Twisted relationships: Inside yoga sex scandals
Despite yoga’s strong ties to spirituality, famous yogis often become something like rock stars to their disciples, enjoying power, adulation money – and sex. So why is it so shocking when yet another “yoga sex scandal” breaks?
Even if teachers and participants in a yoga class are adults, and of legal age of consent, the instructor-student relationship is inherently susceptible to an abuse of power, particularly if the instructor is considered a spiritual “guru,” as yogis often are.
“Generally, we believe the yoga-teacher community as a whole isn’t open to sex with students,” says Monika Werner, co-owner of Bold & Naked yoga studio and an instructor who co-directs Yoga Teacher Training Certification programs at Joschi Yoga Institute in New York City. “If it’s consensual, it’s nobody’s business. But I wouldn’t encourage sex between teacher and student and think it’s wrong to look at your yoga class as a place to find a new sex partner. I think that most yoga teachers are just there to teach yoga. But there are some black sheep [who take advantage], just like in any industry.”
Sexual misconduct has become so common that the Yoga Teachers Association of California outlined more explicit guidelines in its code of conduct, stating, “While acknowledging the complexity of some yoga relationships, we avoid exploiting the trust and dependency of students. … All forms of sexual behavior or harassment with students are unethical, even when a student invites or consents to such behavior involvement. Sexual behavior is defined as, but not limited to, all forms of overt and covert seductive speech, gestures and behavior as well as physical contact of a sexual nature; harassment is defined as, but not limited to, repeated comments, gestures or physical contacts of a sexual nature.”
On a national level, the Yoga Alliance advises teachers to “avoid words and actions that constitute sexual harassment or harassment based on other legal protected characteristics.”
The organization also requires members to behave in a “professional and conscientious manner. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring that I live up to any commitments I make to my students or to the public, and ensuring that my practices and behavior conform to the representations I make about myself in holding myself out as a yoga practitioner who adheres to certain precepts.”
The latest so-called scandal involves actress Uma Thurman’s brother Dechan Thurman, a Jivamukti yoga instructor whom a (presumably former) friend, Maria Sliwa, claims confided to her that he’s a nymphomaniac who frequently engages in sex with his female students. Sliwa says that she informed Jivamukti management, which prohibits teachers from having sex with their students, about Thurman’s proclivities, but the organization hasn’t done anything about it.
The accusations against Thurman aren’t uncommon, though they are rather innocuous compared to some of the claims of abuse out there. Check out just a few of the more serious cases in which yoga instructors have been accused of impropriety, harassment and even rape.
The founder of the Anusara style of yoga reportedly had affairs with many of his female students, some married, and cheated on at least one of his girlfriends. Friend is also said to have led an otherwise all-female Wiccan coven, called Blazing Solar Flames, which sometimes held naked gatherings for its members.
In 2002 Susannah Bruder, an instructor at one of the studios Yee co-owned with his wife, sued the couple, claiming her contract was terminated after she accused Yee of having affairs with some of his students. A few years later, Yee left his wife of 24 years after becoming involved with one of his students, Colleen Saidman, who left her husband for Yee.
The founder of Kripalu yoga, Desai stepped down from the Kripalu Yoga Fellowship in 1994 when allegations arose that he had had sexual relationships with three of his female students. He’s still teaching in Florida.
Though he claimed to be celibate and endorsed sexual abstinence to his followers, the guru reportedly molested and raped young girls in a secret(ish) sex lair equipped with apparatus that witnesses likened to a “gynecologist’s table” in his ashram in India. Muktanada, who died in 1982, was also accused of intimidating and even beating followers and was the guru of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, whom many believe is the unnamed guru Elizabeth Gilbert referred to in her best-selling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love.”
Four women from the European Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation’s yoga therapist training program filed formal complaints with Austrian police in 2002 accusing Desikachar of sexual, mental and emotional abuse. The North American branch of the foundation sent a notice to members stating, “The allegations include the misuse of his position as a yoga mentor by utilizing his knowledge of personal histories of sexual and emotional trauma in an attempt to initiate sexual relations.” Followers also accused Desikachar, the son and grandson of famous yogis, of using his lineage to intimidate and abuse women.
Bhajan lied to his followers about his former station in India before coming to the U.S. in 1969, claimed he could see into the future, and was accused of infidelity and rape. Bhajan taught a type of Kundalini yoga influenced by Sikh practices and died in 2002.
Lady Gaga and George Clooney are among the Bikram Yoga founders’ practitioners, but five other students of Choudhury’s “hot yoga” are suing him for rape, claiming he used his guru status to intimidate and take advantage of them. His accusers also contend that Choudhury punished them when they refused his advances, rewarded male teachers who brought him women who were easy to manipulate and did creepy things, such as brag of his “72-hour marathon sex sessions,” during lectures.