I was relieved when Bikram Choudhury, the 73-year-old founder of Bikram yoga, was finally served a warrant for his arrest late last month, after failing to pay nearly $7 million in legal fees he owes for a sexual harassment lawsuit. Many in the yoga world had been waiting for that moment, after years of rape and assault claims against Mr. Choudhury, the millionaire creator of a 26-posture “hot yoga” sequence and studio system. But the news brought only a grim satisfaction; many of us wish he’d been arrested for the assault claims themselves.
Unfortunately, the case of Mr. Choudhury is not unique. In 2016, a beloved teacher in the New York City-based Jivamukti Yoga center, known for its celebrity clientele, was sued, along with the center and its leaders, for sexual abuse by her mentee. John Friend’s Anusara community was rocked and dissolved in 2012 after he was discovered having affairs with married students and performing Wiccan-like sex rituals. Kripalu’s Amrit Desai was accused of sexual misconduct and abuse of authority in 1994 and a $2.5 million settlement was paid (the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts divorced itself from Desai and reorganized). And there are, of course, countless under-the-radar stories of yoga teachers coming on to students or touching them inappropriately in class.
This must stop. As a practitioner of yoga for 20 years who has been teaching for a decade, I know that people often approach spiritual practices like yoga and meditation when they are vulnerable. They come recovering from broken bones and hearts, and usually at some greater personal crossroads. They come with trauma, addictions or eating disorders. They come after divorce. They come with hope.
In this state of vulnerability, it is absolutely critical that students feel safe. Teachers, like therapists or educators in other fields, have an inherent power, which can be used to either heal or exploit. But because it is also easy to conflate the goodness of yoga with the teachers themselves, instructors can benefit from an aura of ethical conduct, or even holiness — what some call a spiritual blanket that protects those who abuse their power. While it is up to students to discern between teacher and teachings, those in authority have a responsibility to protect.
According to the 2016 Yoga in America survey co-sponsored by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance — the largest nonprofit in the United States representing the yoga community and providing teacher-training requirements — there are 36.7 million yoga practitioners nationwide, 72 percent of them women. Though Yoga Alliance has published a bullet-point code of conduct, few know it exists until they are explicitly looking, and by then it may be too late.