I’ve only had a participant leave a session or a workshop once or twice. It’s not comfortable, but it is a valuable learning opportunity. In my cases, either there had been a misunderstanding about the content of the session, or the person involved suddenly didn’t feel well. I hope I’m getting better at handling it when it happens – better at reflecting back to the person brave enough to walk, how much I appreciate their honesty and their commitment to self-care.
I know that on the occasions that I’ve needed to leave a workshop or a movement session, the times I’ve felt able to act were those in which I truly trusted the teacher, and the times I felt trapped were those where I didn’t feel I could leave without attracting further problems. I’ve walked out of a dance session at a festival with ease and a happy wave after just 15 minutes, because it took that time to truly drop in to my body’s desires and realise that what I really wanted was a sauna and a shower. And I’ve stayed at too many trainings, head down and silent, breathing through clenched teeth rather than get up and leave a situation that felt increasingly hostile, or alien, or just indefinably wrong.
These days not only do I train a lot of yoga teachers, I also mentor and hear their stories. I hear about the trauma-sensitive course that was demeaning and triggering, the cutting-edge adjustment workshop where consent to touch was routinely ignored, the therapy trainer who bullies trainees, and the talk on accessibility that involved fat-shaming. My dear friend Harriet likes to say that what keeps her working so hard is the thought of ‘shit yoga teachers’. Increasingly, what preys on my mind is the related issue of harmful yoga trainings. Every time I hear one of those stories, I get to witness someone negotiate themselves back from a position of shame, of disempowerment, into a place of agency, of empowerment. In many cases, their ability of a student to stand up for themselves – their ability to stand up and walk out at all – was radically compromised by the treatment they received in that training or workshop.
How much courage does it take to stand up for yourself with dignity?
Doing deep research that’s embedded in a particular culture has many aspects, and one that I’m increasingly appreciative of is the way a shadow of an idea can coalesce over time, filtering from hundreds of little observations into something so simple, and so huge that it’s almost hard to see. They require an anchor to form around, but they’re really about the kind of questions that make the invisible, the everyday and the scenery we navigate become noticeable, see-able, in a new way. For me, these ideas centre around a word or a phrase, but they’re also about a felt sense, a recognition, like a half-heard chord of melody. At any given time, there are half a dozen of these dreaming deep in the back of my mind.
One that’s been gathering driftwood for a while is the one that comes again and again when someone discloses about being abused:
Why didn’t they just walk out?
It’s often a heartfelt question from someone truly unable to understand the answer. As a survivor myself, I struggle to explain why the most impossible thing to do in an impossible situation, sometimes, is to leave. And this begs the question, too: how do we make it easier for people to leave, to say no, to set boundaries in these situations? I think about all those times when it took a friend or a bystander to say ‘hey, are you sure this is okay for you?’ for me to realise that the way I was being treated in a job or a relationship wasn’t okay, actually. And then I think again about the people sitting quietly in the back of workshops whilst other people are bullied or their consent is violated, thinking ‘but if the person targeted isn’t saying anything, then perhaps it’s okay?’
Hidden in the driftwood of recollections and conversations and felt sense of this problem is a bright and shining truth that I can’t quite see all of as yet. It’s about agency, and self, and voice. It has something to do with the inner resource that yoga practice claims to strengthen, and the multiple ways yoga teaching methods can be used to weaken it. It’s about how compromising our boundaries can threaten our ability to know our very centre. And without a sense of our centre, it’s very difficult to know where we’re moving from, and therefore how to move at all. But it is possible, and over and again, through the span of human history, one way to wrestle that power back has been in collective, rather than individual action.
So often, it is the compassionate actions of other people, that provide us with the solidarity, for us to be able to stand up for ourselves.
Walking out and acting collectively is such a powerful tool for workers, that administrations of both capital and state power have always sought to break unions, to prevent strikes, and to punish picket lines. Of course, in a training or workshop situation, we are not employees. Indeed, the uncertain, fluid and complex nature of our relationships in yoga – everything covered by such terms as teacher and student, venue and hirer, follower and saint, devotee, trainer, sangha, and lineage – complicates our ability to honourably navigate with each other’s levels of power and privilege.
Many yoga teachers and organisations are working to improve this, or at least make the complexity more visible. The ongoing, seemingly endless series of abuse allegations against senior teachers is a testament not just to how much of this work needs to be done, but also our readiness to start addressing the problem. To simplify, two different kinds of such cases are coming to light: firstly, the historic abuse by sanctified figureheads that has been enabled by self-protecting international institutions for decades, most recently in Satyananda, Ashtanga and Sivananda Yoga; and secondly, multiple accusations that add up to a long-term pattern of sleazy behaviour by well-known charismatic and famous teachers, most of them here in the West.
