Beyond the Controversy: Yoga Moves Forward. ~ Scott Newsom

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So, a big name yoga teacher with a large, maybe even a world-wide following is exposed for having sex with his students and employees, being deceptive about his relationships, and perhaps other unsavory dealings with his associates. This story has been reported about several major leaders inside Yoga and it is also certainly known to happen among less well-known leaders. It happens often enough that it could easily be argued that a pattern of such behavior exists.

It’s an old story, not exclusive to Yoga by any accounting. Each time it is repeated, real people suffer real harm.  

Whenever this kind of behavior is exposed, there are some predictable and often repeated reactions. First is to blame the person who exposed the behavior. It is argued that problems arising from private, consensual sexual behavior between adults should be left to those who engaged in the behavior to handle if things don’t work out well for any of the parties involved. Others counter that leaving the behavior in the dark exposes others to what they see as an abuse of power. Both sides have their points. Spreading unfounded gossip is harmful. On the other hand, reporting allegations allows the process of discovery to take its course, protecting potential victims from additional harm or exonerating the accused.

The theme of the behavior being consensual is also repeated, usually by the accused, his defenders or others who think similarly, as a way of denying or minimizing the harmful nature of the behavior and again casting blame on the disclosure of the behavior as the “real” cause of the harm. So, consent, disclosure, privacy and protection from harm are some of the main issues that deserve further discussion.

It is a well-accepted principle that relationships between subordinates and those who have some type of power of them is never completely consensual. A power differential exists (not 100% either way, but more power on one side of the equation). This is the basis for laws against counselors, priests, teachers, physicians, massage therapists and others in the helping professions from having sexual relationships, or any other type of dual relationships with their clients, congregants, disciples, students, patients, etc. The principle also applies to having such relationships with employees. What happens to the student, employee, client, etc. when the relationship goes bad? That cloud always hangs over the sexual relationship and the teacher-student, employer-employee relationship, so it can never be a healthy relationship no matter how much the participants want to deny that.

People in helping professions have a duty to their subordinates not to do them harm and dual relationships invariably lead to harm to the helping relationship. So, the idea that having sexual relationships with students and employees could be genuinely consensual or not harmful is naïve at best. Yoga aspires to be a helping profession whether it is helping body, mind, or spirit and as such, we owe a duty of care to those who seek us out. Dual relationships violate that duty of care and there is just no way around that fact. This is true regardless of whether the other participants could be seen as empowered, consensual actors in the affair. It is true that they also have their responsibility, but that does not in any way absolve the leader or practitioner from their responsibility.

When leaders fail to live up to expected standards, it is almost certain that we will hear people argue that we should not have raised the leader so high to begin with (put him on a pedestal), implying that we are responsible for our own disappointment. It is true that every person directly involved in the dual relationships have responsibility for their own behavior and the consequences of it. It is also true that one can be partially responsible and partially a victim at the same time. While it’s is not a good idea to expect our leaders to be perfect, this argument totally misses the point and risks blaming the many victims – students, teachers and others who had no prior knowledge of the events at all. Leaders do not have to be placed on a pedestal to be in a position where their behavior can cause great harm. In most cases, being placed, (or placing oneself) on a pedestal has little to do with the real harm that is done. Yes, the resulting fall may disabuse the followers of cherished beliefs about their leader, but those beliefs were delusional to begin with and all parties are better off without them.

Leaders have a responsibility to the members of every organization they lead not to behave in ways that can predictably bring significant disrepute upon the organization or its members, deserved or not.  Teachers and employers have duty to those whose well-being is in their care. This includes refraining from behavior that could tarnish the subordinate’s reputation should it become known. This is not an extraordinary expectation that requires higher levels of psychological or spiritual development to uphold. It is really on the level of common decency, based in caring about those we are close to.

In circumstances where those involved are also in other committed relationships, there is of course the potential for significant harm to the uninvolved partners, their children, extended families, their extended network of friends, relatives, associates, and so on.  Then, there is also the responsibility to every member of the organization who could also be hurt if behavior that has even the appearance of impropriety is exposed.

