Do You Want to Be Touched?
Rachel Brathen had no idea of the deluge headed her way when she asked her Instagram followers if they ever had experienced touch that felt inappropriate in yoga.
This was nearly two years ago. Ms. Brathen, 31 and a yoga studio owner in Aruba, heard from hundreds.
The letters described a constellation of abuses of power and influence, including being propositioned after class and on yoga retreats, forcibly kissed during private meditation sessions and assaulted on post-yoga massage tables.
The complaints also included being touched in ways that felt improper during yoga classes — essentially right in public.
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The hands-on teaching practices of some of yoga’s most celebrated gurus raise questions about consent.
More than 130 of the people who responded gave Ms. Brathen permission to turn their stories over to someone who could help bring accountability.
Other professionals whose work can involve touching people, such as massage therapists, are regulated by the government. Yoga teachers are not, and there are no industry trade groups that police these issues.
So Ms. Brathen, the author of “Yoga Girl,” wrote a few blog posts with redacted excerpts from the letters. That’s all that came from it.
About five months later, in April 2018, nine women went public in a magazine article about their treatment at the hands of one of yoga’s most important, influential and revered gurus.
Again, very little happened.
Disregarding complaints about unwanted touch, or much worse, has been the way of yoga for decades. Much of the yoga community has been slow or unwilling to respond, maybe because teachers are loath to discredit those they see as gurus. Additionally, many teachers have built their businesses and personal brands in part from associating with these figures.
The public, awash in terrible stories about abuse and harassment in gymnastics, Hollywood and more, may find yogis easier to dismiss as flaky flower children, or as self-promoting Instagram brand ambassadors.
In reality, yoga is one of the most accessible and popular forms of exercise worldwide, and the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar apparel-equipment-real-estate industry.
And while a conversation about touch and consent has been taking place in schools, churches, sports and medicine for some time now, the yoga studio remains a place where the simple act of unfurling a mat signals to many teachers — of good repute or not, of good intentions or not — that they can touch you as they see fit.
“A lot of the stories we received were centered around heart chakra, and the heart center, which is also where your boobs are,” Ms. Brathen said, referring to the letters she got. “So is it O.K. for someone to touch my breasts because my heart is there?”
Ms. Brathen said she saw a recurring theme. Students are told that yoga is a spiritual practice, “a big mysterious thing,” she said, so “if there is something we don’t understand, we’re going to trust what the teacher tells us.”
If you have taken classes called vinyasa, power yoga or flow yoga, you have practiced a version of Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga was popularized and named by a man named Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who died in 2009, when he was 93 years old.
Ashtanga, a physically arduous series of posture and dynamic moves, attracted celebrity practitioners, like Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Willem Dafoe and Mike D. They helped introduce Mr. Jois (pronounced JOYCE) and Ashtanga to Americans hungry for a Type A workout with a side of spirituality.
“He’s the one living guru of Ashtanga yoga,” Ms. Paltrow says in the 2003 documentary “Ashtanga, NY.”
Mr. Jois also helped to popularize so-called adjustments — how yoga teachers physically manipulate a student’s body. In the average studio today, adjustments can range from forceful maneuvering to get into certain poses to gentle alignments to avoid injury or to show students support during a challenging posture. Some teachers rely almost entirely on verbal cues.
But in many cases, Mr. Jois’s adjustments were not about yoga, some former students say. “He would get on top of me, make sure that his genitals were placed directly above my genitals, and he pushed my leg down to the floor and he would hump me,” said Karen Rain, now 53. “He would grind his genitals into my genitals.”
Because of the power and devotion Mr. Jois commanded, because these adjustments were meted out in public — which somehow normalized them — and because of the role that “letting go” plays in yoga, it took years, in some cases, for the women to make sense of their experiences.
“I tried to frame it that he was just adjusting me and that I was supposed to surrender to the asana” — a word that comes from Sanskrit and refers to yoga poses and movements — “and that there was some reason he was doing it that maybe I didn’t understand yet, that if I kept doing it, it would make sense someday, maybe,” Ms. Rain said.
She first met Mr. Jois in 1993 and became an enraptured disciple. “I was delusional,” she said.
Jubilee Cooke, now 54, studied with Mr. Jois in 1997. He groped her on a daily basis, she said.
“Pattabhi Jois came up from behind me while I was in full lotus position and he grabbed my crotch, he grabbed my genitals and swung me back, lifted me back so that I would land in a yoga push-up,” Ms. Cooke said.
He would lay on top of her, and grind into her, as he did with Ms. Rain. Sometimes he would stand behind her while she was in a forward fold. She could see him simulating sexual motions in the air, thrusting his pelvis at her.
She had traveled from Seattle to practice in India, planning to stay for three months. She stayed the duration, returning daily to his studio. “I was just caught up in the culture and what everyone else was doing,” she said.
Ms. Cooke, Ms. Rain and seven other women went public in 2018 in an article in a Canadian publication called The Walrus written by Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher. It described their experiences of being groped, kissed, even fingered through yoga tights.
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