Misogyny and Sexual Abuse in Yoga: The #MeToo Stories You Need to Know About

Posted by on February 5, 2018 in Conscious Living, Relationships & Sex with 0 Comments

By Rachel Brathen | Uplift Connect

The Secret We Can't Ignore

Rachel Brathen (@Yoga_Girl) shattered the yoga world when she collected more than 300 #MeToo experiences in what yogis thought was a safe and sacred space. She then shared them with the hope that shedding light on the issue will lead to change.

Women have been conditioned to not speak about it, or think that it’s just normal or mundane to be harassed or abused. But people have known about these abuses in the yoga community for decades. So, for now, the work is empowering women, to encourage them to keep the stories coming.

Here is her original blog post: 

I want to begin by extending my immense gratitude to every single person that has submitted a story over the past weeks. You are so brave. I believe you. And none of this was your fault. Thank you all for speaking up! I hope that shedding light on this issue will attribute to some sort of change. This post is not about my own #MeToo stories, but about the many women (and some men) that have been courageous enough to speak up. We have received over 300 submissions and many of these individual stories name the same yoga teacher again and again.

I was forced to seek legal advice before publishing this and to protect myself, every name has been censored out, along with details that could lead to the discovery of the predators. However–this does not mean that nothing is being done. In the cases where multiple women have spoken up about the same person, we are connecting the survivors together (with consent) to see if, as a group, they want to publicly speak the teacher’s name or better yet–take legal action. I have received amazing advice from some very prominent leaders within the community and feel so grateful to have the support of our community. Special thanks to Judith Hanson Lasater for her unwavering support and for empowering me to take action, to Colleen Saidman for her loving guidance and to Yoga Journal for deciding to shed light on an issue that’s been silenced for far too long. We will be petitioning for real change within this industry.

For now, read on. Note that what follows is explicit and can be triggering to some.

Shedding a Light on the Abuse

I have been aware of misogyny, abuse and harassment going on within the yoga world for years. In 2013, when I first started teaching internationally, I had an uncomfortable run-in with a famous male yoga teacher at a yoga festival (he is one of the censored names in several stories below). He was a well-known teacher and zeroed in on me while I was sitting on the grass talking to some friends. “You’re the Yoga Girl, right?” he said with a wink.

Sexual harassment in the yoga world
I have been aware of misogyny, abuse and harassment in the yoga world for years.

I’d never heard anything bad about him but he seemed like a fun, charismatic guy and when he asked if we could “film an Instagram video together” I said yes. After having shared a video of the two of us in a handstand on Instagram, I suddenly began receiving emails and private messages from women warning me; saying they had been sexually and/or physically abused by him. When the first email came in, I honestly didn’t give it much thought–as most of us, I have been conditioned not to believe a woman when she says she has been taken advantage of by a man. But soon, the messages came pouring in. Women from all over the world, many who had participated in his celebrated teacher trainings, were sharing stories of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by this man. I received messages from 12 different women in total. I couldn’t believe it; how was this guy possibly headlining a yoga festival? He should be in prison! The youngest girl who wrote me had only been 15 years old when he cornered her in a changing room of a yoga studio, shoved his hands down her pants and forced himself on her. Reading these stories I was absolutely distraught. I had a big social media presence already then but I was young and didn’t know what action to take. I started to carefully ask around and it wasn’t long until other teachers shared their own stories with me. Apparently, many people within the community knew about this man and that he was a predator, but no one had ever spoken up. Everyone was afraid.

I quickly deleted the Instagram video and later that evening, he approached me. “Don’t believe everything you hear”, he hissed under his breath. His eyes pierced mine and I felt shivers up and down my spine. I suddenly understood why no one had confronted him–he was terrifying. I decided I couldn’t be the one to out this man; if any real action were to be taken, it had to be by the survivors themselves. But they were all terrified.

