Letters to the Editor

Editor's note: We received several letters regarding Luci Yamamoto's article "Questionable Conduct" (ascent 18, summer 2003). We knew this piece would stir up a good response, and one of our reasons for publishing it was to generate and perhaps deepen the level of conversation among people in the yoga community about sexual ethics in teaching. We encourage everyone involved in teaching or studying yoga to keep shedding light on this subject in your own area.

Dear Editor,
      Thank you for publishing Luci Yamamoto's piece, "Questionable Conduct". I am a 17 year student of Yoga, I have been teaching for eight years, and I am one who was greatly harmed by the behavior described in the article. I believe Luci researched and wrote her piece both carefully and conscientiously, and has written well on a very difficult subject.
      Truth is not something that comes in bits and pieces to suit our needs, it simply is.
      I think Luci and ascent have done a great job in bringing this issue to light.
      Aum shanti,

      I just received my latest issue of ascent, and there's an article in there, "Questionable Conduct," that I found very interesting. I've actually been a good friend of YT for over 20 years, we studied yoga together in the early 1980s, we started that unnamed California yoga studio together, and we've put together a teacher training program that's now finishing up its second cycle. I was, as you might imagine, closely involved in the unfortunate situation described in the article, both as a long-time friend of YT and as a local senior teacher. I have to say that Lori's research into this story is somewhat lacking, or maybe a better way to put it, one-sided.
      I'm certainly not writing this to excuse YT's behavior: there's no doubt what he did was terribly wrong and hurtful, not only to his students, but to his friends and family. He may not have acted with integrity in getting involved with his student, but once the affair became public knowledge, he faced the consequences of his behavior squarely, without flinching.
      I guess what bothered me the most about the piece though was the statement that there was some kind of conspiratorial "code of silence" among the staff to cover up YT's behavior. First of all we're not on his "staff"; we do indeed rent studio space from him but we're all independent teachers. To say that we tried to hush things up ("turn a blind eye" as the magazine put it) is ludicrous, really an insult to the teachers including two senior female teachers with 50 years of yoga teaching experience between them who spent hours and hours on the phone or in face-to-face meetings with distraught or confused students, trying to help them make sense of the situation. And I have to say, the drawing showing the figures (teachers I suppose) with their mouths blacked out only reinforced this misconception.
      Your readers, who I suspect tend toward the serious and dedicated end of the yoga spectrum, now believe that the teachers in our little community tried to protect our alpha male at the expense of our students' welfare, and that simply isn't true. The affair, now three years past, was hashed and re-hashed from every possible angle in a broad public forum, not only locally but, considering YT's status, nationally and probably internationally. There's lots more here to object to, but I think I've groused enough. I surely don't think Lori did any of this intentionally, and I'm sure too that she believed she was providing a valuable public service in dealing with the issues raised by this story. But I do think she had an agenda, was trying to make a black-and-white moral point, which got in the way of her objectivity.
      Best wishes,
      Richard Rosen, Berkeley, CA

The author responds: A productive dialogue might be difficult, for Mr. Rosen and I start with fundamentally divergent premises. He implies that YT had a single affair, which he regrets, three years ago. Based on numerous interviews with teachers and students, I believe YT's behaviour is chronic: he has had sexual contact with numerous students for many years and he has no intention to stop. Bear in mind, I do not contend that YT intends to harm his students. I want simply to show his failure to uphold primary yoga precepts.
      With such contradictory starting points, it's no surprise that Mr. Rosen and I differ in opinion on the actions and intentions of the studio's other teachers. He maintains there was open discussion among teachers and students. I found that anyone who voiced concern about students' welfare was urged to shift sympathies to YT's welfare instead: We must protect YT and his family during the ordeal. We must protect the reputation of the studio and the legitimacy of the program. Sure, teachers might have spent "hours and hours" talking with students - but what was their message? Citing all the "hashing and re-hashing" of the affair, Mr. Rosen implies that much has been done. But, if so, what is the upshot?
      It is ironic that Mr. Rosen dubs YT "our alpha male." An apt description, it emphasizes YT's one-man show at his studio. Do alpha males defer to betas and omegas? Clearly, teachers affiliated with the program stand to gain if YT maintains his eminenceand to suffer if he falls. So, there was great pressure to support the party line. By renting studio space from YT and reaping benefits from his fame, can they truly be "independent teachers"?
      I wonder how closely Mr. Rosen read my article. Does my account automatically connote "an agenda" because it conflicts with his? I am a journalist. I had a professional stake, perhaps, but no personal stake in the issue. On the contrary, given Mr. Rosen's twenty-year friendship with YTnot to mention his intertwined careerit is possible his loyalty is vying with his objectivity.
      As for my "trying to make a black-and-white moral point," I tried to show the difficulty (and the danger) of judging others' choices and others' truths in simple terms. I concluded that traditional yoga philosophy sets overarching guidelines for us to determine ethical boundaries and responsibilities. Then I assessed YT's behaviour through the yamas. Finally, Mr. Rosen's referring to me as "Lori" throughout his letter is a minor error, I know. But sometimes attention to such detailsor the lack thereofbest indicates a person's powers of observation and respect for others. Luci Yamamoto

