Abuse in Yoga
The most essential gift yoga gives us is the ability to practice self-awareness, kindness and compassion. In embarking on this self-development journey we seek guidance from teachers who have been on the path longer and have more experience. And unconsciously we trust that because they are a “Teacher,” that they have mastered enough of their own self-development that they feel the calling to share their discoveries with others.
We expect yoga teachers to be ethical, to have worked through their issues, and maybe even sought therapy to help them better understand their issues (and we all have issues). We get into yoga to become the best versions of ourselves and we believe our teachers have done the same. We expect they will encourage us to become aware of who we are and show us where we get stuck with compassion.
“Unfortunately, as yoga becomes more mainstream and many practitioners diverge from the true intentions of the practice, students and teachers find their trust replaced with a sense of physical mastery and competition.”
Learning to trust is an integral aspect of the path to self-awareness. We need to believe in ourselves and our ability to transcend the struggles in our current lives in order to see change. The entire practice of yoga centers around learning to trust ourselves and so we project that trust onto our teachers.
This faith carries over into the student-teacher relationship as yoga teachers have the ability to help students become more aware. In turn, a good teacher will return the transference to the student so they can learn to trust themselves. When this reciprocal respect is honored among student and teacher the possibilities for growth are endless.
However, having faith that the teacher is worthy of our respect needs to be taken more seriously than it has in the previous years. You see psychotherapy is a new endeavor, only 100 years old. And yoga practices date back thousands of years. Most spiritual practices fail to address and cannot integrate the psychological shadows of the individual.
Ken Wilbur stated in his work: “The Religion of Tomorrow” that the future of spirituality will have the combination of psychotherapy and yoga and meditation.
“Dr. Roger Walsh, a psychiatric professor at UC Irvine, and also a Buddhist teacher, says that during meditation retreats, when he meets personally with students, about 80 percent of the questions he gets are best answered, not with meditation responses, but with responses based on basic psychotherapeutic techniques. If he is anywhere near right, this means that the average teacher is giving less than adequate responses to his or her meditation students 80 percent of the time, response that are not dealing with the real issues directly.”(Ken Wilbur, page 152).
At some point we must seek better teachers with credentials. Today, teachers take a weekend “teacher training” and start teaching. Even “authorized” or “certified” are only marketing words that are empty of any real learning of how to teach yoga from a psychotherapeutic perspective. Students and teachers need to be more aware and educated around issues of transference, narcissism, charisma and manipulation as warning signs of potential abuse.
Unfortunately, as yoga becomes more mainstream and many practitioners diverge from the true intentions of the practice, (also see Yoga and Mental Health post.) students and teachers find their trust replaced with a sense of physical mastery and competition. Which, in turn, is a good way to mask the real discomfort of mental pain. The relationship no longer centers around mutual self-respect but instead on becoming “better at doing a yoga pose,” but nobody has reached enlightenment by the practice of this modernized, fitness-ized yoga.
Many of us become attracted to the idea of studying with a famous yoga teacher. Perhaps we sincerely believe this particular teacher’s skill will help us take our practices to the next level. We may see them as a facilitator to fulfill our physical and spiritual potential. But we need to remember to look at our teachers’ actions, not just their words or yoga poses. Are they kind? Are they respectful? Do they have values and morals? It is worth investigating before we blindly trust someone and put them on a pedestal.
Many serious yogis fall into the trap of giving more energy to who they study with than to their personal practice which is an easy trap to fall into. We are wired to avoid the uncomfortable and pursue pleasure. So the reason why we start to practice yoga in the first place seems to fall by the wayside and habituated relationship patterns take over again. Yoga teachers with less than honorable intentions know this about new students and often take advantage of pupils who are vulnerable and seeking the love, guidance, and acceptance of a reputable yoga master.
As gross as this seems, abusive yoga teachers are more common than students may think. Inappropriate touching, correcting, or even spreading shame and doubt to students happens more than the yoga community would like to admit.