The rumor was that a few prominent people and media companies had paired up to speak with him and warn him about his actions, but I’m not sure how that ever panned out. Seeing now that he is still out there teaching, and that I am still receiving stories about him and it’s 4 years later… It doesn’t seem like much was done. I regret now that I didn’t speak up. But we are in a different situation now–with the #MeToo movement, women all around the world feel empowered to share. We know now that we are not alone, and that when we shed light on the abuse, not only are we able to relieve ourselves of the blame but also; there is a big opportunity for change happening here.

The #MeToo movement
With the #MeToo movement, women all around the world feel empowered to share.

Below is a collection of stories submitted to me over the past week. Some women who shared their stories changed their minds last minute and no longer wanted it published, due to fear.

We have made no edits other than censoring out names and details.

Maybe This is Just Yoga?

I follow you on Instagram and saw your post about sharing your ‘me too’ story in the yoga world. Please keep this anonymous. The individual that I write about is still a teacher in my community.

I found yoga when I was 17 and I knew immediately that it was going to become an integral part of my life. I found an amazing studio that felt like a second home and started taking classes every day. After going to this studio for over a year, the owner, who also taught, started paying more attention to me; adjusting my poses, telling me which muscles to engage and release, which I liked because I wanted to learn as much as I could about the practice. He started giving me more ‘assists’ in class and I thought that it was ‘yoga’ so I never questioned it. At first they were appropriate, but they got more and more inappropriate. Then, one day in Savasana he sat above my head and stuck his hands down my bra and grabbed my breasts. I was uncomfortable, afraid, and did not know what to do. I thought, “Maybe this is just yoga?”, so I didn’t say anything. After the class, I left as fast as I possibly could because I was so uncomfortable. I legitimately didn’t know if it was unacceptable because he was a teacher. He was the person who knew the practice, and I trusted him. He did this ‘Savasana assist’ to me every single class I went to, me never saying anything about it. One day after class, after everyone had left the studio, he tried to kiss me and I told him that I had a boyfriend and wasn’t interested in him and he made me uncomfortable. He finally stopped giving me ‘assists.’

I don’t know why I was so afraid and confused because now, thinking back on it, I could have punched him in the face and screamed. But, he was the teacher and I just thought it was ‘all part of yoga.’ I’ve never told anyone because I was ashamed that I didn’t tell him to stop. But I was young, scared, and unaware.

I am now a yoga instructor and knowing how sacred this practice is–how much vulnerability and courage it takes to step onto your mat–I can’t believe that a teacher would take advantage of people because of those reasons. But they do. And I know I am not the only one who has experienced an assault in such a sacred space. I want to share my story in hopes that a young woman or man will read it and have the strength to know that saying “no” to anyone in the yoga world is acceptable.

Thank you for listening.

Maybe this is just yoga
“I thought, “Maybe this is just yoga?”, so I didn’t say anything.”

Yoga was My Safe Place and He Took That Away

First of all, thank you for putting the spotlight on these great ‘taboo’ issues!

I have been sitting on this huge secret for more than a year now because I don’t know how to describe it. Was it rape? Or what happened that day? All I know is that it has changed me forever; my insecurities have never been higher and my mental health plummeted down suddenly… Panic attacks and depression rule over my mind.

I have an injury that has left me 10% paralyzed and with chronic pain in my shoulder, I had previously tried everything possible to relieve this pain! Every treatment, you name it, and I can assure you I’ve tried it. Yoga was my last resort, I started practicing during summertime; my teacher was well older than me, a really experienced yoga teacher, and I had great respect for him! After almost 3 months of practice, I noticed how it was helping my injury. I could move around with almost no problem and my pain had relieved, as well.

My teacher suggested I try some massage treatments as well to speed up the recovery. Because I respected and trusted this person, I agreed to try this massage therapy once. Also, I had tried massage before so I didn’t believe it could do any harm. I was very wrong.

