In Bristol, the sweet little seaside town where I opened my first yoga studio, July is a busy month, full of fireworks, parades, and concerts. But this summer, just when things were starting to slow down, the equivalent of a small bomb went off in the form of a Boston Globe article titled: “He took my childhood.’ Small-town R.I. Leader faces sex abuse claims.“
It was an unfortunate but familiar story that hit close to home. The subject of the article, David E. Barboza, was a middle-aged man who’d held nearly every role in town – cop, firefighter, Town Council member, administrative assistant at the local church, Chief Marshall in the 4th of July parade. Also, according to numerous accusations, he had been molesting young boys since the 1970s.
The article was posted to the local town Facebook group and gathered almost 700 comments in a few days. Transfixed, I sat and read all of them.
What amazed me the most – more than the story itself – was the general lack of surprise.
People said things like:
“I’ve heard this ever since I moved here 23 years ago.”
“I boycotted the parade when he was Chief Marshall.”
“I always told my two young boys not to go near that house.”
This guy was able to ruin lives for DECADES because too many people were willing to sweep things under the rug.
This situation reminded me of the famous quote from Elie Wiesel:
“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I’ve read this quotation many times over the past few years, but it’s taken me a while to fully understand them. We might think that we’re not doing any harm by staying silent, but there are times when our collective silence creates an environment where terrible things can happen without consequences.
How does this relate to yoga?
We’ve all seen similar stories play out in the news and in current events. Over the last 6 years, I’ve watched (and to some extent, been part of) a similar scenario in our Bikram yoga community.
In 2013, a few years after I completed my yoga teacher training, women started speaking up and accusing Bikram Choudhury of sexual assault. I did not want to believe these stories at first – who would? – but over time, as more stories emerged, the accusations became hard to ignore. I happen to know a couple of these women from my own teacher training, and after hearing their full stories, I have no doubt that they are telling the truth.
I say that I’ve been “part of it” because for many years, I was also one of the silent people. I found the whole thing upsetting and confusing, so I decided it was better to stay away from the drama and just focus on doing a good job and being a good yoga teacher.
I was not alone in this approach. I was a moderator of the Bikram Yoga Teachers page for several years, and when the accusations first came out, that page was a total shitshow. We should have been talking about whether the accusations were true and how we might move forward as a community. Instead, most of the time people ended up simply arguing about whether we should discuss the accusations AT ALL!
Eventually, everyone fell into a few different camps.
Some people abandoned Bikram yoga altogether, despite how much they once loved it, because they felt it was tainted beyond repair. Studio owners closed their businesses or changed styles, teachers stopped teaching, and students left the practice switched to different styles of yoga.
Some people did not believe the accusations or ignored them altogether chose to carry on with business as usual. Within this group, many people took it upon themselves to defend Bikram vigorously and to abuse or shut down anyone who did not agree with them. If you’ve never been shouted down by somebody hollering, “HEAL YOUR MIND, HEAL YOUR HEART AND SOUL,” let me tell you, it’s a weird experience. I still encounter these views pretty regularly in various professional groups that I follow.
And many people – the “silent majority,” I suspect – decided to rebrand their studios and carry on teaching, simply “separating the man from the yoga.” Many people, very reasonably, felt that it wasn’t necessary to throw out the baby with the bathwater and that the accusations against Bikram, though probably true, were not a good enough reason to quit doing Bikram yoga.
I fall into the third camp, but I find the talking points totally unsatisfying. They don’t go far enough.
I completely believe in carrying the torch and continuing to practice and teach the hot yoga series that I learned from Bikram in the same way that I was taught. But I don’t think it’s good enough to just say “not my business, not my problem” and carry on as usual. It reeks of self justification. It’s not good enough to say, “I wasn’t part of it and it didn’t involve me.” The whole PROBLEM is that very few people were willing to step up and take a stand, even when it was clearly overdue.
So how can we do better?
I’ve had many hours of meetings and conversations in the past month with the staff and teachers at our studio. We all get stuck in the same place: “What DO we say?” We all know the basic facts. We know that we’re not affiliated with Bikram Yoga Inc and we don’t pay them any money. We know that we’ve rebranded the studio. We know that we are running our own teacher training program next year so that we can staff our studios without sending students to Bikram. What more is there to say?
I have a few more things to say, and I want to say them clearly:
- I believe people in positions of power should be held accountable for their actions.
