Earlier this week, a longtime Jivamukti yoga teacher found herself at the center of a $1.6 million civil suit involving allegations of sexual harassment. Considering the intimate nature of yoga as a physical practice, that such charges have begun surfacing should come as no surprise. What is shocking is the response, or lack thereof. Yoga is a beacon for people in distress. Even if you don’t hit the mat as a way to deal with trauma, body work can invoke buried memories. This lesson should have been learned.
Once a staple of many gyms and studios, you can’t find an "Anusara" class these days, thanks to sexual harassment and financial impropriety findings in 2012 against its founder, John Friend. In 2013, the first of what would become six complaints was filed against the dean of hot yoga, Bikram Choundury; it was filed by his own attorney. Hot yoga abides, but you’re less likely to see "Bikram" classes.
Now Jivamukti has come under fire, not because of its founders, but because of its teachers. First it was Dechen Thurman in 2014, alleged to have slept with many of his students. The response then was to question the motive of the person who made the accusations. Now comes a complaint against Ruth Lauer-Manenti, filed by a former student. In her suit, Holly Faurot claims that Jivamukti is more like a cult than a yoga school and uses yogic teachings to engender devotion, resulting in harassment and discrimination. The response has been to question Faurot’s motives. Both teachers remain on the studio schedule.
Before I ever entered Jivamukti’s studio in New York City in 2007, I was a trained yoga teacher. The consistent excellence of their classes made me consider their training, but I didn’t embrace their veganism platform so I merely practiced there. During my years at the studio, I witnessed plenty of calls for teacher worship, along with instructions for pooping, and requests to participate in animal advocacy. I marveled at the empire the founders had built by turning their not-so-mainstream ideals into a business. That distance did not mean my own practice had been trauma-free.
I first went to yoga to get in shape. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to get a divorce. Many times I would weep in class. The uncontrollable sadness and yearning for a love that had disappeared was reminiscent of the loss of my first love, a man who’d drowned in his mother’s swimming pool. Back then my response had been to bury the pain, which took me down a shame spiral of drugs and alcohol. I couldn’t let that happen again, so I moved to India to study yoga and meditation. I didn’t know if it would work, but I already knew my way hadn’t.
Here’s the thing — I was 39, childless, and relatively debt-free. In other words, I was able to do something incredible in response to my trauma. I understand this opportunity was a grace I didn’t deserve. But I didn’t let that stop me from snatching up the chance that most don’t get. As a result of the healing I experienced, I’ve happily encouraged other trauma survivors to practice yoga. Without having to leave home, I’ve seen thousands of students get better — emotionally, physically and mentally — through the practice of yoga postures. Even when, like me, they didn’t start practicing in search of something more meaningful weight loss. To them I say, "join us!" Because I know the practice will work when they’re ready if they need it. Unless, of course, their trauma is exploited.
Whether the plaintiff was exploited in this case is yet to be determined. In the court of public opinion, however, the damage is done.
The response from Jivamukti founders astonishingly bad. In the sole reply I’ve come across to date, founders David Life and Sharon Gannon don’t concede that there was a relationship between their teacher and the plaintiff, instead denying any wrongdoing. Then they go on to offer this: "A person sees what they want to see… If a person is focused on money every thing they encounter is conditioned by that thought. If a person is thinking of sex they will see others around them in that light. If a person sees themselves as a victim they will see others around them as either victims or perpetrators."
To make such an emotionally tone-deaf response to these mounting condemnations is wrong on a human level, while also managing to miss common sense business practice. Look at the difference between what happened recently with morning TV stars Kelly Ripa as compared with Ann Curry. Both women were treated badly by their networks, but the "Live with Kelly and Michael" star and her network were very public throughout, whereas Curry and NBC became embroiled in blame and subterfuge. That didn’t stop a book from coming out in 2013, describing the cutthroat politics of morning shows, nor did it stop ABC from overtaking NBC in the ratings.
In a sense, these are two separate issues. There is the cult of personality inherent in any self-improvement movement, be it religion, a cult, or yoga. Then there is the idea that the bigger a business gets, the more its mistakes will be made and felt. If a business is to survive, it needs to address its problems, not blame its victims.
Knowing that yoga attracts people in search of healing makes it all the more urgent to respond proactively. Sensitivity training should become a required component of teacher programs. As a yoga school, Jivamukti could lead the way. At the very least, Yoga Alliance should speak up.
Instead, I (and I assume others, because I’m not affiliated with a big studio), have been encouraged to keep quiet in the interest of not feeding into sensationalism. Or not speaking badly about another person? Honestly, I’m not sure which. And I’m not interested in either. But after a season that included "The People vs. OJ Simpson," which dredged up memories of how badly we treated Marcia Clark (and Hilary Clinton still), and the TV drama "Confirmation," beyond the business aspect of this, I am personally invested. And I am personally responsible if I don’t say something.
Of course, there’s a part of me that wants to hunker down and wait for the winds to blow over. But there’s a higher wisdom that says this is an opportunity to make yoga even more welcoming. If nothing else, yoga has taught me dedicate myself to listening to the wisdom within. The real shame would be to let bad publicity of a very few tarnish the opportunity for many.