and, no matter what his abuses of power, should presumably remain so to prevent oppression by dogmatic social norms.
Ethics, Community, and Tradition
Personally, I find Shayne’s argument so shallow that it would be laughable were it not for the fact that many yoga practitioners apparently embrace it quite fiercely.
Initially, I was shocked to see how much support his post was generating. Quickly, however, I realized that given its resonance with influential currents in the larger culture, its popularity is not so surprising.
Yoga, like any other tradition, necessarily evolves in interaction with the larger society of which it’s a part. If it didn’t, it would quickly lose its relevance and meaning to most people. Therefore, we can expect that variations of the cultural divides that we experience in the larger society will continue to replicate themselves within the yoga community.
As noted above, however, one dynamic that I’d really like to avoid is the establishment of mutually hostile camps that are constantly hurling hate at one another. Right now, I think we are pretty far from that point. But things can change quickly. And there’s no question that the tone in the yoga blogosphere has become frequently meaner in the past few years.
I’ve tried to avoid gratuitous meanness in this post by critiquing what I see as the central ideas in Shayne’s post, rather than attacking him as an individual. For all I know, he could be a great guy in other ways. On the issue of teacher-student sex, however, I believe that the views he’s advocating are dead wrong and need to be forcefully countered.
The contemporary yoga community needs to honor the historic yoga tradition by adapting it to speak to today’s needs and concerns. The Yama of Brahmacharya has informed the yoga tradition for thousands of years. Given the materialism, hedonism, and sexual confusion that trouble our society today, this is a particularly bad time to simply throw it out as antiquated “dogma.”
Instead, we need to reflect on how best to interpret and adapt this restraint to support the meaningful transmission of yoga in our time. Considering the profusion of recent scandals involving teacher-student sex in the yoga community and the incalculable suffering they have caused, the need to do so is urgent. Shayne’s provocative post is helpful to the extent that it spurs those of us who believe we must uphold sexual norms that protect vulnerable students in the yoga classroom – and, by extension, support and elevate the practice for everyone – to reflect on what we can do, and take action.
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Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. She holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. For more information visit her website.