Teachers and Students: Rule Making, Rule Breaking


Back in February, reporters for the Daily News and NY Post either accessed court records or received a press release pertaining to a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Jivamukti Yoga teacher against a senior teacher. The complaint contained enough details of intimate encounters between these two teachers to make for the kind of tawdry click-bait tabloid reporters lust after.

The complainant’s attorney apparently made his client available for a photo shoot in his office, as he prepared to try his case in the court of public opinion.

I read the initial news stories and formed my own opinions based on nearly four decades in this field, my personal history of student-teacher-guru dynamics, as well as my inside knowledge of many of the guru-teacher scandals of the past.  I kept my opinions mostly to myself until I was contacted by Michelle Goldberg who asked to interview me for a piece she was writing for Slate that would focus on the “cultish” environment at Jivamukti.  Michelle and I had a maintained a friendly connection since I had invited her to present an evening talk last June at The Breathing Project discussing her just-released book about Indra Devi “The Goddess Pose” so I agreed to the interview.

Over the course of about an hour, Michelle and I discussed many things, including my history teaching at Jivamukti in the early days (1992-1994) at their Second Avenue studio. I named a few other people I thought she should talk to who had more intimate knowledge of the current atmosphere at Jivamukti, but it never occurred to me to ask whether anyone had agreed to be quoted on the record.  Apparently, I was the only one.  To be fair, had I been offered the option of being quoted anonymously I would have declined because in my opinion anonymous online commentary is cowardly.  Though I was quoted accurately in the final article there was far more that wasn’t quoted.

I enjoyed reading the Slate piece. I like Michelle’s writing style and she treated me fairly as far as she quoted me. Predictably, she chose the most controversial things I said for her article. I have no problem with that – she was doing her job, and doing it well.  I even called to leave Michelle a congratulatory message the day the article came out.  I thanked her for quoting me accurately and helping me sound critical without trashing anyone personally.  As it turned out, not everyone agreed and some people felt very personally trashed by what I said. They wasted no time condemning me as an insensitive, brutish “victim-blamer.”

The most notable criticism came via Matthew Remski who interviewed the complaining teacher and her lawyer, as well as Sharon Gannon and David Life.  Matthew gave me a chance to respond to their points of view (which I did), and to retract any of my quotes (which I did not). Matthew did include small excerpts of my lengthy reply in his blog post on the topic.

This past Wednesday, I decided to deliver a heartfelt talk on this topic for my monthly members event at The Breathing Project.  We made a video recording and have edited the 90-minute talk down to about a half-hour – which is still pretty long, but if you stick with it, I can guarantee it will at the least provide food for thought. If you have limited time, skip ahead to the 25-minute mark to hear how rules, ethical guidelines, vows and boundaries can actually provoke transgression.

I may have more to say on this topic in the future, but for now, this was the most efficient way to get a response out there.

As always, feel free to leave a comment.

26 comments on “Teachers and Students: Rule Making, Rule Breaking

  1. Leslie, thanks for clarifying your comments. I agree with you that in these kinds of situations boundary transgression is in itself seductive. Up to a point, I agree with you that different individuals respond differently to experiences outside their control. However, speaking as someone who works with people who have experienced developmental trauma, I am very aware that the process of becoming able to respond in more helpful and effective ways is long and slow. In the meantime most of the clients I work with have gone on to experience significant abuse as adults (rape, abusive therapeutic relationships and so on). It simply does not happen that a person emerges from a background of childhood sexual abuse functional and able to make positive choices for themselves. All the sexual abuse survivors I have met have sincerely wanted to keep themselves out of situations where they will be vulnerable again to abuse. I have never come across anyone who was able to do this without ongoing trauma work. Where complex trauma exists, neurology itself is dysfunctional. They lack the capacity to make those safe choices. The damage is deep and multiple – sometimes more hidden than other times, but always there. In no way is it ever excusable for a person or organisation in a position of power to manipulate vulnerable individuals – ever. That person or individual is always responsible, not the abused individual.

    • I agree, and I hope that was clear I was in no way condoning the behavior of the teachers or management at Jivamukti yoga.

      That said, it is also the responsibility of the student to let teachers know if they have the kind of history you describe.

