Joanna Schroeder argues that recognizing the sexuality of yoga does not necessarily mean that yoga teachers who sleep with their students are abusive.
She bends over, all the way, sweat dripping from her cleavage up her chin, into her mouth. She exhales deeply, her face flushed. He steps behind her and pulls at her hips with both hands… Back, back, and even further back. She moans a little.
Later, she is on her back. He leans over her, pressing her knee against her chest. “Relax,” he commands, “breathe deeply.” She abides.
Hot scenario, right? That’s not a flower-and-Fabio-covered romance novel, that’s day-to-day practice in many yoga classes, and it’s not necessarily sexual.
But there is an intimacy to yoga, between a teacher and a student. Most yoginis I know—and I live in Los Angeles, so I know a lot—find one or two instructors they’re comfortable with and stick with them. Right now I have two whom I’m completely obsessed with. One reason I like them (a man and a woman) is that they don’t do a lot of that intimate touching… But they do adjust your position when needed. I’ve always had a good sense of when the touch has some sexual energy behind it. I can’t quite name the distinction, but it’s very real and I trust my instincts, and don’t return to that instructor’s class.
The inherent sexuality of yoga practice is receiving a lot of attention, due to a scandal wherein John Friend, the founder of the Anasura method—a method sometimes ridiculed by other yoga practitioners as being “melty”, calling Friend “King Melty Heart Mogul”—was found to be engaging in not just deeply amoral but also illegal activities, such as involving innocent people in buying/transporting drugs, or illegally freezing his employees’ pensions.
So all that may be true, in fact it probably is true.
But I want to speak to the sexual angle of John Friend’s behavior. YogaDork (who, despite the stupid name, is a leading voice in yoga on the Internet) calls Friend a “sexual deviant”. I’m not saying Friend isn’t a deviant, but I always wonder about that term. I mean, what exactly makes a person’s sexuality “deviant”? He allegedly sent kinky messages via Skype to married women. Okay, I see that this is an amoral thing to do, but is it “deviant”? It’s hard to say without knowing what the exact phrases were, but to me it isn’t deviant unless the receiver of the messages has made clear that she or he does not want this attention. Pursuing married women indicates a possibility of insecurity, sex or love addiction, or just loosey-goosey boundaries. But does that make him a deviant?
Maybe it does. But I don’t think so.
In Tom Matlack’s Good Feed Blog post, “Why Are So Many Male Yoga Students Really Perverts”, he contends that there are a lot of male yoga teachers and gurus who abuse the sexual nature of yoga and the power imbalance of guru-to-student. It’s almost like a woman is going to get into a downward dog, he’s going to touch her hips, and she’ll be rendered helpless to his desires because he’s the teacher and because yoga is some how inherently sexual, and give herself to him in a sort of vagina-brain stupor wherein her ability to consent is diminished.
See, I question that there truly is a definable power imbalance to this relationship. She isn’t required to take the course (as she would be at a university), she isn’t being graded, she can walk out of the room at any moment, and she can never return. She could even ask for her money back, and would most likely get it. She is not a child. She has agency, both sexually and with her spending dollars.
Of course there’s an imbalance if said student is also an employee or otherwise dependant upon the guru/teacher for his or her career. But is the basic teacher/student relationship, wherein a woman fully consents to have sex with her teacher, abuse? No. To imply that an adult woman somehow couldn’t make that choice is to compare women to babies.
Where I agree with Tom is that just because hot chicks are putting their lycra-covered asses in the air in a sweaty room doesn’t mean that a male teacher is rendered helpless to his sexual desires. That’s the basic tenant of the Myth of Male Weakness. You guys aren’t so weak that you’ll follow a boner straight into the slammer. You men have as much sexual agency as we do, and you can red-light your sexual behavior just as well as women. Good men control their sexual behavior every day, all around us.
It seems to me that it’s up to both the teacher and the student to “keep it on the mat”, as Tom says (Unless you’re both on the mat. That could get confusing… and uncomfortable). We must ask ourselves if we’d be this hard on a yoga teacher having sex with a student if the teacher were female and the student were male. My feeling is that almost nobody would have a problem with this scenario, as somehow, because the teacher is a woman and the student is an adult male, he would have enough sexual agency to resist her supposed sexual yoga-teacher prowess.
But I say this: if you’re gonna call teacher-student sex in the yoga community amoral or abuse, you gotta accept that power imbalance can go either way. The commenters on Tom’s piece offered a link to a piece in The Elephant Journal by a female instructor who admitted to the power imbalance inherent in dating her students. It’s a compelling argument, that the students were attracted to her because of her power, that they kept her on a pedestal, and that it was unhealthy.
But is that abuse? Kelly Morris, teacher and author of the Elephant Journal piece, says this about the power dynamic:
“There is no such thing as consensual in a relationship predicated on a power inequity. Period. Whether it’s your boss, your shrink, your guru, political leader, your rabbi or your priest, each one has a sacred duty to say “Tom/Sally, put your clothes back on. Now.”
But is your yoga instructor the same as your boss, your shrink or your rabbi? I’d argue that she isn’t.
If you’re in search of (consciously or sub-consciously) a power imbalance in a relationship, you’re going to find one. Whether it’s with your yoga teacher, the guy who helps you at the Geek Squad desk, or the girl you met in a coffee shop who seems to know way more than you about absolutely everything and isn’t afraid of telling you how wrong you are, you’ll seek and play out the role of the weak, dependant member of the pair in almost any relationship you have. That is, until you address what’s at the root of your personal dysfunction. (Caveat: When I talk about power imbalances, I’m not implying that consensual BDSM relationships are necessarily dysfunctional.)
In the case of John Friend, there clearly was an abuse of power, as he did have these relationships with his staff and students who depended upon his teachings in order to further their careers.
But in the case of your day-to-day yoga instructor, or even guru? Nah. Asking out an adult student, having sex with a student, or complimenting a student is not power abuse. It may be bad for a teacher’s career, however, as students like me will leave that class and not come back.
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