Sexual misconduct by teachers is a growing problem in the yoga industry. Why are they getting away with it?
Put a man at the front of a room packed with adoring females and trouble lurks nearby. Churches, college classrooms and campaign trails notoriously breed sex scandals. Although a place of solace and growth for most, the yoga studio is no exception. From celebrity yogis having multiple affairs with students, to allegations of forced sex within global yoga franchises, to gurus getting grabby in class, yoga is no sanctuary from scandal.
Such un-yogic behavior often results in lawsuits, embarrassing press and gossip around the yoga studio water cooler—and in celebrity yogi Rodney Yee’s case, a new wife—but they rarely ruin careers.
But the latest national yoga sex scandal could result in career-ending consequences. Aspen, Colo. yoga teacher Steven Jon Roger, 49, is scheduled to stand trial in September for misdemeanor charges of unlawful sexual conduct with two of his students—a judge threw out felony sexual assault charges earlier this year. In the “Graspin’ Aspen” case, so-dubbed by yogadork.com, prosecutors accuse Roger of intentionally touching intimate parts of his clients’ bodies without consent. A guilty verdict will compel Roger to register as a sex offender. Roger pleaded not guilty in June.
Is the Aspen case an isolated incident or indicative of a larger problem in the yoga community? Most likely the latter, according to Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D. The San Francisco-based yoga instructor serves as president of the California Yoga Teachers Association and is considered the guru of yoga ethics in the United States. Unlawful touching of female students by male yoga teachers happens all the time, she says, and it won’t stop until victims start speaking up.
“It’s happened from the highest level gurus in India to multiple generations of yoga teachers in the U.S.” Lasater says. “It’s so common as to be beyond a cliché. … Some of what these teachers are doing, they should be in jail for. Technically, these behaviors are assault.”
Too Close for Comfort
In many styles of yoga, teachers touch students to adjust their pose. But touching an erogenous body part is unacceptable and unethical, Lasater says. (It’s also illegal—unwelcomed touching of a sexual nature constitutes misdemeanor sexual battery in California.)
“It’s happened in every city,” she says. This includes Santa Cruz County towns, according to yoga practitioners interviewed by Good Times.
“Jennifer” (a pseudonym) says a male yoga teacher in Santa Cruz inappropriately touched her twice.
“I was in ‘full pigeon’ [pose] and he came over to adjust me, I guess, and wrapped his whole body around me,” she says. “Our bodies were completely touching.”
In another class, “I was in ‘warrior two’ and he came up behind me and thrusted (sic) into me from behind, into my butt,” Jennifer says. “Then I was in ‘downward dog,’ and he came up behind me and did the same thing. After that, every time he came to adjust me, I just said, ‘No, no, I’m fine’. … I should have said something when it happened, but it just happened so quickly.”
A yoga instructor herself, Jennifer says she has never encountered such a full-contact style adjusting. “I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years, and I have never, ever had an instructor invade my space like that,” she says. “There is absolutely no reason for it. You can adjust someone with one finger.”
“Meagan” (also a pseudonym) says a Santa Cruz yoga instructor lured her back to his house for some private practice. After a few poses, he talked her into a massage and then sexually assaulted her.
“As soon as he started massaging me, I knew it was not completely harmless,” she writes in an email to GT. “I froze up on his floor and my mind was racing, trying to decide if it was safe to get up, if he was going to try to rape me ...” During the massage, she writes, the yoga teacher touched her inappropriately and started to perform oral sex on her. “At that moment I got up, so confused, but trying to stay composed.”
Both women reported the incidents to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department. Andrew Isaac, a prosecutor in the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office, says that the DA’s office is “aware of the allegations,” but he would not comment further. “The DA’s office does not discuss ongoing investigations,” he says.
Two other local yoga students describe teacher behavior that, while not illegal, seemed unethical for a yoga professional.
“I was in happy baby pose," says one student. "You’re on your back, your legs are up and spread apart with your hands on your ankles. You’re wide open in the crotch. He [her yoga teacher] came up through my legs, he comes close to my face and he says in a quiet voice, ‘Do you know what [a renowned yogi] calls this pose? She calls it, 'Honey, I’m Home.’ I felt creeped out. Why would a yoga instructor say that to me?"
The second student, who is married, says her yoga teacher called her at home, even though she had never spoken with him outside of class and had not given him her phone number.
“He said something like, ‘I was thinking of you the other day and I want us to get to know each other better, call me sometime,’” she says. “It was very disturbing.”
Stand Up, Speak Up, Walk Out
However, many violated yoga students never contact law enforcement, or they withhold their names from authorities. Cases cannot be prosecuted without victims’ disclosing their identities. In an e-mail obtained by GT, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Kelli McCoy expresses frustration over anonymous reports she has received from yoga students. “…[U]nfortunately they are no good without them disclosing their identity,” she writes.
Victims’ silence is steeped in a stew of psychological complexities. Many female students harbor emotional issues that leave them susceptible to their teacher’s influence, Lasater says. Adding to that, yoga itself can render students emotionally vulnerable.
“Yoga is a profound process of opening up,” Lasater says. “It’s a process of letting go and allowing your instructor to touch you verbally, emotionally and physically. You [students] are encouraged to let your teacher into your being. Then one day your teacher puts his hand on your breast, and it doesn’t shock you. You have been groomed to accept everything [he does] as teaching.”
Often women blame themselves and are too ashamed to talk about the abuse—“battered woman’s syndrome,” Lasater calls it. Still others believe that calling out the teacher defies yogic principles.
“There seems to be what Buddhists call ‘idiot compassion,’ which implies you should just forgive unwanted sexual advances and forget about it because it’s the yogic thing to do,” Lasater says. “But I think we should all get angry about this sort of behavior.”
Even if women do speak up, what will happen? Barring criminal prosecution, usually not much. Most yoga teachers don’t have licenses to strip away. The industry remains largely unregulated in most states, including California. And industry organizations that dole out teaching credentials, such as the national Yoga Alliance, lack systems to investigate or reprimand teachers for bad behavior.
Industry organizations do give teachers guidance on ethics. The California Yoga Teachers Association Code of Professional Ethics is among the most comprehensive: “All forms of sexual behavior or harassment with students are unethical, even when a student invites or consents to such behavior involvement,” it states. (See full code at yogateachersassoc.org/ ethics.html.)
However, ethical codes are non-binding suggestions. “There is very likely no yoga center and certainly no yoga organization which is likely to kick you out and keep you from teaching,” Lasater says. “There is almost never any announcement, publicity or discussions about the ethics and professionalism of what happened, just lots of gossip.”
Nothing will change, Lasater says, unless violated students speak up. “It’s sad, it’s frustrating, and it’s only going to stop when women say no,” she says. “If one day a woman in class would say, ‘He just put his hand on my crotch and I’m asking all of you to leave this class now with me in solidarity,’ and if people would walk out of class, I guarantee you it would stop.”
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