Stories shared in this post are alleged, and have not been proven in the court of law.
I hate to break it to you, but the modern yoga world isn’t all love and light. Although so many of us know this ancient practice as healing, transformational, and extremely powerful to our own lives- like everything else in the world, there’s some darkness that comes along with it.
When the #MeToo Movement broke headlines in 2017, the people in the yoga industry started coming forward with their own heartbreaking stories of abuse. Some of these have since been turned into full documentaries about well known ‘guru’ type leaders, while others were shared on a smaller scale.
I’m sure many of you have heard about the abuse that took place at the hands (and teaching) of Pattabhi Jois and Bikram Choudhury, as these men played a huge role in bringing yoga to the West and encountered thousands of students over the years.
As saddened and disgusted as I am by the accounts of these men, I’m not here to shed new light on either of them. I’m here to talk about the abuse of power of (some, not all) male yoga teachers…particularly those with large social media followings.
Why? Because I’m hoping that in sharing these stories you’ll be able to identify red flags early on, before anything escalates to the point of harm. These men that I’m sharing about run teacher trainings and retreats with a student-base made up primarily of women. My hope is that this post might just keep even one more person safe.
Predators, Cult Tactics, and The Dark Side of the Yoga Industry
Red Flags From Your Yoga Teacher
First things first, let’s dive into the red flags you can look out for from your yoga teacher. The most important component here is simple: boundaries. You deserve to have boundaries, even if you’re in a student/receiving role. And those boundaries deserve to be respected, even by your teacher.
Sounds like a no brainer, I know. But it’s also really easy to fall prey to mental abuse and manipulation when someone in power is trying to exert that power over you. The bottom line is: if something feels off to you, it probably is.
Creating Followers Instead of Leaders
I am in no way the first person to say this (and I don’t know who is, sorry), but a true leader creates more leaders instead of followers. Yes, your teacher is there to guide you through the experience from a leadership position. However, the experience is also meant to actually TEACH and EMPOWER you how to move your own body safely on your own.
This means that you are not dependent on your teacher for your own growth.
Of course you can look up to your teacher as a mentor- whether that’s on the mat, off, or both- which comes with asking for advice or guidance in certain areas. That’s totally fine. What’s NOT fine is if you start to feel like you can’t make decisions without running it by them first. Again, these decisions can be related to yoga, or not.
Empowerment is the main ingredient to look out for here. If you feel empowered after taking their class- yay! That’s a good sign. If you feel belittled, confused, defeated based on specific things they said- possible red flag.
Of course there’s so much nuance to this conversation, and I can’t possibly dissect every single circumstance with examples here now. This is why your own critical thinking, understanding of your own boundaries, and connection to your gut/intuition is so important.
Touch Without Consent
Look, all teachers SHOULD ask for consent before offering hands-on assists or adjustments in their classes. However, mistakes DO happen, and sometimes a teacher genuinely just forgets.
Two things here:
- You can usually feel the difference between inappropriate touch, and someone who simply made a mistake and forgot to ask.
- You can always let your teacher know that you don’t want the assistance when they come over to you.
Let’s not also forget that even if the teacher did ask for consent, and you agreed- YOU CAN ALWAYS CHANGE YOUR MIND. Sure, yoga classes are usually a one-way conversation with a teacher talking at the students the entire time. I’m not saying start vocalizing your every thought and feeling during the class. What you can do is advocate for yourself and your boundaries if you feel they’ve been crossed.
Let me give you an example:
A very well-known teacher likes to touch people even when they don’t want to be touched, particularly through acroyoga. I’ve had multiple encounters with this person that have made me feel really uncomfortable, and I’ve heard COUNTLESS accounts of women who have been groped by this person, as well.
Some common phrases he’ll use will this thing like this:
“You’re so tense, you just need to loosen up. Let me give you a massage.”
“You don’t feel comfortable with that? It sounds like you might have some trust issues you need to work through.”
“Friends give friends massages, it’s not that weird.”
“It sounds like you need to heal the relationship with your own body if you’re not okay with someone touching it as lovingly as I am.”
Recently, a friend told me how he was coming on real strong to her, so she immediately shut it down and clarified: “We’re just friends, it’s really not like that.”
His response: “Yeah of course, I didn’t think it was romantic. Platonic relationships can involve touch, too.”
You’ll notice in these examples, he takes the NO, turns it around, and uses it against YOU. Like there’s something wrong with you for saying no to him.
Let me be the first to remind you that there is NOTHING wrong with you. You have that uncomfortable feeling, because this person is a predator.
