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Livestream on the Culture of Silence in Ashtanga

abuse culture of silence Jun 29, 2019

For the last year and a half or so, I’ve been feeling weighed down by the constant news about abuses of power - in the world, in spiritual practice communities generally, and in yoga specifically. Realizing the scale of how often students find themselves feeling pressured or abused by their teachers has been truly heartbreaking.

For me it’s been like a slow-boiling pot. In the last few years, the revelations within the yoga world, coupled with our country’s leadership, have been almost too much to bear. It feels like we have reached (or are nearing) a tipping point, and it’s past time to push back, shift how things are done, and try to create healthier environments. We are in the midst of an extreme situation in the Ashtanga community, broadly speaking, but what does this look like in our own lives? For me, it’s a generalized anger and a very deep drive to do a better job as a teacher in our community.

There’s a culture of silence in Ashtanga yoga, and that’s what provoked me to do an Instagram story last week. In it, I asked my followers if they had experienced abuses of power by their yoga teachers, and whether they said anything about it. About 200 people responded, and more than 65% told me that they didn’t say anything when they felt that a teacher had abused  their power. Sadly, this came as no surprise to me, although it was incredibly disappointing to see it laid out so clearly.

This was a very unofficial survey that I simply did through Instagram stickers. Most of the people who responded were women, although several men also responded that they did not speak up when they felt that they were in abusive or pressured situations.

After the survey, I messaged some questions to everyone who said they had felt an abuse of power, and many people responded to help me get a better idea of their situations. One thing that became clear to me from this online discussion is that abuse of power can look very different to different people. It comes in different shapes and forms, and doesn’t always look like we might expect it to.

Abusive behavior can take the shape of over-adjustment or of a student being ignored altogether; it can mean sexual advances and inappropriate touching; it can mean having private lessons and other services pushed too aggressively. It can come from teachers of any gender. Whatever form it takes, it’s consistently a matter of teachers using their position of power to get what they want - whether that’s in the form of money, sex, an ego trip, or anything else. As a teacher who considers her responsibility to her students to be the absolute highest priority, I was heartbroken by the response. This practice has been such a gift in my life, and it makes me so sad and angry to see people’s journeys and their lives derailed by their teachers.

I know that students don’t always speak up to their teachers, even under normal circumstances. We see it all the time with asana adjustments, after all. And if what happens on the mat is a metaphor for life, I have to wonder - what aren’t students speaking up about, and why?

Based on my informal surveys and my own experience, there are several reasons:

  • Fear of being ostracized from the community
  • Fear of retaliation from the teacher or other students
  • Concern over losing their place to practice
  • Feeling of being ignored or not taken seriously when trying to address concerns
  • Self-doubt - why does everybody else seem to be having a good experience?
  • Lack of context/perspective - it can often be incredibly difficulty to recognize a negative situation without a more positive one to compare it to

Unfortunately, it seems that students often put the teacher’s feelings and well-being ahead of their own.

Power Dynamics in the Student Teacher Relationship

Abuses of power typically happen because of imbalanced power dynamics. Students often don’t realize their own power - after all, a teacher isn’t a teacher without students - but students are typically more vulnerable in their reliance on the teacher’s instruction and presumed knowledge. The teacher is the professional in this situation. It is up to the teacher to establish a framework for the relationship, and to ideally establish an empowering environment for students to learn and grow. All too often, though, people misuse positions of power for their own gain.

Think of a time, whether in yoga or anywhere else, when you felt something was off and you rationalized it. What motivated you to rationalize it?

  • fear?
  • reliance?
  • shock?
  • perspective?
  • community?
  • something else?

There are all sorts of answers, and often many different factors and conscious thoughts and instinctual reactions go through one’s mind in difficult situations. The fact is, though, that we need to create an environment where the burden of safety isn’t on the students. It never should’ve been in the first place.

And as a student? If you don’t feel able to communicate something to your teacher, that can be a huge red flag. Maybe nothing inappropriate is happening, but feeling unable to speak up can signal a power imbalance that could lead to difficult situations in the future. Talk to your fellow yogis, try new classes and teachers - if a studio or class doesn’t feel like somewhere that you can thrive as a whole person, it unfortunately just might not be. Trust your instincts.

How can teachers create a safer community?