Dear Editor,
      I am so enjoying your summer issue, and particularly the piece on questionable conduct. The writing is so even-handed, and, without blaming, clear and strong.
      Betsy Robinson, New York City

Dear Editor,
      I found the last issue of ascent excellent. It seems to have "come of age". The article on questionable conduct and who will draw the line when the boundaries of sex, power, and yoga are blurred? I found this article unsettling (which is good), especially since one of the local women teachers was exposed in having a secret affair with a male student for 3 years unbeknownst to her spouse or other students. It was the untruthfulness of it all that flew in the face of sattya (truth) as a basic foundation stone upon which her yoga practice and group was built, forcing the rest of the community to re-evaluate.
      So I thought to share this view from "Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues" by Rita M. Gross, pages 67 and 68.
      "Sometimes I think that if it were not for breakthroughs that can occur through sexual communication, no one would risk relating sexually with anyone because of the pain that so often eventually comes. Things rarely work out as well as one can envision in an encounter between two people. Therefore disappointment is almost endemic. The leap from experiencing disappointment to labeling it abuse is troubling to me. Why it should be different with teachers, if we recognize that teachers are not always all-wise, is incomprehensible to me...That does not necessarily mean they were exploited, only that they made decisions that they later regretted.
      I am extremely troubled by the development in recent feminist discourse to proclaim women as victims in such sexual encountersI am troubled because this move is directly counter to basic feminist drive to define women as adult human beings who have a right to make their own choices. I see no way in which we can affirm both that women are self-determining adults and that adult women cannot be trusted to make their own decisions regarding relationships with "powerful" men but must be protected from sexual advances from such men...Rather than making it almost impossible for men to make sexual advances without facing the possibility of sexual harassment charges, we need to encourage women's self-esteem so that they do not feel pressured by offers that are unattractive to them
      But if a spiritual teacher (who has not bound by vows of celibacy as Gross clarifies later) and his or her student accept each other's invitation to sexual activity, it is quite unfair for the student to claim that he or she was a victim of sexual abuse."
      Gross feels, and I have to agree, that this turmoil over sexual conduct is a distraction from the real issues that need work. She has her Buddhist list of larger battles, but from the Kundalini Yoga perspective I find myself considering emotional manipulation, wild imagination, childhood approval needs, and resistance to actually doing the spiritual work that is personally needed. A totally distracting "fling" can turn us away from these real issues. Hopefully those who have received Swami Radha's teachings will be able to successfully chart their way through the choppy waters of "questionable conduct," paying close attention to their part in the relationship...because it does take two to tango.
      And that may be the source of silence...mine in the local affair and the silence of those mentioned in the article. A person's sexual life is private and usually enmeshed with all sorts of unconscious emotional, spiritual, and imagined desires. Who am I to publicly denounce someone else's karmic path? I'm just deeply grateful to have found Swami Radha's methods and those who carry on her teachings with integrity.
      In the Light of understanding,
      Clo Burton, Balfour, BC

