Sex, Ethics and a Call to Action for the Yoga Profession

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A red flag goes up when an ethical opinion is justified by one’s own life circumstances.

The rationale behind determining an ethical code is exactly the opposite of that—rather than creating a policy that rationalizes your behavior or desires, an ethical code considers the highest ideals from multiple perspectives, only one of which is your own.

A  recent article by Cameron Shayne, a yoga teacher based in Miami, about why it’s okay for a male yoga teacher to have sex with his students highlights the lack of consensus among the yoga community around ethical issues.

Considering that multiple high-profile sexual misconduct scandals have arisen in the past two years, the yoga community would be wise to agree upon ground rules to keep students safe while protecting the integrity and reputation of the yoga tradition and profession.

Isn’t it all good?

Carol Horton, yoga teacher, author, and PhD from Chicago, responded with an article that eloquently captures the various perspectives on issues around sex and yoga. It would be nice if we could just wave off these gray areas, saying, “It’s all good. Follow your truth,” but in reality, with many millions of people now practicing yoga in the West and tens of thousands of new yoga teachers completing teacher training programs with varying perspectives on ethical issues, it’s simply not “all good” at this point in yoga’s history.

These challenges present opportunities for the community to become yoga’s guardians by determining guidelines that will enable the practice and traditions of yoga to carry on unscathed.

Much as the psychotherapy and massage therapy professions developed strict guidelines to address problematic gray areas resulting from the nature of their therapist/client relationships, the yoga profession must acknowledge and address its own challenges directly with clear policies and protocol.

Practice vs. Profession

Yoga is a practice, but it is also a profession. By virtue of the fact that most yoga teachers in the West accept money in exchange for teaching classes, yoga teaching must be viewed through the lens of professionalism as well as through the lens of practice.

The yoga teaching community, like any other profession, has an obligation to determine some best practices regarding key and common ethical dilemmas that may arise within the context of our work.

The yamas and niyamas are the core ethical guidelines for yoga practice, but they were developed at a time when the teacher/student relationship was very different. We need specific guidelines that pertain to the circumstances surrounding the yoga profession as it exists today. Otherwise, each yoga teacher is necessarily left to muddle through it on their own as situations arise. This approach is problematic since it tends to lead to choices that support desired behavior rather than the most ethical behavior.

As yoga teachers, we will each ideally have our own personal ethical code. However, it’s essential that a broader professional code also serves to check behavior and educate regarding ethical dilemmas that may arise when a person is paid to teach yoga.

The Male Yoga Teacher’s Burden

I sympathize with the men at the front of the room because as Chris Courtney, yoga teacher and writer based in Stuttgart, Germany, said, male yoga teachers have to be so much more careful with their words, use of touch, and actions towards female students to avoid misperception and to protect their reputations and livelihood.

The demographics of yoga students (over 80 percent of practitioners are female) are such that while most male yoga teachers are not acting inappropriately, the vast majority of reported cases of inappropriate behavior thus far have involved male yoga teachers and female students. At this stage in yoga’s history it is undeniable that there’s potential for a sexual dynamic to emerge within the context of the teacher/student relationship.

The recent publicity and online conversations around sexual misconduct scandals demonstrates the confusion among male and female yoga practitioners and teachers alike around what is and is not okay. Creating guidelines and support around these issues will help all involved to more ethically and safely navigate those dynamics, hopefully leading to positive change and refinement of the teacher/student relationship.

Taking Sex off the Table

It’s not uncommon for yoga students to develop crushes on teachers. Often referred to as transference, the intensity of the physical, mental, and emotional shifts that occur on the mat may lead a student to believe the teacher has gifted this to her.

As long as potential for sexual involvement is on the table, each look, word, or touch from the teacher will be read through the lens of potential attraction. Given that non-harming, truth, and the practice of quieting the fluctuations of the mind are at the root of yoga philosophy, as yoga teachers we have an obligation to clearly delineate the boundaries with our students. Only then do we empower students and share the broader tradition and principles of yoga, rather than just teaching some sweaty, bendy form of yoga-ish exercise.

A Call to Action

As yoga professionals, it’s time we move beyond fear, blame, and complacency to have an honest conversation. Rather than looking for a simple answer to these complex questions or identifying who is “right” and who is “wrong,” perhaps we can agree to explore the issue without regard to our own personal potential for gain or loss.

An ethical code is not dogma. It is a set of agreements and principles by which a group of people with varying views and approaches abides by, not because it’s incontrovertibly true, but because they agree it is in their collective best interest.

A well-written code allows for some degree of interpretation, but at its core has solid principles that guide behavior on gray areas.

My hope is that those who are willing to have a real conversation will come together to establish guidelines detailing our responsibility in protecting the teacher/student relationship. The yamas and niyamas introduce beautiful ideals, but we must now build upon those ethical principles to directly address the challenges within the context of our modern yoga profession. There are many different perspectives because these tend to be issues that divide rather than unite, but we must not let those challenges dissuade us from taking action.

Leading the Way

In the past year, Yoga Alliance has emerged as the leading voice calling for higher levels of professionalism and standards for the yoga community. I’m honored to serve on the Yoga Alliance Ethics Subcommittee, which has been tasked with reevaluating the organization’s code of conduct.

In my work as the chairperson over the past nine months, I’ve been facilitating a conversation around ethical issues as we explore the implications of adopting an enforceable code of conduct. Our committee members are dedicated male and female yoga practitioners, teachers, and studio owners who practice different styles of yoga and come from varied professional backgrounds and geographic regions.

We have drawn inspiration from well-written codes such as the one published by the California Yoga Teachers Association, and we’ve examined best practices from other similar professional fields, such as fitness, massage therapy, and psychology. Our committee members have engaged in hours of discussion on ethics and have wrestled with the complexity of the issues the code will seek to govern.

We’re nearing completion of our draft of an Enforceable Code that will be presented to Yoga Alliance’s Standards Committee for review in a few weeks. Our vision is that the code will become an enforceable requirement for those who hold the Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) or Registered Yoga School (RYS) designations and will also serve as a model for approaching and considering the gray area of ethical dilemmas encountered in yoga teaching.

As yoga practitioners and Ethics Subcommittee members, we have approached the drafting of the code with our best selves at this point in time, knowing that what we come up with will not be perfect and not all teachers will agree or choose to abide by the code. We believe those seeking to protect the standards, professionalism, and reputation of yoga must enter the conversation rather than simply dissenting or looking the other way because it’s too big or too messy to tackle.

I initially volunteered with Yoga Alliance because of the commitment to honesty and transparency the organization’s new president, Richard Karpel, demonstrated when he took over amidst considerable internal challenges.

I encourage anyone who has strong opinions about the ethical issues our community faces today to get involved and add their voice to the conversation.

Just as in yoga practice, our work on ethical issues has no end point but will continue to evolve. This first draft of the enforceable code signifies our best effort in this moment, and we welcome the growth and changes that will come over time with new input and information. We are committed to returning again and again to reinterpret, reanalyze, and reapply the code to the present circumstances. The future of our practice and our profession depends on it.

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