The Bikram Scandal and the Shadow Side of YogaPosted on Dec 11, 2013 in Blog
I didn’t particularly want to read the entire Vanity Fair story on the Bikram rape cases. I’d read the online excerpt, and found it sordid and depressing. Why pursue it further? I wasn’t psyched to learn more about yet another yoga scandal whose horrific details make what had only recently seemed shocking (e.g., the Ansusara debacle) seem disconcertingly banal. Nonetheless, when I saw the magazine cover staring back at me in a supermarket checkout line, I decided to buy it. With a sinking feeling of morbid curiosity driven forward by the ingrained habits of a zealous researcher, I reluctantly shelled out my $4.99.
Still feeling like more negative news what not what I needed, I promptly read the article that evening. Already knowing the basic situation, it didn’t add anything really new: rather, it fleshed out the details of a system of psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse that had metastasized to the point of multiple cases of alleged criminal conduct. Nonetheless, reading it felt as emotionally deflating as I’d expected. My curiosity and sense of thoroughness had been satisfied. But that didn’t bring any satisfaction or pleasure. Rather, it left me feeling disturbed, dissatisfied, and distracted by yet another wave of negative feelings about yoga culture.
Return of the Repressed
I suspect that I’m not alone in feeling like I’ve learned more than I want to know about the shadow side of yoga during the past two years. It’s peculiar to look back and recall how quickly things have changed. Only a short time ago, it felt like virtually any controversial, let alone disturbing information about yoga had somehow been censored from public view. Nothing but cloyingly positive affirmations of the transformative, beautifying, and bliss-inducing powers of yoga filled the air. A good number of people got fed up with the falsity of this pastel-colored discourse, however. Many started posting more honest commentary online. A new conversation opened up as the yoga blogosphere grew more and more robust.
As the world of yoga discourse expanded, however, more and more damaging information, as well as negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences started circulating. Talk about the return of the repressed! While mainly salutary, this newly opened pipeline of less-than-sunny yoga news also grew wearisome over time. At least, it did for me. (While I can’t speak for anyone else, my guess is that I’m not alone in my sense of critical exhaustion and outrage fatigue.) To be sure, I genuinely appreciated the new wave of honesty and openness, and had a good bit of critical commentary to add myself. But I hadn’t anticipated just how much disturbing information was out there to learn, or how I would feel once I’d learned it.
Of course, I also added to my own personal pile-on by digging up old stories that help put contemporary issues in a larger context (obsessive researcher drive, again). Much of what I found out didn’t reassure me: No, yoga scandals are not a new development. No, such problems are not confined to Western cultures. No, “traditional yoga” was not ethically purified, either.
I started to feel like I knew too much about the shadow side of yoga. My revulsion to what I’d learned started interfering with my practice. I found myself wondering if it might not make more sense to switch to sitting meditation combined with some alternative physical workout instead. I started to feel that much as I’ve enjoyed my own asana practice, I really didn’t like yoga culture very much. Perhaps it was time to consider a new direction. Perhaps I didn’t want to have that much to do with yoga, after all.
Not wanting to add to the negativity overload problem, I’ve avoided sharing these feelings up until now. Instead, I’ve been waiting for them to pass. The rational part of my brain reasoned that with time, I’d buck up to the fact that yoga (like the church, like politics, like everything else) has its share of corruption; get over my sense of disillusionment and revulsion; and move on to celebrate the dimensions of the practice that are meaningful to me. Logically, it seemed obvious that this was the mature thing to do.
It also seemed inevitable given that my nascent plans to drop asana practice never materialized. The fact of the matter is that nothing else makes me feel as good in body, mind, and spirit as yoga (to trot out what now seems like a tired cliché to my wearily jaded ears).
The problem, however, is that this weight of troubling knowledge – story after disturbing story of emotional manipulation, mind control, sexual harassment, and even rape – hasn’t fully lifted. It keeps gnawing at my mind. It’s like I’ve eaten something gnarly that I’m having a hard time psychically digesting. My litany of things I don’t like about yoga culture won’t shut up and go away. It’s like having a really annoying song stuck in your head. You don’t want to have it there on repeat. But try as you might, you can’t make it stop. Even when the volume’s turned down, if you listen closely, you can hear it faintly playing in the more distant corners of your psyche. And the longer it goes on, the more draining and enervating it feels.
A few days ago, however, I read a short post on Yogadork that inspired me to break my self-imposed silence. Basically, the post was a (polite) rant of irritation that the yoga blogosphere has been largely silent on the Bikram lawsuits, even now that a major magazine has published a feature article on it:
This Vanity Fair article on Bikram’s rape accusations hit the interwebs last week with, well, not much fanfare. Maybe it’s because it’s holiday time and no one wants to hear about it . . . or maybe it’s because we’re already desensitized to yoga scandals, especially ones involving Bikram Choudhury, to the point that it’s not news anymore.
Maybe it’s not news, but it should be. Because when the yoga community is all wrapped up in debating whether or not teachers can have sex with their students, there are some real injustices and seriously heinous crimes going down. In the past few years, five women have come forward and filed lawsuits against Bikram Choudhury, with charges of sexual harassment and rape.
I’m not saying you must have this on your mind 24/7, nor do you have to get on your soapbox or write a 3000 word dissertation making a case for either side, but ignoring it really isn’t a way to make progress either . . rape is NOT OK. Sexual harassment is NOT OK . . . if you ask me, avoiding the conversation, whether Bikram is guilty or not, is exactly what’s wrong with the wanderlusting, Rumi-quoting, all-encompassing love and light attitude that seems to pervade the yoga community.
BOOM. The author’s dismay at having five sets of sexual harassment and rape charges filed against one of the most successful yoga teachers of our time pass by without comment hit home. After all, I’d been following the story, but keeping silent about it too. Perhaps needless to say, that wasn’t because I was caught in some “wanderlusting, Rumi-quoting, all-encompassing love and light” vibe . . . on the contrary, it’s been precisely that combination of ungrounded, pseudo-childish lite-ness and creepy, sinister, Bikram sex scandal-style shadow that’s been making me feel like maybe I should distance myself from the yoga world altogether.
I do believe, however, that it’s possible to cross the flood of dark knowledge about the shadow side of yoga that’s been unleashed and come out stronger and wiser on the other side. Since I’m not giving up asana practice, I’m working on it. Hopefully, others out there doing the same. Maybe, a new synthesis is brewing that’s more mature, grounded, and real than what’s come before – an understanding that can openly recognize the shadow side of yoga, while working compassionately to balance it out with a stronger light.
Regardless, for me the only thing to do is to keep practicing anyway. At this moment, sharing my sense of dismay, disillusionment, and disorientation feels like part of my way of doing that. Because it doesn’t feel right to simply sweep multiple rape charges under the rug and move on to celebrate the joys of yoga. Even if it’s simply to bear witness to the heartbreak that so many have suffered, the reality of the problems that keep generating scandals needs to be acknowledged, in the yoga world as elsewhere.
Ideally, this will spur meaningful reform so that there are fewer such problems in the future. Even if that doesn’t happen, however, it’s important to do it anyway. At least, that’s my feeling. I’m curious to hear what others think.