      • This is an interesting reply. Can you please explain why a sexually assaulted victim must let teachers know about their past trama? Does that mean a teacher would consciously decide whether or not to take advantage of a vulnerable person? Does the type of trauma matter? We are all damaged in different ways. A yoga instructor is not trained to therapeutically help in all forms of therapy. Are you saying a student must explain and rehash every traumatic experience in their life in order for a yoga instructor to better teach Uttanasana or that by knowing every student’s history thwy will explain the sutras differently?

        • No, that is not even close to what I want as saying. What I meant was that just because you’re a yoga teacher doesn’t mean you can read somebody’s mind. If a student has a concern about their boundaries, whether it’s touch or otherwise, they should communicate that. And, if they find they’re in an atmosphere where it seems that kind of communication is unwelcome, they should immediately exit and find another yoga class.

      • Yes, although where there’s a corrupt power system, as it sounds as if there is at Jivamukti, this is probably not going to help the student to stay safe. At the end of the day, the buck always stops with us – the teachers.

        • I’m not claiming that teachers shouldn’t be responsible. What I’m suggesting is that students need to be responsible for own well-being also.

      • It is absolutely the responsibility of the teacher to behave in a manner that respects the student by maintaining appropriate boundaries at all times. It is absolutely not necessary for me to share my trauma experience with you prior to attending your class. If you are doing your job with integrity the space you hold will be safe and grounded for me to attend.

        • Yes. Correct. And that is certainly the case in all my classes. But, I learned lessons the hard way. And, a student does not necessarily have to share any details about trauma to let a teacher know that they are sensitive to touch, adjustments, etc. if that is a known component of the class they are in. Just be cause you are a student doesn’t mean you are powerless to protect yourself.

  2. I thought your quotes were enlightening. Your history in this field is lengthy and deserves respect. I was a student of yours in California at Larry Payne’s yoga therapy course many years ago and we spoke about Flexion/extension within most yoga practices. I treasure the info I received and will continue to read more on this guru topic. Without mentioning any sort of scandal, I’ve witnessed many become transfixed on s particular teacher/studio/method. Thank you for your wisdom and courage!

  3. Leslie, firstly your theorizing about someone elses own experience without speaking with them firstly comes across as a bit wacky and insensitive for anyone involved in a helping profession like yoga. But let’s leave that to one side because you’re the kind of person that doesn’t seems to care too much about how they come across, right? Fine. So, as people we all take damage all the time by what other people say and do, but *you* are getting confused between your right to say anything you like about anything (free speech) with the (necessary) legal/moral framework that informs and legitimizes judgements about claims we have been damaged by someone else. Worse, when we claim to have been damaged by the actions or speech of another, you’re suggesting our rights to seek a legal remedy should be taken into context of the poor choices *we* have made. Under your imagined scheme of jurisprudence, you seem to be suggesting that the “victim” (in some sense) knowingly participated in abusive behavior, as if she deliberately walked into a bank when it was being held up so therefore (somehow) “she deserved to be shot” – at best – so you mistakenly believe she has no right to claim injury or damages because she made the wrong decision to go into the bank. That makes **no** legal or common sense. The law is there to protect us, and it’s for everyone, not just those that have (on your terms) made better life choices. I think you need to recognize you are out of your depth here, in every philosophical, moral, legal, common… and “yoga” sense.

    • At which point in my talk do you think I was giving a legal opinion? I said at the very beginning I was not.

      I was speaking about something else entirely, which you seem to have missed entirely.