It takes an enormous amount of conscious suppression (not denial which is largely unconscious) to engage in inappropriate dual relationships when so much is at stake.  There is really no way that this kind of behavior can be justified when we know that the potential for disclosure is always there. That risk alone is enough to draw a clear line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, setting aside all other ethical or moral considerations.

These are not considerations that would fail to cross the mind of those directly involved. People who engage in illicit behavior know that the possibility of disclosure is always there. Engaging in behavior that you know will be harmful to others if you are caught is one of the things that so appalls and angers those affected in these situations. Knowingly taking that risk without the consent of all those who could be harmed is at the core of why this behavior is considered so unethical and such a direct violation of our core principles of ahimsa, satya and bramacharya to name a few. Those directly involved are never the only ones harmed.

In a “profession” that makes much of its ethical precepts, having yet another major leader exposed for this kind of hypocrisy calls into question the integrity of the entire field. It is even hard to argue that such a charge is entirely unjustified. Whether justified or no, it is ultimately our responsibility to learn from our mistakes and grow in a positive way through the challenges presented to us in trying times.

One way we could, (dare I say) open to grace in this situation would be for our field to take a giant leap forward in the codification of ethical behavior for our leaders. An shared ethics code for the field would be a step in the right direction. Many fields have been down this path before us so there is plenty of material to draw on as we work toward that goal. See Ken Pope’s collection of ethics codes here.

In many professions, certain dual relationships, specifically, sexual and some types of financial relationships, have actually been outlawed. This is done by licensing practitioners and putting their license to practice in jeopardy for violating their ethical codes. In some states, criminal prosecution is now also an option.  Licensure also provides for an appropriate entity to which such violations can be reported. Yoga has no place for allegations such as these can be reported, except into the public arena, where they are certain to do the maximum amount of damage to the greatest number of people, innocent or otherwise. Yoga should consider what types of state certification, licensure and reporting requirements would be a benefit to Yoga and take steps to move the field in that direction.   Thinking that we are somehow an exception that wouldn’t benefit from this type of external containment denies our humanity and our dark side which was so eloquently presented by Ramesh Bjonnes here.

When we accept the responsibility of helping others achieve higher levels of functioning in body, mind and spirit, we must be held to higher standards. It is simply human nature to fail to meet our highest aspirations and our leaders are obviously not immune to such failures. When laws were passed forbidding sexual relationships between counselors and clients, rates of such abuse dropped from about 20% of these professionals having sex with their clients to less than 1% and we can expect to see similar results if Yoga follows a similar path. Yoga needs licensure for teachers and yoga therapists if we are to regain or attain the kind of credibility of which Yoga itself is worthy.  This will obviously require some serious and sustained discussion and it may in the end come to nothing. I am still issuing this call to the one big Yoga to address this issue.  Failing to do so would necessarily be done consciously, and those who fail to act will be responsible for the next time this same old story is repeated within Yoga.


Photo credits: Scandal, Man & Woman, Fully Committed

Scott Newsom, Ph.D., RYT-200. Dr. Newsom, a licensed psychologist, began his practice of Yoga on New Year’s Day 2008 while recovering from a series of surgeries that left him out of shape, over weight and not feeling so great about much of anything. He quickly fell in love with the practice and experienced a transformation in mind, body and spirit that called him to take his practice to a higher level. In 2010 he completed Yoga Teacher Training with two teachers who were certified in the Anusara-inspired tradition.  Following his formal yoga teacher training, he sought to further immerse himself in yoga, spending 10 days at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and studying with Yoga teachers with widely divergent practices. He enjoys incorporating wisdom from a variety of yoga traditions into his practice and believes the only true guru is the guru within.

This article was prepared by Elephant Yoga Editor, Tanya Lee Markul.

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anonymous Feb 14, 2012 12:35am

I appreciate Scott Newsom's comment, "Social relationships between teachers and students take a variety of forms, and a blanket prohibition may or may not be more constricting than would be good for Yoga."

