A deep yoga practice, in this current social and political climate, requires activism.
Almost every yoga lineage now has a senior teacher at its helm who has perpetrated abuse; mostly sexual violence, but also physical violence (see Matthew Remski’s list at the end of my Justice Manifesto for details). Many popular spiritual gurus and Buddhist organisations are also now being found to be rife with abuse.
I realise that most of us would rather get our mats out, close the doors and retreat into our practice. And there is so much value in that. But right now, this is not enough. Staying silent is not an option. Like the mother who turns a blind eye when the father abuses her child, she is then complicit in the abuse. She may not have physically committed the act, but she has enabled it. And to not stand up and speak out at this time is inadequate and negligent and goes against the underlying principle of yoga to do no harm (ahimsa).
And yet the responses we are witnessing from both the yoga/spiritual communities and the institutions employing the abusers are woefully inadequate, uninformed and deeply harmful. The responses from the yoga/spiritual community are suggestive of grooming; implying the abuse was in some way compassionate, or a way for the teacher to impart deep learning, or that the victim may be mistaken or lying, or by responding with “I was never abused and no one I know was abused”, or shifting the focus off the abuse and onto how wise the teacher is.
The responses from the institutions employing the abusers show that they have acted as nothing less than enablers; taking years for reports to be taken seriously meanwhile allowing the teacher to continue teaching and abusing, not acknowledging the abuse or validating the victim, shifting the focus away from the abuser once it does finally become public, not apologising, still employing them even after they have been found guilty or decertified. This makes a mockery of yoga.
From my personal experience of sexual violence (which was in a domestic setting), I know the response to abuse by the community can be more damaging than the actual abuse itself. And, in fact, what is happening in the yoga world is playing out exactly the same way as in a domestic abuse situation. The supporters of the abuser band together and speak badly of the whistleblowers. They shift the focus away from the violence perpetrated by the abuser and onto the victim's behaviour. They deny the abuse, propose alternative facts and distort the truth (gaslighting). They insist that there are two sides to every story as though the victim was in some way responsible, while complacently supporting the abuser.
A clear and insightful guide on how to respond competently, either as an individual, as part of a community or from within an organisation, has been written by Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke in their article for Yoga International, How to Respond to Sexual Abuse within a Yoga or Spiritual Community. I think the ideas and suggestions in this article need to be better understood by individuals and society as a whole, not just the yoga/spiritual community.
The word yoga means to ‘yoke’. To tie together. To connect. Yet this connection is worthless when it happens in isolation. Sitting alone in a cave in the mountains achieving enlightenment is of no value to us if the village in the valley is being ripped apart by war. There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together”. The yoga and spiritual world is full of people who have countless hours of self practice connecting deeply with themselves, but who can’t connect with someone when they speak of their pain.
Neurobiology demonstrates to us that integration and connection is a way towards wellbeing. Science shows us that our nervous systems are designed to communicate. The science of the brain, interpersonal neurobiology, developmental science and psychology all show us that how we relate to each other is intimately linked to the health of our social, political and environmental surrounds and individual happiness. It is my view that we all have an ethical duty to make an active stand against division to create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. Climate change itself has been created by individuals’ desire for money, power and acquisition. Personal advancement, even of the spiritual kind, is worthless when it excludes other people.
There is a mantra in yoga which translates as, “I am that” (So 'ham) meaning 'I identify myself with the universe'. And there is an African philosophy called Ubuntu which grounds this reality into the phrase “I am because we are” meaning we are all connected through our common humanity and an individual’s wellbeing is tied up in the wellbeing of others. We are social beings with social brains. If one of us is abused, we are all abused. If one of us is silenced, we are all silenced. If one of us is betrayed, we are all betrayed. As Louis Cozolino, a psychologist whose more recent writings focus on how the human brain has evolved into a social organ, said, “We are not survival of the fittest. We are survival of the nurtured.”
If we can begin to truly take care of each other on a soulful level, we begin to protect the happiness and health of all of us, beyond human beings and including all life forms, including the planet itself. In this current climate this is desperately needed.
And if we are to truly practice yoga, then we must live by its foundational principles of truth and ‘do no harm’ (Satya and Ahimsa) and apply them to the sexual violence that has arisen in our yoga shalas, studios and communities in order to end the division, fragmentation and disconnection that has come from the abusers’ unresolved shadows. Whilst we associate ourselves, our work and our practice with ‘gurus’ or lineages that have abused or enabled abuse, we are giving out the message that we will turn a blind eye to abuse within our work. It is wrong to remain silent on the abuse that our teachers have carried out, and to continue to work within their framework, quoting them and supporting them. We need to move away from being peacekeepers and instead become truth tellers. Sometimes the truth is heinous, uncomfortable and shocking. But naming it, to me, is more spiritual than avoidance, smokescreens, stonewalling and distorted dissociation.
Deep yoga requires activism.
“The real power belongs to the people.” Greta Thurnberg