Clear Ethics. If you’re a teacher, you should know that you’re doing it for the right reasons. This isn’t to say that most of us aren’t, but it’s easy to leave things unexamined. As a teacher, look at what it is you’re trying to do, and ask yourself if your teaching style is in line with these goals. Be flexible in understanding yourself, but be strict in sticking to whatever you consider your ethical priorities to be. Maintain your integrity and practice what you preach (or, rather, practice what you teach!).

Clear Boundaries with Individuals. The deeply personal nature of a yoga practice can often make the boundaries of professionalism appear blurry. They are not. A student’s personal yoga journey is theirs - not yours. Make the effort of understanding your student’s goals and boundaries, and understanding what they need from you as a teacher. Make a practice of not overstepping these lines; make it clear that they can ask for more help if they need it, and hold the space that they’ve asked for. Empower your students from the first moment they walk in the door.

Clear Boundaries in the Community. You cannot be a teacher and be part of the “gang.” Maintaining clear boundaries isn’t just about your students’ space in the studio, but outside of it as well.

Focus on the Journey. Teachers aren’t just there for instruction, but also for mentorship on what the long journey of a yoga practice looks like. Part of this is in the fact that you won’t be the student’s only teacher, and you shouldn’t be. Don’t use teaching to secure your “clientele,” but to encourage your students to learn broadly and curiously, in fields other than your own and from people other than yourself. Remember that you are not the sole possessor of the wisdom the student is looking for on their journey, and remember that their journey is the priority.

Have a Support System. As someone who professionally holds space for others, it’s important as a teacher to have support systems outside of the community who hold space for you. Whether it’s a therapist, a friend, a mentor, a colleague, or whoever else, having someone who holds space for you can help you maintain perspective on your own actions and decisions, and can help you be aware of the mistakes you might not have even known you were making.

Be Receptive to Feedback. When people you trust offer you their thoughts, listen. It’s hard to see our own behavior clearly, and it can be difficult to separate our actions from our intentions; the perspective of others can help us to see when what we’re trying to do isn’t what we’re actually doing.

Ashtanga: Moving Forward 

I believe in Ashtanga as a system for learning hatha yoga.

As practitioners, we’re always trying to get to the root of why we practice. The goal of yoga, and Ashtanga especially, isn’t to perfect the practice - it’s to use your practice to perfect your life. If you’re clear with yourself about what you want from the practice, it can be easier to know when you’re not getting that, and when situations aren’t benefiting you. Teachers (and practitioners) can be excellent at asana technique but not be particularly developed spiritually, and, on the flip side, one’s technique might not look very good but might nonetheless bring the practitioner immense satisfaction and spiritual well-being. The point is, there is more to this practice than the technique. And if your moral and ethical and spiritual warning bells are going off, if you don’t feel like the reality of your practice with a teacher or studio is in line with your goals, sometimes the best next move you can make is to move on.

As the new generation of Ashtanga practitioners, and teachers, we get to take on the mantle of this tradition. You get to decide what the future looks like, and you get to decide the people you want to learn from. We own our own traditions, and every tradition has been formed by people at some point down the line saying, “This is how things are going to be done from now on.” Traditions are constantly evolving, and this time of distress can be a time of enormous opportunity to change things for the better, to set new boundaries and new standards and to stop supporting those who don’t support you in your journey of transformation.

The only teacher you should devote yourself to is the teacher within yourself. This is my goal for all my students, and this is why it’s always my hope that my students will outgrow me - my voice as a teacher should only serve to help you better listen to your own inner voice.

I’ll wrap this up with a line from the closing mantra: May our strong leaders bring joy to all beings. This is not a declaration about the kind of leadership we already have, but an instruction on the kind of leaders we should all strive to be. The strength of a true leader is one that can only come from within, and it’s a strength that encourages others to find their own. It’s a strength I seek every day, and a strength that takes as much dedication as anything else in this practice. This moment in time is as much a part of the practice as anything else, as we face these existential questions about our tradition and our system. I hope you’ll come along with me on this journey, to transform our community, to transform ourselves, and to transform the world around us.

If you have been the victim of a sexual assault here is a resource that you might find helpful:

Want to be a better teacher? How about a better practitioner? Join my Online Interactive Teacher Development Program. Registration is open now. Course begins July 13. Not sure if it's for you? Email me at [email protected] to discuss.

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About Jen René

Hey there! I'm a dedicated Ashtanga teacher and fourth series practitioner. I'm also a Pilates enthusiast. I taught my first class in 2005. And since then I have learned lots of amazing tricks that can help you on your own yoga journey.


Connect with Me! @jenreneyoga