Scandal-Ridden Yoga Movement Struggles To Embrace #MeToo Despite Starting As A SEX CULT

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Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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How do you protect your yoga class from a “horny” neighborhood guru? And what if that guru also turns out to be a woman?

It’s a growing challenge for tens of thousands of Americans that flock to yoga studios and exercise gyms weekly to practice the ancient Hindu breathing and posture practice.

Once there, many say they find desperately needed psychic relief from the stress of 9-to-5 jobs or parenting. In fact, more than 20 million Americans, most of them women, took at least one yoga class last year, according to Yoga Journal — and their numbers are still growing

But not everybody encounters bliss — much less “samadhi,” the Sanskrit term for mystical enlightenment. Unwanted invitations to sex — and incidents of harassment and even abuse — abound.

A compendium of 300 incidents compiled by Rachel Brathen, one of the movement’s self-styled pop celebrities, found that yoga teachers, especially men, were too often exploiting access to young scantily clad nubile young women in the hopes of having sex.

Most of the incidents recorded were instances of sexual harassment, but others constituted real abuse. In several cases, women reported narrowly escaping rape.

Some of the most troublesome cases involve students that train to become yoga teachers, and who depend heavily on their “guru” — or spiritual teacher — for emotional and moral support.

In 2013, charges of rape against Bikram Choudhury — founder of an eponymously named brand of “hot yoga,” engulfed Yoga World. Choudhury managed to escape criminal prosecution but his alleged victims sued him in court. His former lawyer, who was fired and allegedly harassed for trying to investigate abuse charges against her boss, was awarded a huge chunk of his estate.

While some critics say the issue is mainly one of older yoga men preying on younger yoga women, others say the problem runs far deeper.

In 2016, a female student at the popular Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York accused her long-time teacher — a woman — of engaging in sexual and emotional abuse, a charge the teacher denies.

Yoga insiders often depict these encounters as murky because in many cases the “victims” develop unhealthy psychological attachments to their teachers and even seem to expose themselves to the potential for abuse.

Another problem — rarely acknowledged openly — is that many forms of yoga are supposed to be deliberate libido “enhancers.” William Broad, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter for The New York Times, caused a huge stir several years back when he suggested that yoga, even in India, had begun as a “sex cult.” While leading yoga historians have since debunked that characterization, yoga’s celebration of the body’s erotic energy can easily stir sexual thoughts and feelings. And many practitioners confess to reduced inhibitions.

In principle, yoga studios discourage their teachers from having relationships with their students. But few Americans practice or train for yoga in a way that would preserve that spiritual stricture.

Rodney Yee, who helped spread the popularity of yoga in the United States in the 1990s, had a highly publicized affair with one of his students, Colleen Saidman that destroyed his marriage.

Initially, Yee’s reputation took a huge hit. But after he divorced his wife and married Saidman, the two went on to become a yoga “power couple” and today regularly tour and give workshops to legions of adoring fans.

Amazingly, the two have even published a guidebook on how students and teachers can avoid indulging in sexual dalliances.

Many yoga women say they know the difference between consensual affairs and sexual abuse — even if some of their teachers don’t.

The recent allegations against hip hop mogul and yoga impresario Russell Simmons seem to typify the movement’s ongoing confusion over sexual boundaries.

Since last November, Simmons has been accused of sexual abuse by more than a dozen women, some of whom say he raped them. Simmons has denied the charges against him. He’s also cited his commitment to yoga as evidence of his innocence.

His accusers say Simmons is a hypocrite who uses yoga as a cover for his sexual proclivities. In one case, he reportedly invited a young woman to yoga class and then took her to his home where he allegedly forced himself on her.

At least one woman who sued Simmons for rape has dropped her suit and recanted her charges after it became known that she continued to seek out Simmons’s romantic company — even sending him nude photos — for months after an alleged incident occurred

Jennilyn Carlson, publisher of Yoga Dork, one of the industry’s leading blogs, openly admits to having misgivings about criticizing a practice that she credits with having helped heal her.

Three years ago, she led the media campaign against Choudhury, and an earlier American yoga guru, John Friend, who was also accused of sexual misconduct.

Friend was forced out of Anusara Yoga, and his entire movement collapsed.

But Carlson has refused to comment on the Simmons scandal, despite having promoted him on her blog for years. Long-time Simmons associates, including celebrity yoga teachers Seane Corn and Elena Brower, have also remained quiet.

Unlike Harvey Weinstein, whose movie empire came tumbling down as one woman after another accused him of sexual manipulation and abuse, the Simmons music empire remains intact.

Still, yoga students are increasingly upset by what they perceive as crass hypocrisy within their movement about sex and sex abuse. They wonder what yoga devotees can do to protect themselves when so few of their mentors seem willing to speak up.

One answer: Improved monitoring of yoga teacher training programs and stronger industry oversight. Yoga is one of the few industries of its size that remains completely unregulated.

But most yogis scoff at the idea of instituting stronger guidelines for teacher training, appointing an ombudsman or imposing tougher collective sanctions against abusers. Let yoga be yoga, they say.

That’s small consolation for those that feel that yogis too often close ranks behind abusers, leaving victims to fight back alone — usually in court.

“Breathe, ladies, breathe” is the yoga mantra these women keep hearing. Some are ready to scream.

Stewart J. Lawrence is a consultant and policy analyst.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.