On Teaching and Power — Part I

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In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new scandal rocking the New York City yoga scene. A longtime teacher at a prominent yoga school has been accused of sexual harassment by a teacher trainee/apprentice. The school is standing behind the teacher; some people support the accuser. Many acknowledge that they don’t know the truth, but agree that it is necessary to confront this issue head-on and figure out how to prevent it from happening in the first place. This isn’t the first time this kind of scenario has played out in the yoga world and garnered a similar reaction. It seems to me that if we are to address the issue of abuse honestly, we need to acknowledge the power dynamics inherent within the student-teacher relationship, and take a good hard look at our own attitudes.

One of the primary definitions of power is the ability to act or produce an effect. The student-teacher relationship is generally a hierarchy, with a power differential in which the teacher, as an authority figure, has the potential to wield influence over the student. The degree to which this influence occurs depends on many factors, including both the teacher’s and the student’s conscious and unconscious relationship to authority. As yoga teachers, part of our svadhyaya, or rigorous self-study, needs to include an ongoing assessment of our own feelings about power and authority and how we act them out. For example, how do we we feel when students don’t follow our instructions? Do we present the teachings as sacrosanct or do we leave room for questioning? Are we open to feedback? How invested are we in whether students believe us or not?

Having power can feed any teacher’s ego or tap into their unmet psychological needs, but when sexuality comes into play, this honest self-assessment is even more critical. Hatha yoga works expressly with people’s bodies, often through touch — and not just a gentle tap on the shoulder but frequently through full-body contact that can be reminiscent of a wrestling move. Since the body, mind and emotions are all being accessed consciously and unconsciously, we really have no idea what the impact of our interventions will be.

There is often talk of how the accusers did not listen to their own instinct, intuition, inner knowing, or the like. There is often a strong undercurrent of blaming the victim, or at least a need to underscore the victim/accuser’s role in the relationship. It is true that there are always different sides to a story and two people (if it is only two) involved. It is true that sometimes people lie. Hopefully under scrutiny the truth will bear out. However, it is critical to understand that even if someone feels they are in danger or “knows better,” he or she may not feel powerful enough to stop it. This is so often the case with abuse survivors, and it adds a layer of guilt and shame to the pain they already experience. Regarding this recent case, one well known teacher (not related to this particular school), said that this accuser was a consenting adult who “gave” her mentor this power. Just because power is given to us does not give us the right to abuse it.

Doctors and mental health practitioners are two groups of professionals, entrusted with caring for people’s health and well-being, who agree to subscribe to ethical codes that hold them to a high standard of behavior. We are are similarly obligated when we take on the mantle of yoga teacher. In Part II, I will offer some suggestions on how we can explore our own relationship to power and how it plays out in our teaching.

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