This abuse is not gender/sex-specific. Female students allow themselves to be touched, manipulated, talked to inappropriately by male teachers and female teachers perpetuate the cycle because they do not know any better and think that’s the way it’s supposed to be done. In fact, abuse is a generational epidemic and it is worth getting to the core of the issue so we can prevent it from spreading even further into the yoga community.
Although inappropriate yoga teachers are much more prevalent than the community may like to admit, students do not have to allow themselves to fall victim. Instead, activating our personal power can not only stop abuse from happening to us, it can keep abuse from spreading even further into the yoga arena.
We all have the ability to increase our self-esteem and establish boundaries with anyone whom we choose to step onto the mat. If we choose to stand up and stop allowing teachers to get away with abuse and misconduct we can make yoga a safer place for all students.
What is Misogyny and How Do We Experience it In Yoga
Misogyny is defined as the hatred of women and girls. It is evidenced by the social exclusion, discrimination, hostility, belittling, violence against, and objectification of women. When we read sentences like that, we find it hard to believe that this mentality still exists in the world today. But, misogyny is found in many sacred texts, religions, and mythologies and is still prevalent in government and social structures today.
Misogyny has been the way of the world for eons. Every micro-aggression that goes on in our environments and our families is an example of the abuse that many of us still think we have to endure because that is the way it has always been. It’s a mindset. And as difficult it is to change patterns of the body by working on a “yoga pose”, it is even more difficult to change the mind and it’s habituated emotional reactive patterns. Shifts in mindset take a very long time, generations even. While we have admittedly come a long way when it comes to the prevalence of misogyny in our culture, we still have a long way to go.
We are all products of a misogynistic culture. And we contribute to it every time we allow the transgressions to occur. To think that any spiritual teacher can transcend that ingrained hardwired culture alive for millions of years through only spiritual practices – specifically asana disguised as a spiritual practice – is magical thinking. It is time to wake up and grow up and be empowered.
How We Experience Life When We Remain Open to Abuse
If you experienced some sort of abuse as a child, be it neglect or physical abuse, unconsciously you will likely be attracted to a yoga teacher that is abusive. Students often put all our idealistic projections onto teachers as if we were children looking for that glimpse of “being seen” by someone who we believe is enlightened and has worked through all their issues (specifically their ego development stages including the narcissistic stage – the “look at me” stage) and are at an altruistic stage or a non-dual spiritual state of consciousness.
When students misalign their focus on more of what the teacher can give them than what they can give themselves through yoga, they can find themselves caught up in a dynamic that is no longer serving them in a loving capacity but instead relies on a power struggle. The interactions between student and teacher start to resemble that of a neglected child where the student behaves in a subservient manner and the teacher becomes dominant.
So we regress to this stage of development when we needed to be seen but were not. And we keep looking for the feeling of being loved, but we are looking in all the wrong places. Anything that we seek externally for validation or simply to be seen, any external quest for these feelings will lead to disappointment and pain. Suddenly, the relationship is manipulative, controlling, punishing, and derogatory. Yoga students ultimately find themselves in an emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive relationship with their teacher simply because they fell prey to wanting the teacher’s validation.
When we allow ourselves to experience misogyny and abuse, whether firsthand or through others, we are admitting to the universe that we believe certain people are more powerful than we are. We allow ourselves to exist in a world where we are less than. This mentality sabotages our self-esteem. Continuing to victimize ourselves leads us to perpetuate our ingrained feelings of not being good enough. Ultimately, if we continue to have relationships with the abusers, we will repeatedly internalize the idea that we are not love-able.
Translating this experience to the yoga room, we become the student who allows the teacher to cross a line physically and over adjust us in a pose. We become the student who internalizes the master’s criticism feeling like our bodies are not strong enough, our poses are not perfect. And at the very least, continuing to support abusive teacher-student relationship perpetuates the spread of misogyny.