These latter accusations have varying levels of proof attached, and can range from a tone-deaf lack of consent to touch (Google Johnny Kest), to highly unethical seductions of students (watch social media for references to Mark Whitwell), to violent rape (see the Bikram documentary). What’s interesting to me is how many people who came into contact with these charismatic teachers say they sensed that something was ‘off’ about them. But although those people didn’t go back, they rarely walked out in the middle either.
Such people also usually say that when you see through the charisma on display, there’s very little actual teaching of value left. I think that’s another important piece of the puzzle here too.
Class action lawsuits are being considered against some of the major institutions that sold teacher trainings with known abusers at their helm. Held in the balance are entire schools of yoga and communities of practice who grew up around such abusers. But this second category of allegations plays out rather differently. In this second category, it feels as if we’re witnessing a generational culture shift, in which the charismatic sages of modern yoga’s youth look smaller and insubstantial in the light of decades of new knowledge. We can appreciate that we found such teachers really inspiring at a formative time in our development, but now they seem a little irrelevant. The truly inspiring stories of Iyengar Yoga, for example, are not the teachers who smacked and bullied students into ramrod-straight headstands, but those of their students who turned such muddy, even traumatic experiences into the gold of breath and swara, release and repair.
We’ve all been in workshops and trainings that weren’t quite what they said they were, listening to teachers with great PR wondering if we’re the only one uninspired by what’s on offer. We all know the somatic dominance of being in a compliant group, and the sunk cost of being in the room – not wanting to admit the money and time we spent getting there wasn’t worth it. We sat quietly, we met some nice people, and in many cases, we watched real miracles come not from the teacher at the front of the room, but from the courage and tenacity and mutual resonance of so many people wanting to heal and be healed. And even when we saw things we didn’t agree with, we found ourselves wondering: ‘why is that student allowing this to happen?’ rather than ‘does that fellow practitioner need help realising that their boundaries are being crossed?’
In the facilitation technique I often use there’s a rule:
If at any point you are not learning or contributing, you have not just a right, but a responsibility to get up and find something more constructive to do.
So this January I’d like to offer a challenge – maybe even a resolution we can share together:
The next time we’re at a workshop or a training, and a well-known teacher repeats out of date junk science or discredited knowledge and refuses to accept the possibility that they’re wrong,
can we say ‘Thank you for your time, but I’m not learning anything here’ and walk out?
Perhaps that would be preparation for the next time we see a charismatic teacher repeatedly hitting on students, or we see them adjust someone repeatedly without consent, even when asked not to. Perhaps then,
could we politely but clearly say ‘I heard that student ask not to be touched, are you sure they’re okay with what you’re doing?’ and if the answer doesn’t convince us, deep in our gut, could we say ‘I don’t think this is appropriate behaviour for a yoga teacher’, and walk out?
And if we can do that, perhaps the next time we find ourselves in a room with some beatifically-smiling hippy talking endlessly and vaguely about love and pranic resonance and right relationship, while their every need for chai and foot-rubs is met by an adoring cabal of fragile-looking young devotees,
could we even, just possibly, even confidently, point and say ‘This emperor has no clothes on’, gather up our things, and walk the hell out?
If we could do that, I think we might find that, firstly, we don’t miss much at all by leaving. Most of all, I think that a number of other people might walk out with us. Their ability to leave might be greatly enhanced by us breaking the spell of group compliance. Above all, I am convinced that for those of us that do walk out, sharing our stories and experience over coffee, or finding a spot in the park to share practice together, would bring us more inspiration and joy and mutual empowerment than we would ever find by staying in rooms where we are not learning, and worse, where our intelligence is being insulted, and our agency eroded.
We’d be exercising our muscles of dignity and defiance, which I think we could do with more of, rather than deepening our discipline, our devotion, and our submission. Can we even remember who it was first told us that our devotion to Life or God or anything greater than us, had to begin with submission to the human at the front of the room? And was it the same voice that told us that same human, to whom we owed absolute devotion, was allowed to be flawed, even abusive, and it was our fault if we allowed it to happen?
The great thing about walking out is, no-one has to be confrontational, or have an argument. We just have to be able to listen to what our bodies are already telling us about how uncomfortable we feel, stand up, and leave. If we did that, could 2020 be the year that yoga teachers and students rediscover the power of collective action and enthusiastic consent? Could this be the start of addressing unethical behaviour by teachers and trainers in the very moment of it happening?
What would it take for us to walk out? And if you manage it, can you let other people how it went?
 I often use modified versions of something called Open Space Technology. It’s quite good.