As you may have noticed, there’s a battle being fought in the yoga community. It started when Rebelle Society published this incendiary piece by Cameron Shayne, in which he acknowledges that he’s had sex with some of his students.
The post sparked a furious response, with various commentators, notably Chris Courtney and Carol Horton at Yoganonymous and 90 Monkeys respectively, disagreeing vehemently with his perspective. Now, Shayne has responded with a follow-up article of his own, which promises to be part one of a three-part series. This looks like rumbling on and on.
While I’m not wholly in agreement with Cameron Shayne, I think it’s important that the yoga community as a whole approaches the complex question of whether sex between yoga teacher and student is ever acceptable (note the ‘ever’) in a way that addresses both vital questions of ethics and power and the realities of the modern world. This is my contribution.
So, let’s start with Cameron Shayne. His position, as best I can make it out, is that the guru (the all-powerful Svengali figure) is an outdated role model for yoga teachers in the West, and that the moral strictures applied to a figure of such potent influence are no longer relevant. “Western yoga teachers”, he says, “must stop trying to play the role of guru, enlightened being, or one who possess a commodity on truth [sic]. We don’t. We are as limited, challenged and deep in it as our “students”.”
To some degree, this is undoubtedly true. We’re all human and fallible, and I appreciate Shayne’s humility in acknowledging as much. On the other hand, I think he overcooks this distinction, collapsing the decline of the guru into a confusing mish-mash of rhetoric that appears to place primary responsibility upon the student. In his initial article (which, admittedly, is phrased far more controversially than the second), he says: “If Buddha himself could sit under a tree … and find himself as ultimate guru, why are we still looking for anyone to light the way outside of ourselves?”
Yeah, hold on a minute there. It’s one thing to critique the guru-apprentice model. It’s quite another to cut the teacher out of the equation altogether. According to legend, Buddha facilitated the transformations of thousands by pointing them along the path he’d discovered. More to the point, if I turn up to one of your classes, I don’t get to do the teaching. You do. You also (I presume), get paid for sharing your knowledge, while I need to pay if I wish to participate. That’s a power differential right there.
Unlike Courtney and Horton, however, I don’t think these weaknesses are enough to totally eviscerate Shayne’s position. Social dynamics are changing, and the position of the teacher is changing with them. Undoubtedly, there are scenarios in which a sexual relationship between teacher and student would be a total violation of boundaries, for example during a teacher training in which a student is dependent upon the teacher to receive a qualification.
There are also, I think, significant grey areas. Imagine a situation in which a teacher and a fairly advanced student began to socialise over a number of months and gradually became intimately involved. Assuming there were no negative consequences for other students (which there’s no reason to assume there necessarily would be; a female friend of mine regularly participates in her partner’s classes without provoking questions about his professionalism), should the teacher be condemned or the student excluded from the teacher’s class on the grounds of conflict of interest? Should exceptions be made only in the case of pre-existing relationships? It’s hard for me to imagine a general policy that adequately addresses these nuances.
I lived in Bali for a year between April 2012 and April 2013, and was part of a lively, friendly community of yoga teachers and students. Some were transient, some made Bali more or less their permanent home. At times, one or more of the teachers would participate in a class helmed by one of the others. At least one was in a long-term relationship, and her partner sometimes came to her classes. There was also a vibrant acroyoga scene, based partly upon formal classes and partly on informal ‘jams’, in which those with more experience supported those with less, and no-one was specifically designated to teach.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
In a community in which people practice and socialise together, the mantle of teacher can be donned and discarded several times a day. Power dynamics lose their rigidity and become fluid. If I wanted to assert that sex between teacher and student was unequivocally wrong, I’d struggle to discern where one category ended and the other began.
Cameron Shayne is wrong to dismiss the differential between teacher and student wholesale, dangerously so when he implies that harmful behaviour on the part of the teacher can be attributed to the student. Yet he’s right to highlight the erosion of the traditional guru-apprentice model and the vacuum it creates in our understanding of who and what a yoga teacher is.
Yoga is many things to many people. So is sex. For some people, the yoga class may be a safe haven, a spiritual refuge, or simply a place to relax. For others it may be more akin to an aerobics class with chanting. I rocked up to my first yoga class in search of a form of exercise that wouldn’t leave me tight and achy the next day. A woman I met recently told me that she tried Bikram “just to get a hot body”.
A spectrum this large naturally covers an enormous range of people and motivations. Some students may very well be susceptible souls in need of protection. Others may be stone-cold badasses more than capable of making good decisions. Similarly, sex can be an expression of everything from deep love and devotion to brutal violence. How can we ensure that we eliminate questionable or abusive behaviour in the yoga community, while also supporting and embracing healthy sexual expression?