That’s your intuition talking. Listen up.
Pressuring You To Do Something You Don’t Want To Do
There’s a big difference between your teacher encouraging you to do a handstand for the first time even though you’re scared, and pressuring you to do something you don’t want to do as a way to manipulate you.
As teachers, it’s our job to bring you to the edge- that space between effort and ease- which sometimes comes with a little nudging. This means that, yes, there might be parts of class that you might not have done if you didn’t have your teacher there pushing you past your comfort zone. Remember, do you feel empowered after you do that big backbend that scared you previously? Or, do you feel like you were pushed too far?
In my experience, pressure is usually applied with shame, rather than encouragement. You can see this in the examples from the previous section. This person is an expert in shaming his victims into submission.
Weaponizing Your Own Thoughts, Emotions, or Beliefs Against You
All abuse is wrong. However, there’s something particularly heartbreaking about spiritual abuse, because it tends to weaponize your beliefs against you. Oftentimes, the system or ideology itself is pure. It’s the person delivering the message that is tainted.
Yoga is no exception to this. Yoga as a practice and a philosophy is so pure in its healing- many of us can attest to that. Some of the teachers, aka the ones delivering the message of yoga, convolute it with their humanness.
Teachers can use this in all sorts of ways. Citing non-judgment or non-attachment to outcome when you vocalize your discomfort with their advances. Telling you that you’re “blocked” in some way, and their body, or their touch is the only thing that will “unblock” you.
That same teacher I referenced before would often use things like Ahimsa (non-violence) as a shield to deflect any negative feedback he’d get when he touched someone in a way they didn’t want to be touched. He’d also commonly get close to you through flattery and feigning a “safe space” to vent, then use your own fears, worries, or trust issues against you.
Let’s say you don’t like being touched in a certain way during an acro session.
He might say something like:
“That’s probably your abandonment wound speaking, not what your heart really wants. Just surrender.”
“I know you have a hard time trusting men, but I’m not like the guys that hurt you. I’m trying to help.”
“I know touch can feel scary at first, but remember that when we push through our fears there’s growth on the other side.”
Similar to before, this person manages to flip things around on YOU to make you look unreasonable, broken, dramatic, needy, etc. Why? Because all of these characteristics disempower you. They make you doubt yourself. And when you doubt yourself, you break the trust within. This is the easiest way for them to exert their power.
Whether you’re a yoga student or a yoga teacher, it’s really important to be discerning in how you engage in private classes. I’ve heard one too many stories of private classes in people’s homes go south in really dangerous ways. But there are other ways for teachers to isolate you other than private classes. Isolation can occur on physical, mental, and emotional levels.
Physically, teachers might try to get you alone by asking you to come in early, or stay late.
Mentally, all of that doubt they instilled in you before has made you feel confused, and reliant on them for direction.
Emotionally, the continual betrayal of our own boundaries literally breaks the heart.
Isolation is a key component in cults, which- let’s face it- some yoga studios, institutions, and schools plainly are. Like many high control groups, some of these yoga places will plant seeds of fear or doubt in the “outside” world, making you lean in tighter to the group. They do this, because the group all reinforce the beliefs of the institution- so your thoughts won’t be contaminated with truth or reason.
Using Their Power To Silence You
Being a yoga teacher is a position of power. Whether you’re a teacher or a student, I’m sure you’ve experienced a moment where you’re doing something that surprises you because of how intently you were following the teacher’s guidance.
The truth is, when you have a solid craft of teaching, you’re almost able to put people into a hypnotic sort of state with your cues. This is a vulnerable state to be in, because they’re in full trust, and you’re the guide. Ethical teachers will of course not use this power to manipulate or control, they’ll use this power to help bring people closer to themselves, instead.
Now, if you add a large social media following to the equation, this is a position of power on steroids. Although we all know that social media numbers don’t really mean much at all, on a societal level these numbers are still associated with credibility, status, and power.
While they’re are plenty of stand up male teachers with large platforms (shoutout Calvin Corzone, Patrick Beach, Dice…to name a few), there’s also several who are predators. Plain and simple.
In fact, there are TWO who I receive the most complaints about.
One of whom I’ve had my own uncomfortable encounter with. Remember the groping acro guy? Yeah, he’s one of them. And stories can range from inappropriate comments, to unwanted touch, to even sexual assault, and indecent exposure.
What’s worse is that BOTH of these men (who are friends, of course) use the size of their social media platform for two things:
- To intimidate their victims into silence, rather than speaking out.
- To lure victims in with false promises.
Let me give you an example for both.