- I believe that being skilled or gifted in your profession does not give you permission to mistreat others, and that we should hold our leaders to the same standards as everyone else.
- I believe that sexual abuse and all forms of assault thrive off silence – “don’t tell anyone!” – and that we make our communities safer when we establish that it’s okay to speak up.
- I believe that consent matters and that there is NO excuse for using force against another person. I have no problem removing people from our community if they are not able to abide by those standards.
- I believe that all individuals should be empowered to create and uphold strong boundaries for themselves, and that part of our job as yoga teachers is to support that process.
- I believe it’s our job to create and maintain a space where people will feel safe enough to come and heal their wounds, and I believe that for us to do that, we have to show that we take the issues in our own community seriously.
- I believe that if you’re lucky enough to be in a position of influence, you should take that responsibility seriously and try to use your powers for good.
These days, it seems like every time you turn on the news, you hear another story about somebody who’s abused their privilege and taken advantage of other people. There was a time when accusations of sexual assault could ruin someone’s career – lately, they seem to be par for the course. It takes a lot of guts for the survivors to come forward and tell their stories, and in return for their bravery, they are often mocked and ignored.
We can only create a TRULY safe space if we demonstrate that we are willing to listen to survivors, even when their words are difficult to hear, and to call out bad behavior whenever we see it. If we’re content to turn a blind eye, then why would anyone trust us? If we don’t extend compassion to the survivors in our own community, then why would any other survivors ever come to us for healing?
Healing is uncomfortable.
I’ve been addressing this topic with our staff recently because there is a new documentary coming out on Netflix about the accusations against Bikram Choudhury and the fact that, so far, he has escaped any serious consequences.
This started out as just a survival tactic to prepare our teachers and managers for some potentially awkward and difficult conversations, but it’s turned into much more.
Bikram himself has always been the elephant in the room, the skeleton in the closet, the junk from the past that we don’t like to talk about. Although it’s a difficult process, I can honestly say that I’m grateful for the push to revisit our relationship to him and find a bit more clarity.
In class the other day, I gave the analogy of an old container of moldy leftovers in the back of the fridge. You can ignore it all you want, but in the back of your mind, you know it’s there. Every time you open the fridge, you carefully avert your eyes so that you’re not reminded of the growing science experiment. You don’t want to open that container because you know that it’s going to look bad and smell bad and it will make you feel kind of sick.
And when you finally psych yourself up enough to clean out the fridge and open that container, it DOES stink – but only for a moment. Because once it’s open, you can dump it out into the trash, close up the trash bag, put the trash out on the curb, and air out the kitchen. And then your kitchen is yours again, and you can feel peaceful when you open your fridge!
In our yoga classes, we always remind our students that healing is uncomfortable. When you’re not willing to go to that uncomfortable place, your wounds from the past will never fully heal. You can live that way – and many people do – but is that really how you want to spend your one precious life?
How do we move forward from a place of integrity?
By revisiting the skeleton in OUR closet, I’ve started to discover different steps that we can take to move our community in the right direction:
- We are holding community fundraisers to support local non-profit groups that are working against domestic abuse and sexual assault in our community. At the beginning of October, we raised over $1,000 for the Sojourner House in Providence, a group that provides advocacy, housing, and support services for those who have experienced abuse.
- We are supporting the artists in our own yoga studio community whose work is relevant to our mission. We’ll be hosting an art opening for one of our teachers in November whose work is all about HEALING HATE.
- We are having important discussions within our team and deciding where to draw the line in the sand when it comes to the future of our yoga studio. What are the good and valuable things that we’ve learned that we still want to carry, and what baggage do we need to let go?
- I am working to articulate our position, publicly and in writing, so that our students and our community know exactly where we stand and what we believe in.
I want our students to know that if anything bad were to happen to them, we’d be ready to fight like hell on their behalf. I want our students to know that abuse of power will never be tolerated in our community. I want our students to know that, whatever they’ve been through in the past, we are ready to open our doors to them and give them a second home.
I would stand behind every one of these values even if Bikram Choudhury was the most innocent person in the world. But with everything that’s happened, and with all the events that unfold in the world every day, I think it’s especially important to speak up and do it strongly.
I know that not everyone will agree with everything I’ve written, and that’s okay with me. But I do hope that other leaders in our yoga community will join me in this effort to move forward in a positive way. I’m finding that once you get out of defensive mode and move past self-justification, these challenging situations can be incredible teachers. Just like we tell our students all the time, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and magical things will start to happen.