I think blanket restrictions (if they were even possible to establish and enforce in an activity as amorphous as yoga) would be akin to using a baseball bat to swat a fly, albeit in some cases a big fly. What I mean is, not all forms of yoga teaching are the same or warrant the kind of protections envisioned — some yoga involves spiritual, interpersonal and emotional work with students who could be said to be in a subordiate or vulnerable position in relation to the teacher. That would seem to establish it as a helping profession on par with anything from psychological therapies to life coaching, possibly even involving pastoral care (if that form of yoga is bound to a Hindu or Buddhist or other religious or spiritual group).

But then there are forms of yoga teaching that are no more intense or interpersonal than teaching zumba at the gym, salsa dance in the local community hall, tennis or raquet ball at the country club, or even crochet at the church hall. I chose those activities because they are ones that I know of people getting socially or romantically involved with their instructors, some for carefree one-night stands and other for actual relationships or long-term friendships. The notion that they were subordinate and vulnerable to these kinds of teachers or instructors wouldn't have crossed their minds — actually, the one person I asked laughed at the notion. To attempt to police such relationships and insist that they must always and forever be exploitative I think goes too far, unnecessarily sacralises all social spaces, and treats adults like children.

In my teacher training, we would fall into the former scenario and our guidelines are clear: if you find yourself in lust or love with a student, that student would need to find another teacher, whether or not the relationship continues or ends quickly. That protects everyone involved — teacher, student and the organisation.

I understand that as yoga in the West moves towards even more commercialisation and professionalisation it wants to be taken as seriously as other teaching professions, such as academic and school teachers, and if it does get to that level with structures in place that establish the kinds of power dynamics spoken of in the article, then yes professional and ethical guidelines need to be in place. But at the moment (at least not where I am) yoga isn't always taught that 'seriously' and trying to insist on laws or regulations to prohibit, in some kind of legal or statutory way, the social interaction between people in what is still for a great many people a purely get-fit environment seems to be overreaching.

    anonymous Feb 14, 2012 8:15am

    T.H. Very well said. If your premise of a shallow Yoga with no other aspiration than to provide a workout while speed dating was the norm, I might agree with you (maybe not too). Its not though, nor is it the way the field is moving. That being said,I think there is room for for than one answer here. I do believe we need a professional yoga. Teachers in that tradition will need professional training – at least a Bachelor's degree (more on that later) for teaching and a Master's degree for Yoga Therapy. There will also be room in the world for yoga teachers with more traditional training and with fewer safeguards for students. I have no doubt that there will be students for both types.

anonymous Feb 13, 2012 9:11pm

[…] for Anusara. Even though I have terminated my license I maintain hope that the organization will once again flourish—in alignment with its own […]

anonymous Feb 13, 2012 11:23am

Joe, Thanks for the comments. In most professional ethics codes, there are two types of ethics. There are general principles that are considered aspirational, then there are specific behaviors that are either required (i.e. practice within your scope of training) or forbidden (i.e. exploitive dual relationships). Social relationships between teachers and students take a variety of forms, and a blanket prohibition may or may not be more constricting that would be good for Yoga.I think the issue of social relationships between teachers and students needs to be discussed though because even short of a sexual relationship, social relationships can interfere with the teaching relationship. An aspirational ethic would be stated something like, "Yoga teachers aspire to be conscious of the power dynamics in all of their interactions with their students and employees, avoiding exploitive or harmful relationships and always placing the student-teacher relationship in an inviolate position. As for how to treat teachers who violate ethics – we need an independent body where such violations can be reported and dealt with ethicaly. This requires state licensure or certification. As it stands, the only recourse we have is public exposure.

    anonymous Feb 16, 2012 9:31am

    One of the reasons for the " no socializing" requirement is to guard against trying to fill people's frozen needs— which have to be felt, not filled by acting out. If this can happen to John Friend, it can happen to anyone. We all carry the same societal distresses. Everyone is vulnerable to these types of hurts. The Yoga community needs to face this fact.