Okay, so after acro guy assaulted a girl DURING A RETREAT he told her that if she tried to tell anyone, no one would believe her because she’s no one and he’s _____ (fill in the blank with his name). He went on and on about how he’s sponsored, and super connected with all these other yoga influencers and business owners, and she’s nothing. She’s irrelevant. And he’d make sure she’d never get a job teaching again.
When this complaint was brought to said sponsor, the sponsor said that they needed to hear from the victims themselves (there were actually multiple women on that same retreat). But- surprise, surprise- no one wanted to say anything. They were terrified of this guy, and also didn’t really trust the sponsor. So, the allegations were dropped, and nothing came of it.
This was four years ago. It makes me sick to think about how many more women he’s hurt since then.
Now for an example of using the size of the social media platform to lure people in.
These same two guys worked together this time. They met a cute girl (I say girl, because she was only 21-years-old at the time) at the acro green in Venice. She wasn’t a California native, and was just passing through the area. They start flexing their sponsorships and name dropping other big yoga influencer friends as a way to impress her.
When they found out she already has 10k followers, they both jumped at the chance to “help her grow her following,” and told her they “introduce her to some people.” This girl was young, impressionable, but also not dumb. She wanted to grow her following to grow her budding yoga teacher career, but she could also tell these guys were coming on pretty strong.
When acro guy was flying her, and started adding his creeping massage special, she straight up told him:
“It’s not like that, I just see you as a friend.”
To which he *classically* responded:
“Yeah, I know. Friends can still touch each other, it’s fine. Don’t be weird about it.”
Although she knew a boundary had been crossed, she was still confused and silenced in that moment. She wondered if something was wrong with her for not wanting to be touched in that way. She didn’t hang out with him again.
However, the story doesn’t end there.
Because she was connected with them both on social media, where they loosely kept in touch. Guy number 2 reached out one day and said he was in her state for work, and wanted to know if he could crash on her couch for a few nights so he didn’t have to get a hotel.
She thought it was a little weird, given that she didn’t know him well. But at this point, he hadn’t really set off the same alarm bells as acro guy, so she agreed. Plus, she had a roommate, and he was staying on the COUCH- so it’s not like they’d be sleeping in the same room, or anything.
He came over, and the three of them (the girl, her room mate and guy number 2) all had dinner, talked, laughed, and wound down for bed. They all had early starts in the morning, as she had a class at 6 am, and he had a sunrise shoot. She made up the couch, then went into her room, closed the door, and tried to go to sleep.
She remembers having a hard time falling asleep, and just feeling a little on edge, but didn’t think much of it. Next thing she knows, her door opens and guy number 2 is standing in the doorway silently.
“Hey, what’s up, did you need something?” she asked.
“I’m having trouble sleeping on the couch, I’d rather sleep here,” he said, gesturing to her bed.
“Oh, uh…” she started to explain that she didn’t feel comfortable with that, but it was too late.
He jumped into her bed, and immediately mounted himself on top of her.
The girl is 5’2 and about 110 lbs. I don’t know guy number 2’s size or weight, but I do know it’s a helluva lot more than that.
He pinned her down, and she started to yell out asking him to stop. Eventually, making enough noise to scare him into thinking the roommate might hear.
“It’s not like that!” she said as she finally shoved him off of her.
The look in his eyes had changed from the enlightened yogi persona to the rage that comes from rejection. He said nothing, just slammed the door, and left.
When she woke up the next morning, she opened her door to find her entire house trashed. Everything flipped, and broken. But he was gone, and that’s all she cared about. She never spoke to him again. And didn’t tell anyone for years.
This person is one of my dear friends, and I even had to pry to get her to tell me the name of the person. Why? Because, even now, 7 years later- you could still tell that she was scared, because of WHO HE IS in this industry. She didn’t know if I was friends with him, due to our overlapping circles.
I’m sharing her story now, because:
number one- I have her consent to do so. And number two- because this person leads retreats and trainings that are primarily women students. You might even be one of them.
Like I said from the very beginning of this post, if this can help keep even just one more person safe- then these words have served the purpose I set out with. I am so incredibly passionate about being an advocate for women, because I know how scary it can be to speak out against predators. I know how draining it can be to share your story, especially when there’s no change as a result of it. And I know how heartbreaking it feels to feel like no one believes you, that you’re being dramatic, or “crazy.”
I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone.
I am for you.
Your boundaries matter.
And if you think you know who these people are based on your own experience, I am a safe space for you to talk about it. I can’t promise this post will result in change on a larger scale.
But I sure as hell hope it does.