I arrive at the designated time for the massage. There was no one else at the yoga studio, only him and me. After I enter the room, he locks the door after him. I couldn’t help but feel a bit unsure or uncomfortable, but I brush it off, telling myself it is nothing because this is a business and it is professional. Everything proceeds as normal, the treatment starts and everything is fine, I’m very relaxed. Although as I assume he is finishing up, I feel his hand slowly slipping down my panties. I don’t know how to react. I removed it and asked him what he was doing! He told me it was part of the massage and that I should relax and enjoy. As foolish and scared as I was, I follow his orders. I could not relax. All I could think was what could happen if I denied? Where could I run? The door was locked! Soon after he pulls down my panties and puts his head between my legs. I tell him to stop and I push him away and off me but he forces it and holds me down. I feel the tears coming, but I try to hold them back. When he got enough, he smiles and tells me that I’ll never enjoy anything as much as I enjoyed that.

I hurry out to my car and drive home crying my eyes out, disgusted with myself. I had a boyfriend. How could I let this happen? Was I unfaithful or what did happen? I couldn’t define it then and I still can’t. Weeks and months after, this same man harassed me with messages, asking me to come over so he could please me, so he could make me dinner, asking me to join him and his wife, to be his mistress, etc. I never asked for this to happen yet his messages make me wonder if I am to blame for the incident. What is wrong with me?

Yoga was my safe place and he took it from me that day.

Yoga was my safe place
“Yoga was my safe place and he took it from me that day.”

He Grabbed My Ass, and Said Low in My Ear “God I Love my Job”

In 2013, the studio I teach at hosted a weekend intensive with XXX (founder of his own yoga style, prominent yoga teacher who has graced the covers of magazines). At the close of the program, all of the teachers who completed the intensive gathered for a group picture with him. I was directly next to him, and as my coworkers sorted themselves out and posed for the photo, XXX ran his hand down my back, grabbed my ass, and said low in my ear “God I love my job.”

I refused to go to the celebratory dinner and I have since refused to go around the studio when he comes back. The studio owner invites him back every year!

I’d like to remain anonymous for now. This is my livelihood. I don’t think the studio owner would believe me.

He Said “I Do this Just for Me” and Winked

I wish for this to be anonymous as I haven’t opened up to anyone but my boyfriend about it yet. I’m still struggling to define what this was.

XXX (very famous Los Angeles based yoga teacher) used to own a studio and I’m not sure what he is doing now. But, I went to classes at his studio occasionally. During one class in particular, he was making especially inappropriate comments and touching some women in weird ways like tickling their feet during Half Moon, etc. Towards the end of class we were in happy baby and he said “I do this just for me” and winked. I was so creeped out that I couldn’t enjoy the rest of class/Savasana and just laid there with my eyes open until the end. I never went back to another class.

Inappropriate comments
“We were in happy baby and he said “I do this just for me” and winked.”

I Felt Like He Had Some Sort of Power Over Me

I’m so thankful that you are talking about this. I’ve been struggling to find the strength to talk about this for a while. I had an experience with a powerful yoga teacher in LA when I was 18 (he was 65) that left me heartbroken, confused and hopeless.

The summer after I graduated high school, I decided to do a teacher training. During high school, yoga became the most important tool for me to deal with my eating disorder and other issues at home. I wanted to learn more about this practice that had been helping me so much, so I signed up for a teacher training with XXX (prominent yoga teacher in Los Angeles), a teacher I had heard great things about. He wrote a book called XXX, which I loved, and he seemed to be really well known in the community.

I wrote in my journal on the first day of the training that I felt like XXX had some sort of power over me. I wish I had paid more attention to that thought.

I was the youngest in the teacher training, but I took it very seriously. XXX called me “the baby” and paid extra attention to me, always giving me Shaktipat during Savasana. He said he had started down this path when he was my age, so I thought he just recognized that I was serious about yoga and meditation. I thought of him as a guru, and I did whatever he told me to do. I changed my diet to the raw vegan diet he preached, even though I knew it jeopardized my eating disorder recovery (I ended up relapsing). I started meditating as much as I could. I was desperate to have the bliss and peace that he talked about. I mistakenly thought that he was more powerful than me, partly because that’s what he told me. Partly because I was 18.