Dear Editor,
     For almost two decades now I have been active on the issue of ethics in Yoga and most particularly the ethical responsibilities of those who teach Yoga. I am aware that, like any strong medicine, teachers have an almost equal capacity to heal as to harm. In reading the response of some of your other readers to Luci Yamamoto's article "Questionable Conduct", I denote a pattern that is now sadly familiar to me.
     I believe the pain these women feel and the wounds that continue to fester in relationship to this abuse have much to do with the passive indifference with which the Yoga community treats such cases. Without determining whether the teacher has any intention to change his or her behavior our community rushes to forgive, deeming this an act of true compassion.
     Recently in reading an article about a meeting of recidivist sexual abusers within the clergy, the men were asked why they had continued to abuse - to a man they responded: "We were forgiven too easily. There was no consequence to our behavior." If our daughter began a sexual relationship with her high school teacher, how would we respond if the principal insisted we must forgive the teacher immediately without applying any responsible action? We would be appalled and enraged. I have discovered that those who dare to question or investigate the unethical behavior of their peers are deemed to be "unspiritual," "judgmental," and lacking in "forgiveness". I would suggest that such terms masquerade a deplorable lack of discriminative awareness and conveniently exonerate those that use such terms from their responsibility to prevent harm to others . . . when that harm is preventable. In the case of teachers who show a long term, predictable pattern of predatory sexual behavior which remains unresolved, we simply turn a blind eye.
     One colleague who refuses to discontinue hosting unethical teachers assures me that "the world takes care of such things." What Yoga teaches us is that WE are that world and through our actions we determine what kind of world this will be. . . either building faith in the goodness of human nature or destroying it. We can all take part in changing this situation: by refusing to study with such a teacher, or, if we are a director of a studio, center or conference, we can desist from hosting such teachers until they have proven themselves worthy of trust. We can encourage such teachers to take a voluntary sabbatical from teaching and embark in therapy to resolve their behavior. We can also continue the difficult and necessarily controversial discussion about certification, formation of professional associations and ethical boards as clearing houses for discussing and resolving abuse within our community.
     We might also ask ourselves why the case of YT continues to fester. As Mary McCarthy put it: "An unrectified case of injustice has a terrible way of lingering, restlessly, in the social atmosphere like an unfinished equation."
     Donna Farhi

Dear Editor,
     Thank you for your wonderful magazine. The article on "Questionable Conduct" has obviously opened some eyes and hopefully educated the community. We must remember that gender knows no bounds in the quest for power and most of these relationships are based on power. The best we can do is learn from the mistakes or we are destined to repeat them.
     Dave, Fort Macleod, AB

Dear Editor,
     The article "Questionable Conduct" is written naming names like Susannah Bruder and Y.T., who is of course a famous yogi. This sort of article styling serves to damage the reputation and teaching practice of Ms Bruder. It is not brave to name those who can't protect themselves. All that can happen is that more ill-will and negative energy will be directed at Susannah Bruder. In this day and age we have all types of sexual misconduct among famous people, namely ex-presidents, athletes and people in the news of all sorts. They are named and the press does not hide behind pseudo names. The use of Y.T. and Susannah Bruder is like using Monica Lewinsky and B.C. It could be that the magazine fears litigation coming from the party mentioned, or the billion dollar industry of yoga. I don't know but I would like to know why this style of writing was chosen. Is this truthfulness?
     I might not be a world famous yogi but I know Ms Bruder stands to lose her teaching practice, her livelihood and reputation as a fine yoga teacher. I am dismayed that yoga teachers and students can't see these situation clearly, with compassion and forgiveness and deal with the moral issues of today in a clear-minded loving approach.
     Ms Bruder only offered sanctuary and spoke up for those who needed her help and was served with a notice to leave the studio. For this I applaud her efforts. The aftermath and the unfairness still persists and with that yoga stands to lose a great teacher.
     Respectfully submitted,
     Tony Perez

More reader responses
to ascent 18: women in spiritual life

Dear ascent team,
      I must congratulate you for the ongoing maturation of your publication. It is indeed a beautiful and elegant contribution. Your most recent issue inspired this letter. I raised this issue amongst a group discussion once, that is, what place does a man have in a spiritual world? What role is he to play? What are the virtues a modern man is to hold dear? These are questions I feel are largely ignored. Although I recognize that your primary readership may be female, I would love to see a contribution addressing the male energy in a spiritual life.
      Thank you!
      Alan McLean

Dear Clea,
      I am an artist and yoga teacher. I want to say thank you for the great work that you are all doing. It is such a beautiful, inspiring magazine. I really loved your editorial in this past issue, highlighting the importance of equality and appreciation of women leaders. So again, I just wanted to express my sincere gratitude. We need more people doing this important work, spreading the message of peace, while not being afraid to question injustice.
      Sherisse Alvarez

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