February 12, 2012

Beyond the Controversy: Yoga Moves Forward. ~ Scott Newsom

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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