After the training, I went on a retreat with him and some other people from the training. On the first night, he took me to his room. I thought we were going to meditate. He started touching me and kissing me. My heart dropped and I froze completely. He asked me if I ever thought about him. I didn’t respond. He just kept going. He was naked on top of me when an older woman starting knocking on his door. She knew what he was doing.

The worst part about this story is that I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. He told me not to say anything, so I didn’t. I swallowed it and thought, “If I have to deal with this in order to achieve more peace and happiness, then so be it.” I was so trained by him to think that he was the key.

It took me a long time, but I realized that I didn’t need him. I am more powerful without him.

Since this experience, I have talked to a few people who have had similar experiences with him. It breaks my heart because I know how vulnerable we allow ourselves to be in yoga. That was the only place I really allowed myself to be so vulnerable. And for someone to take advantage of that is horrifying. Nothing he did was illegal. But that almost made it worse. It almost made me feel more silenced. I was tricked. I trusted him to help me and instead he broke me even further. It was a disgusting abuse of power.

With all of these men in the news, I feel ready to speak up. I feel ready to show up for myself and other women.

Thank you for listening. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help raise awareness/stop this abuse in the community.

I thought of him as a guru
“I thought of him as a guru, and I did whatever he told me to do.”

I Began to Feel Something Wasn’t Right

I am sending this email because I’ve held this story a secret for so long and I feel your post today called for me to finally tell the truth. This happened around 1999. I was 21 years old and had just begun my yoga teacher training. During that time, I attended a yoga conference in XX, Michigan. My friend and I were so excited to meet all our favourite yoga teachers since we had done their videos for a few years (we felt we knew them lol) and XXX’s (celebrated yoga teacher and founder of a very well-known international school of yoga named after himself) class was the one we were most excited to attend.

His class was full of at least a hundred excited women, but for some reason he spent the majority of the 2-hour workshop adjusting and touching me ME!! I couldn’t believe how proud I felt that this famous teacher gave 95% of his attention to me. Some of the adjustments were questionable to say the least. I had complete trust though, at the time. My friend told me afterwards “at one point it looked like he and I were doing a tantric sex dance.” She thought it was hilarious. Looking back, it makes me feel sick.

Anyway, at the end of the workshop he pulled me aside, asked if I could give him a ride to the airport to fly back to Boston. Of course I was honoured and said “yes.”

My friend was so excited for me, she couldn’t believe my luck.

The only thing was that we had to go to his dorm room he was staying in to get his suitcase. No big deal.

Once at his room he invited me in to show me a magazine cover that he was on. Now this was back when yoga, to me, was about following my gurus and trusting they were living the true yoga lifestyle. He actually gave it to me as a keepsake.

I began to feel something wasn’t right. He became very egotistical and arrogant. He then shut the dorm room door abruptly and asked me when was the last time I had sex. I was shocked but still answered (stupid me at 21) “It’s been 8 months.” He then asked me to give him a back massage to which I replied, “I will, but I can’t have sex with you”.

I ended up massaging his back and I’ll never forget how disgusted I was at his skin rubbing off as I massaged. He must have had a sunburn and started to peel. It was not what I wanted to do but I felt I had no choice.

He didn’t force sex, so I thought the rest was acceptable, but I felt so gross about it all.

He was the person who made me realize the yoga world is just like the regular world. There are a lot of people who take advantage of the young and innocent.

It’s sad that he was who cleared my rose coloured glasses to see the darkness, but I have faith I was meant to learn that lesson very early on in my yoga journey. I am grateful for it and proud that I didn’t have sex with him. I’ve had sex with worse people, I hate to admit, BUT saying no to him showed me how to truly love MYSELF. If I had said yes to sex with him, I don’t know what my yoga practice would be like today. It probably would have turned me off from what has been the greatest gift of my last 20 years.

