questionable conduct

Is the yoga community turning a blind eye to ethical transgressions in the classroom? Who will draw the line when the boundries between sex, power and yoga are blurred?

"From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." (Luke 12:48)

From 1995 to 2001, Susannah Bruder taught at the California studio of a world-famous yoga teacher (whom I'll call Y.T.). Bruder, a former competitive distance runner, established a solid teaching career and even acquired Y.T.'s prime-time classes when his travel schedule burgeoned. In January 2001, a distraught female student told Bruder she'd just ended a three-year affair with Y.T. Upon discovering his extensive, well-hidden history of sexual liaisons with students, Bruder encouraged him to rethink his behaviour.

She tried to arrange an all-staff counseling session on professional ethics and, when asked, she answered students' questions candidly. But other teachers snubbed her efforts, insisting Y.T.'s affairs were a private marital issue. Once a key member of Y.T.'s inner circle, Bruder found herself ostracized by her closest colleagues. Y.T. abruptly terminated her from his staff in October 2001.

As an avid yoga student, Bruder's story intrigues me: Why was she the only teacher who challenged Y.T.? No one would tolerate a teacher who steals students' money or who falsely advertises his training. But when it comes to sex, many ignore questionable conduct. Bear in mind, by "questionable conduct," I'm not talking about teachers hooking up with non-students, with former students, or with other teachers. I'm talking about chronic, exploitative behaviour with current students.

For the past year, I've been mulling over the meaning of ethical yoga teaching: What's wrong with consensual sex between teacher and student? Should codes of conduct be established? Do teachers have a responsibility to confront an exploitative colleague? Sex always spurs controversy, and juxtaposing sex and yoga only amplifies the debate. I claim no conclusive answers, but through months of interviews and observations, I have explored some of these thorny issues.

To me, the most striking aspect of the Y.T. case is not his behaviour but that of his staff. They all adopted a "code of silence" and turned Bruder, who spoke out, into the wrongdoer. But such loyalty to a dominant leader is not uncommon.

To explain her continued affiliation with Y.T., one teacher says, "I try not to judge or control others. It's self-righteous to tell others how to live, and I've worked hard to move away from that kind of thinking." But, according to Judith Hanson Lasater, a physical therapist and yoga teacher since 1971, automatic acceptance of someone's misconduct ("He's only human!") might be dubbed "idiot compassion" - forgiveness without discrimination.

Some yoga teachers have thanked me for researching this topic, for "carrying the torch." Many are weary of being crusaders. Many express frustration about the resistance to change despite decades of protest. "Unfortunately, I have found very little consensus or clarity in the yoga community on the issue," says Donna Farhi, an internationally known yoga teacher and author, "so unethical behaviour continues unchecked."

Ultimately, students must learn to trust their judgement and to protect themselves. Their qualms might prove groundless, but if they exist, they deserve attention. Likewise, teachers must uphold their own standards regardless of a colleague's seeming authority. Indeed, such self-inquiry is the crux of yoga.

Luci Yamamoto, a former attorney, is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California. Her work has appeared in publications including the San Francisco Chronicle and The Threepenny Review. She has studied yoga since 1997.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life