  4. Hi Leslie. Thanks for the effort to make yourself clearer. I’m left with an impression, after one viewing, that still makes a squeaking sound in my brain. Impressionistic Question: If someone is mentally ‘wrong’ to stay in an environment where they are to ‘worship another person without question, and do whatever they say…. ‘ (if someone is mentally wrong to stay, as you say toward the final minutes here in this video), then why isn’t this ‘wrong-headed person’ sporting an actual ‘incapacity’, shall we say. A mental disabilility. ~~And then, with this disability/incapacity; isn’t then the victim quite open to ‘assault’, or anything else that is less than legal? SO: Isn’t the action-behavior of Ruth ‘seducing/sexually manipulating’ her victim (step by step, –the vinyasa krama of it all)… So-then isn’t Ruth taking advantage of the cultish weird grooming behavior that Gannan/Life put in place (loyalizing teachers in their own endeavor to re-mystify yoga, and then seeking to have -loyal mystics- around them…) ——–So-then: By extension: Isn’t Ruth a victim too? Having been groomed in this cultishness? ——Isn’t what we have here disability All The Way Down? ——Can we say that the creators of Jivamukti are mentally ‘wrong’, and can’t to be held accountable for creating abuses of other mentally ‘wrong’ people? Or because these two spiritual leaders are themselves mentally wrong, they also are victims? What I’m Hearing: Sharon and David: Rejected and rejecting, all tied-up in notions of —lost favor due to perceived disloyalty? ——-Is this then frank paranoia? Pathological paranoia? Mental illness? It’s only paranoia if they aren’t really trying to get into your bed? —– If someone here is ‘guilty’ of making more than a bad personal choice? [Mentally ill people are placed into incarceration, where they can then go on to ~~create another cult of their mentally-ill-personality.] ____ But where do we place the blame? At Adam and Eve? Or at David and Sharon?

    • In this case, the court system will or will not place a certain amount of blame.

      Other than the legal aspect of this conversation, why is the first impulse to look for someone to blame?

      It’s more useful to ask how all the parties involved could’ve been more responsible for their own clarity and well-being.

  5. Leslie, I only watched last 5 minutes of your talk so far, but I must say – I really appreciated your honesty about what some have called “the adrenaline rush” of breaking the rules! You seem to have a lot of humility, and a sense of humor, and you must have self-discipline too because you sound like you worked through situations where boundaries are crossed… You reminded me of a psychiatrist in San Francisco named Peter Rutter, M.D., who wrote a book called “Sex in the Forbidden Zone,” about how tempting it is for professionals to respond to intimacy needs of their own and of their clients, or patients, or students – and which also describes how difficult it is for professionals to criticize each other, knowing how tempting it is to transgress… Anyway – I think the yoga world needs the kind of frankness and experience you model and I’m glad to hear/see you speaking out on this topic…

  6. Thank you for this intelligently and authentically articulated discussion. It was powerful and grounding. It reminded me that clarity and honesty about my own responsibility to making better choices is something I seek.

  7. Hi Leslie,
    I’m enjoying this video very much and hearing more about how Jiva began. Being one of the teachers who left during the Astanga walk-out in 2001, I can add that David and Sharon were also requiring that we take (if I remember correctly) 3 jiva classes a week and also come to a certain number of Satsangs. I think they were also closing their Astanga program at the time, though that I may be mis-remembering. But definitely they were requiring Astangis to also go to Jiva classes. This, after requiring we take a month of Mysore as part of our TT training in 1999/2000, which is how many of my fellow TTs got hooked on the practice to begin with.
    I am upset about the news about Ruth, as well as David and Sharon’s comments on the matter. It (at least for now) makes it feel to me like a lot of their teachings to us have been tainted by being used for spiritual bypassing. After teaching their style (plus with more 800 hour trainings mixed in to refine anatomy, etc) for almost 17 years, this is all very strange and I am not sure what to do with it.
    As for whether it is a choice or not to buy in to their thinking, I came in already agreeing with a lot of the spiritual teachings, so I took on the surrender part as well because it seemed that since the rest already made sense to me and fit into my world view, then that should, too. At the same time I noticed increasingly that for a place that preached kindness to all beings, some people there were not exactly kind to me, or to others, and for no particular reason. That’s in part why I left during that walkout. I cannot speak to what it’s like to have a history of abuse and whether that would make it harder to see when things aren’t right. I suspect though that it very well could make it more difficult. Not because you are a victim necessarily, but because you don’t have the understanding of what an improper situation is. I did not grow up with abuse, but I did buy into the surrender thing wholesale, and for that I got an audibly ripped hamstring from an adjust that I “breathed into” per the teachings and then “healed with practice” per the teachings. It is still messed up to this day, despite tons of massage, acupuncture, etc. You could say that for me, that was my teaching moment in my 20s when I didn’t know any better. But it took me years to figure that out.