I ended up driving him to the airport, and once we were there he asked for $5 to check his luggage! I couldn’t believe his nerve. Also, he was a middle-aged man, I was 21. As he got out of the car he said to me, “Don’t think about me once I’m gone” to which I replied (my sarcastic self) “Don’t think about me either”.  He then said, “Don’t worry, I won’t”. Complete asshole in every sense.

I lost total respect for him. Magazine in the recycling bin, videos in the trash.

Sorry if this was too long!! I could have even written more. I love your voice in the yoga community but even more as a feminist who speaks for so many women. Keep it up girl!!!

Ps. I became a registered massage therapist in Canada (where I’ve lived my whole life) about 6 years after my run in with XXX. His gross skin peeling off was not going to stop me from following another passion of mine. One more way I took my power back.

The yoga world is just like the real world
“It’s sad that he was who cleared my rose coloured glasses to see the darkness.”

I Hate That I Didn’t Speak Up

When the #metoo hashtag started trending, I told some friends about an experience I had from a yoga teacher–from the group of five, two others had a similar experience. I think that’s kind of crazy. I wanted to post and speak up at the time but felt scared I’d be called a liar or extradited from my local yoga community (as he teaches at all the big studios here in London when he’s not traveling).

I really would love to stay anonymous, but his name is XXX (Tantric Yoga Teacher). We did a one-week course together with XXX (extremely prominent male Ashtanga teacher) and on the lunch breaks we and other students would lunch together. After the course, he invited me to come to the XXX (prominent yoga festival). He had two free tickets as he was teaching and I thought it looked fun so I agreed. On the train there I had a sore throat and kept coughing. He told me in the style he practices, Tantra, the best thing to soothe it would be the masculine power of taking a penis in my throat (I’m not even joking). He fluffed it up with loads of fake yoga and Sanskrit chat to try and make it sound legit, but essentially, he was telling me to deep throat. I told him my throat suddenly felt fine and sat uncomfortably. As the train ride lengthened he just got worse. He told me he was a yoni masseuse (someone that massages women’s vaginas, I later learned) and asked if I wanted to experience the “most freeing experience of my life.” Shocked, I asked who would let a stranger do that to them and he said in Thailand him and ‘his teacher’ (this really old man) massage women who have experienced trauma, rape and abuse often to free them. I’m sorry, maybe it works, but all I hear is they take advantage of vulnerable women!!

When we arrived, he told everyone on arrival I was his girlfriend. I had to awkwardly say, “Erm no, this is a friend”, I had a boyfriend. He then pestered me to let him massage my back. I felt so uncomfortable and awkward I just gave in, I sat there so stiff after a few moments he started unclipping my bra. I stopped him, said I didn’t like it and walked away. At the end of the weekend he found me and irritated, asked me why I’d been avoiding him. He was so threatening in his tone that I lied and said I hadn’t. After that he bombarded me with Facebook private messages saying he wanted to take me out even though I had a boyfriend. I said no and deleted him from Facebook. Two years later (a few weeks ago) he must have been back in London to teach workshops at XXX, one of our best studios here. He WhatsApp’ed me, “So are you married or something by now or can we go for coffee.” I fucking hate him and how he made me feel–so small, like a child. I hate that I didn’t speak up and it sounds so trivial but these things happening at the time made my skin crawl. I feel mad that I’m scared the yoga community wouldn’t support me and would support him.

I just feel… lost about it.

Fear of no support
“I just feel… lost about it.”