anonymous Feb 13, 2012 4:50am

Hi Scott, I agree! Yoga could use a no-socializing policy with students and teachers. Most of us are confused and vulnerable in this area in having clear boundaries. It is great to open up the heart, but this exactly where most of us got hurt in the past, and we are trying to heal from these hurts. Very important to have clear boundaries. Little surprized John Friend did not have a close support system in place to keep him from acting out his feelings on his members. "Good intentions" or " sincerity" do not necessarily imply rationality. There is nothing more " sincere" than a distress pattern. Also, if you want good leaders, along with the no socializing policy, Yoga needs a no attack policy for our leaders if they do make mistakes. The leader needs to apologize the mistake, and do whatever to recover from it. It would be sad to lose John Friend, looks like he has made a big difference in many people's lives.

anonymous Feb 13, 2012 1:59am

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anonymous Feb 13, 2012 12:40am

very nicely done – thanks!

anonymous Feb 12, 2012 4:50pm

Den and Scott – I think you both make good points, and that probably speaks to the simple fact that there are no absolutes in life, at least when it comes to human beings. Certainly it would be possible to find relationships such as Den has pointed out – but I think it would be quite simple to find many times that number of failed relationships where there was the kind of fallout that Scott talks about (and in fact this truth has been manifested in the types of steps Scott talks about that have in fact been taken across numerous industries). So perhaps Den is right that absolute statements are not warranted, but Scott's fundamental points remain valid when viewed in terms of likelihood and risk mitigation.

    anonymous Feb 13, 2012 11:09am

    Thank you Ozz. Very well said.

anonymous Feb 12, 2012 3:23pm


Whether some people may end up with a happy ending ( so to speak) isn't that relevant when we are considering professional standards. I will agree with you that sometimes these things work out. I am aware of psychologists who married patients and ended up having stable long-term relationships. This really is the exception rather than the rule though. Ther vast majority of these kinds of relationships end up with genuine negative consequences, particularly in the helping professions. It is a big enough problem that all licensed helping professions have prohibitions against exploitive dual relationships, and sexual relationships are specifically prohibited. If Yoga aspires to professionalism, we will also have to adopt this kind of standard and create structures that will hold us to it.

anonymous Feb 12, 2012 1:25pm


Thanks for commenting. I hope you don't get pilloried for stating your opinion. I'll also stand by mine. Just because the relationships you reference may seem stable or beneficial at this time, consider when it means to know that if the relationship falters, the subordinate could have to endure the emotional fallout at work as well as in their personal life. Given that pressure, how might it effect the subordinate's ability to deal opennly with disagreements in the personal relationships. Are they completely empowered, or do they have to hold back even a little bit for fear of the consequences to their livelihood? This is one example of the built-in power imbalance that creates an unhealthy relationship, and a less than desirable work environment. It is a mild example. Things can and do get much worse, as is obvious from the many times we have seen this situation repeated in the Yoga comunity.

    anonymous Feb 12, 2012 1:56pm

    Scott, thanks so much for the respectful response. I should point to another relationship of an acquaintance who is married to a man 17 yrs her senior for the past 25 years, they are now grandparents. They are one of the happiest and healthiest couples I know and a joy to be around. Now they don't work together anymore and are long since ended their student/teacher relationship, but man they are happy and fine. I mean how long do they have to be together for the standards you hold to (which I agree are valid in a great many instances) to say, yes, in some instances people manage to work it out and are just fine?

    Again, I respect all you are saying, but also respectfully put forth the examples I know of.

    In peace.

anonymous Feb 12, 2012 1:10pm

Okay, I'm not in the USA, so this might be part of why I'm about to disagree with you. And I'm well aware I'm about to be pilloried for doing so, but forever the brave, here I go:

You say: "It is a well-accepted principle that relationships between subordinates and those who have some type of power of them is never completely consensual" & "…so it can never be a healthy relationship no matter how much the participants want to deny that."

I work in a large company. There are 4 people (3 men and 1 woman; 3 heterosexual and 1 gay) who are married/life partnered with someone in a subordinate position to them. All but one of those relationships began at work while one was subordinate. I also know a man who married his yoga instructor. According to you, these are unhealthy relationships and not (completely) consentual. That pretty much sounds like madness to me.

I'm in no way defending John Friend (to me, he's pretty much a piggy who deserves to getg ousted for his behavior) but to make the blanket statements you have seem to be overreaching and dismissive of a whole lot of relationships and people's feelings.

anonymous Feb 12, 2012 1:02pm

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