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Guru and his followers: risks of power abuse in yoga world

“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.”

– Edmund Burke

Since the time thousands years ago when yoga discipline started to emerge and formed to the teachings, it was generally recognized that the relationships between a teachers and their student are central to the transmission and teaching of yoga, and play an important role in the transformation potential this discipline has to offer.

Yoga grew in popularity and in the past century expanded to the Western world and inhabited there many different settings - yoga studios, gyms, outdoor festivals, but also therapists´ treatment rooms etc. And still, until recently, there has not been a true dialogue about the nature of such relationship, not a real discussion of the ethics of being a yoga teacher in the modern Western context.

Let's return for a moment to the written roots of the yoga discipline - Patanjali's Yoga Sutras - where we can see the undisputable role of ethics in the whole concept of yoga. As Patanjali suggests “to truly embody the essence of teachings of yoga, [yamas] must be practiced as universal moral principles, unrestricted by conditions of birth, place, time or circumstance” (Sutra II.31 in Bryant, 2009). “Regardless the style or tradition of yoga we might be teaching, all yoga traditions share a common value: that the essential nature of each individual is intrinsically whole, good and free. The yogic precepts for ethical living, the yamas and niyamas, are empathic declarations of this inherent goodness, which is apparent whenever the illusion of separateness falls away.” summarizes Donna Farhi (2006). And still, yoga world manifests itself sometimes as a stage set altogether for a power abuse.

Historically, yoga origins in the tradition of “guru and his followers”, in which an adept for attaining moksha (realization or liberation), studied under a guru, a spiritual master, who passed on his knowledge. The adept was subject to the guru’s acceptance and after being approved as a student, he must have complied with his guru’s instruction without any objections. Thus, this relationship is a great example of power-over: the one who is guru has all the power, the one in the role of student doesn't have any. But even though this configuration can be potentially a hatchery of power misuse, it might have been functional in the times when yoga was a sacred practice and the teachers or gurus were really the enlightened ones. Nowadays the discipline of yoga lost its exclusivity, purpose of the practice has been dissipated, yoga proliferated into the everyday life of masses and one can becomes a yoga teacher not after achieving the state of moksha, but after 200 hours of training. Therefore keeping the model of “guru and his followers” could be indeed harmful. Yoga is a setting where people gather often in search for safety and guidance and as many revealed cases have shown, some of the yoga students really fall prey to charismatic, but dissolute “gurus”, who exploit their students´ subordinate position.

In the past few decades, several senior yoga teachers from different yoga styles and backgrounds were involved in repeated abuse, sexual harassment, rapes and other violations against their students. In several cases of students victimized by their yoga teachers, part of the picture was also their previous interpersonal trauma history. As we will explore further the possible aftermaths of complex trauma, we might understand that it might not be by coincidence. Within the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship the past implicit responses to power may be recalled, brought up and reenacted. I dare to assume that if there is a crowd of followers in front of a teacher or “guru”, who doesn't use consciously his/her power, it will be the trauma survivors who might be more inclining to be victimized by their teacher´s acts of dominance. Even though the cases which were taken to the court and covered by the media are maybe the extreme example of power abuse, there are unresolved power imbalance or misconception issues happening in the yoga studios on the daily basis. Quite common examples in the yoga environment are students feeling forced to follow everything their teacher says, even if in other settings they would speak up. Donna Farhi (2006) gives an example of a woman who is inappropriately touched by a stranger on a bus, reacting immediately and calling it sexual assault, yet the same woman in the context of a yoga class is uncertain as to the appropriateness of her yoga teacher placing his hands on her genitals. In the yoga setting sometimes students don't dare to say no and they follow their teachers´ instructions even if something doesn't feel right, even if they are very uncomfortable, experiencing pain or psychological distress - maybe feeling too ashamed or uncomfortable to say no to physical adjustments, maybe scared of the teacher’s condemnation if they don't comply. For the yoga students who are also trauma survivors, it can be even more challenging to take effective actions in situations which are highly activating or triggering, as their response to the power domination is compromised by previous trauma. In such a constellation, students´ power-from-within is minimized proportionally to power-over claimed by the yoga teachers. If they iterate their embedded responses to the power dynamics (which they have adopted in order to survive in the past), if they are implicitly encouraged (or sometimes also explicitly instructed) to push their limits, to suppress their inner feelings, yoga might be rather re-victimizing than healing experience.

However startled we might feel by this manifestations of power abuse and misuse in yoga world, it is possible to detect some positive effects of the public revelation of those shocking cases and affairs. We can witness slowly growing sensitivity to the daily teacher-students interactions in the yoga classes. In the light of the cases of power abuse, the global culture of yoga teaching has been challenged, and business ethics start to be questioned. The urge to speak up against power-abusing behaviour within the yoga community has become stronger. The most serious violations provoked formation of several activist groups with visible outcomes - as for example the pledge “From Darkness to the Light”[1].

There was also a petition to the Yoga Alliance to add trauma-sensitive training to the basic 200-hour curriculum (Remski, 2016), which has not led to the full implementation so far, but at least resulted with more official attention towards healthy student-teacher relationships. It seemed that by these revelations the power-with was strengthened in the yoga community, people raised together their voice, discussions on abuse in the yoga world start to to be more common. It has pointed out the fundamental questions about the scope of practice for yoga teachers - belongs the trauma sensitivity and sense for social justice to the portfolio of all the yoga teachers? What kind of space is being cultivated by the yoga studio owners? Discussions expanded further to the yoga exclusivity: Who is welcomed in the yoga classes and who is not? Are we as yoga teachers holding enough space for people who are not mainstream Western yoga audience? The most active contributor to this discussion is Decolonizing Yoga[2] blog, where the misuse of the power in yoga world is discussed, where the voices of queer people, people of color and trauma survivors are highlighted. So the first steps have been done, but still long way to go to the conscious and socially just use of power.



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