I Doubted Myself and Blamed Myself

When I was a young aspiring yoga teacher, I applied for teaching positions at every single yoga studio, gym, spa and community center that I thought might be interested in having me. My main goal was sharing the Ashtanga Yoga method with students and saving moneyso I could get back to India to continue my own studies with my teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. People told me to seek out a studio run by an older male yoga teacher. I called and he said to come on by that same afternoon. Hopeful and somewhat honored that a bonafide yoga studio might be interested in me as a teacher, I printed out my resume and headed over. Nervous and naive, I rang the buzzer and walked up the stairs to find this teacher and his girlfriend sitting in the lobby. If I look back now I can see that I already sensed the weird atmosphere but I brushed it aside due to his ‘credentials’. He asked my name and I handed him my resume. He scoffed and started a line of aggressive questioning that took me off my young center. He asked if I could sense how ‘blocked’ I was. He questioned my motives, saying that the ‘true teacher’ always appears when you’re ready wherever you are. He proposed that he personally ‘unlock’ my spiritual energy and that the moment was a make-or-break moment in my path to enlightenment. When I replied saying that there must be some confusion because I was there looking for a job as a yoga teacher, he laughed even more vigorously. Then his girlfriend quietly got up and left the room. As she did I asked what was going on and made a move to gather my keys and leave as well. That’s when it turned ugly. This man with bulging muscles and a large body quickly moved close to me, blocked my exit and physically restrained me. He squeezed me so tightly that I remember how painful it was to feel his rudraksha mala digging into my skin. Then, he began the mind games that really undid me. He said, “Now I’m going to teach you. It will be better for you if you just surrender and accept my teaching. I’m the true guru.” I struggled, fought and screamed. He began forcing himself on me and touching me in a sexual manner. I panicked and said that I had to use the bathroom. He loosened his grip, blocked the main exit and I went to the bathroom. I stood there looking out the window, considering all my options. If I jumped I’d probably be injured, so I decided against that. I looked in the mirror and said to myself that I’d walk right out there, grab my keys and get out. I mustered all the strength I had and went out as fast as I could. But he was stronger and faster. It seemed like he had done it before and was anticipating my next move. He grabbed me, threw me on the ground and began sexually assaulting me while explaining to me how I was so lucky to receive this beneficial teaching. When it was over he told me it was time to leave and that the lesson was over. I went home and sat in the bathtub and scrubbed my body, but no matter how much I tried I just couldn’t get the icky feeling off my skin. Wherever I looked I saw this guy’s forceful, sick presence all over. I doubted myself and blamed myself. Did I fight back hard enough? Did I ask for it by sending mixed signals? I actually questioned whether it really was a teaching and whether I really was a difficult student with many blocks. I wondered if he really was some rebel guru. I took no recourse because it took me years to realize just how violated I was by this interaction, physically and psychologically.

Years later, this same man came to my class and started preying on young women. It was then that I discovered his treatment of me wasn’t an isolated event. It was a systemic issue that appeared in nearly every interaction he had with a pretty young female student. I contacted the Yoga Alliance because he was registered ERYT-500 and they replied with a standardized email saying that they could take no action. It made be so mad because it felt like there was no accountability in the yoga world. I shared the incident with my teachers in India and they were appropriately outraged, but what could they do? I consulted a lawyer and reported this guy to the police, but it was years since the incident. I gathered evidence to file a restraining order and under legal counsel arranged a meeting. I confronted this man about his actions and told him in no uncertain terms that if he ever contacted me again, came near my yoga center, attended a class of mine or engaged with me in any way whatsoever I would report him to the police. He responded with impunity and said that he couldn’t help it if his students, which he referred to as “all those women,” were ungrateful for his teaching and that people call him the “messiah.” Luckily, this boundary has worked, at least for now. While I never sought legal action I set a clear and firm boundary that allowed me to feel safe in my own sphere of influence. At the very least he would not prey on any other young female students in my yoga center or in my community. Truly, this man is a mentally ill person with megalomania and psychological issues. Not only should he not be a yoga teacher, but there should be some actionable consequence to his heinous misrepresentation of the sacred tradition of yoga for insidious, harmful purposes. There’s a part of me that’s scared to share because I don’t want him to reappear. I share this story to shed light on some of the darkest places within our all too human yoga world and to let you know that you’re not alone if you’ve experienced something similar. We must stand together, men and women, and uphold the values of the yogic principles by protecting the innocence of the seekers who turn to yoga for healing.

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