The problem with allowing this behavior to continue is that abuse, whether physical or emotional has devastating effects on both parties involved. Perhaps the biggest detriment to an abusive yoga practice is that it destroys self-esteem and self-worth. Which is exactly the opposite of what yoga is about. In most cases, both the abuser and the abused have early childhood experiences with shame and their belief in themselves is already damaged. As abuse continues, they pass this damage onto the next victim causing them to experience anxiety, depression, panic attacks, dissociation, and PTSD.
So, by allowing it to occur, and by keeping silent, we are unable to firmly stand in our worth or our efficacy and we begin to believe there are those who are better and more powerful than we are. Living in this way brings about a regression and we find ourselves existing in a state of our less-developed selves. Thus, we express the childlike tendency of needing external validation from those we have placed in a position of power over us.
In the end, abuse is a power game and the abuser becomes the person who has control over us. To break free from the struggle, we need to have courage to speak up, practice self-compassion, support, and kindness to help us cultivate an internal sense of support and self validation that will last the rest of our lives.
When You Free Yourself from Abuse in the Yoga Studio
Though rates of abuse inside the yoga community are higher than any yogi wants to admit, it is entirely possible to devote yourself to your practice without succumbing to others’ misconduct. Choosing to stand on your own and choosing teachers that are compassionate solidifies your place in the world as a powerful individual. This causes you to grow up and heal your emotionally-blocked self behind. Eventually, you will no longer feel the need to act out as a neglected/abused child.
Instead, you become self-reliant and a person who no longer needs external validation from anyone to feel love and be powerful. You can absolutely rebuild your self-esteem and regain a healthy sense of self. Right now is a great time to start standing up to instances of misogyny and abuse.
With the MeToo movement more and more women are willing to call all the ugly out, to say in this moment, inspired by all the women who are standing up and have the courage to speak, with broken hearts and wounds that run so deep, with the fear of being judged and criticized and not believed…Full power Kali is online. Let’s take advantage of this movement, let us rise and speak out out truth, we have a responsibility to hold all the teachers who have abused their power accountable. So we can live in a safer place where any kind of disrespect, physical or emotional abuse is not acceptable anymore, we do not need to remain silent. By remaining silent we are supporting them.
It is Possible to Take back Control of Your Yoga Practice
The first thing to do to take back control of your yoga practice is to identify your triggers. Notice how your body feels when you are in the yoga room. Is the room safe? Is the teacher holding the space or manipulating the space?
To develop the courage to stand in your own personal power against the potential for abuse in the yoga studio is to tend to the areas of your development that were not seen or nurtured in your childhood. You want to get to a place where you are aware that you want the attention but no longer need validation from these “famous” teachers or people in power. To realize that you do not need validation from anyone except yourself is a life-long practice.
Once you have practiced and cultivated a sense of unconditional love for your self yourself rather than rely on external gratification, you can begin to do the hard work of breaking the abuse cycle. To do this you can choose to stand up and lean into the discomfort. Acknowledging that the abuse has taken place, and calling attention to it is the best way to keep it from spreading. When you find this particularly difficult you can remember those who don’t have the power to speak for themselves.
Another way to keep misogyny from impacting your life is to learn to stay away from the environments where you are vulnerable to abuse. This is easier to recognize when abuse is verbal or physical, but emotional abuse and manipulation can be more difficult to see. Once you become educated about the signs of abuse, you can start to recognize when it is happening and learn strategies to break away from it.
Every time you find yourself in abusive situations, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, you are wounded and traumatized. The more you know about abuse and abusers, the more you are able to hold others accountable and prevent them from hurting you or other victims. Ultimately this knowledge empowers you to do something different.
One thing to try is to recognize the triggers that make you most uncomfortable. Perhaps it was a comment made by your teacher or fellow student or a phrase, look, or feeling in the studio. It’s not easy to break the cycle. In fact, the more ingrained it is in you, the more difficult it is. But if you can learn what it is that makes us uncomfortable, you can begin to pay attention to it and take back your power.
If you are struggling to overcome an instance of abuse, or want to learn to take a stand to help others, call to schedule a session today Contact Me.