  8. Bravo. You are a breath of fresh air. I strongly believe in what you’ve said. Thanks for being so honest and standing up for your views (though I’d expect nothing less from you), not walking it back as happens so often in these politically correct times. Your experience gives you great perspective and wisdom.

  9. Definition of sexual assault: non-consensual sexual intercourse, or sexual touch, or sexual exploitation. If you are forced, coerced or intimidated to submit to any kind of sex act, included unwanted touching of your or another person’s intimate body parts, it is sexual assault. if you are asleep, unconscious, or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, you are considered unable to consent to sexual activity. If someone commits any sex act upon you when you are unable to consent, it is also sexual assault. These behaviors are against the law in New York State.

  10. Leslie,
    As I see it, you are guilty of two things. First, you confused a bunch of people with very specific agendas with the facts. Second, you gave your honest opinion when somebody asked for it. I think it very interesting to look at the ethos of each of these players because it explains much about why they are attacking you. If I was writing a book about “the dark side of yoga,” for example, I would probably focus on the “dark side” and ignore everything else.

    Please keep up the good fight. One reason that I think you are such a good teacher/educator is because you don’t expect everyone to blindly follow everything you say, you know that there are exceptions to every rule, and you carefully weigh your opinions and assess the facts before expressing them to others. I’m sorry that these people want to obfuscate their issues by trying to blame you for their mistakes, their biases, and their ignorance. I don’t see ahimsa anywhere in all of this drama.

  11. Bravo, Leslie! Thank you for your courage and your clarity of thought, in illuminating the mature, logical path to avoiding such misfortune. It’s so tempting to ignore our participation in our own demise. We must all respect that we’re subject to human emotional drives and psychodynamics, no matter how enlightened, divine, cool, etc. As in Krishna Das’ story, “We’re all on the same side of the river.” And we’re all responsible for our choices.

  12. Hi Leslie,

    Some more stuff:

    It sucks to be somebody’s lesson…excellent (and a little narcissistic ) that you learned about yourself. I hope the transgressed came through as well.

    The unintended consequences of sleeping with students in a teacher training program\ ashram are especially devestating since there is an assumed spiritual component predicated on TRUST.

    Sex is the turn on, not breaking the rules. Breaking the rules may add extra excitement for some people, sorta like adultery.

    It’s the SEX and teachers(overwhelmingly male) who have sex with their students do it because they can. Not very savvy, but there it is.

    Maybe being on the other end would give you a different perspective. But that’s karma and another conversation…

    So I still say, Thou Shalt Not Kill, no matter how intoxicating it may be to break that rule.

    Much Love
    Susan
    Still a fan
    PS loved your observation re: animal rights activists and the inverse relationship to human rights.

  13. I respect your work as a teacher of anatomy. I appreciate your perspective and ultimately your desire to empower potential victims to avoid bad scenarios all together. But, in this case, I feel like you are definitely being light Jivamukti’s responsibility, even with the context that you’ve provided. Perhaps, even more so with the context that you provided, Jivamukti should be repeating a similar mantra of, “What the fuck did we build?”

    Where I will agree with you is that the student has a responsibility to keeping herself safe (physically and mentally) by whatever means are within her own control. That responsibility starts and ends with a responsibility to herself. Your analogy of the person with albinism certainly makes sense – though maybe not truly an apples to apples comparison. While the person with albinism knows directly their predisposition to develop cancer, it is doubtful that any student (regardless of their history) walks into a studio thinking, “I’m at a yoga studio, so I better watch out for sexual coercion.”

    What I feel is downplayed in your reply is that leaders at this studio have a much, much greater responsibility. First, like all individuals, members of management have responsibility to themselves as individuals. But, by stepping into roles of power they also must be held accountable to they train, those they teach, and the greater yoga community as whole, given that the studio didn’t accidentally become world-famous and renowned. As the reluctant hero is told, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

    And, while the student will have to coordinate their own path forward as an individual. It should serve as a warning to all students to do their homework before enrolling in any training, no matter how enticing it seems. On a larger scale the organization of Jivamukti is, rightly, responsible for examining what this means for their entire organization, and own their part in bringing more controversy to the industry. It’s shameful to our yoga community as a whole when leaders abuse power, and we should hold leaders responsible to clean up their mess. Because they decided to take the seat of the Teacher may mean they have to clean their messes in public.

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